Cannabis is such a chemically complex and controversial little plant.
It has all sorts of social and historical connotations that basically revolve around getting high.
But marijuana doesn’t have to get you high.
There is a compound in weed that has documented benefits for medical patients, without the stoned feeling -- CBD.
The high people get from weed is caused by a specific and well-known compound in the plant called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
While Tetrahydrocannabinol is the popular compound in the marijuana plant, cannabidiol or CBD is THC’s non-psychoactive buddy. The yin and the yang.
It’s brother CBD doesn’t possess any of the mind-altering, mood-changing properties that THC does, and thus getting a lot less attention.
Many recreational users want the high, but people who have cancer don’t.
Many people want to get the benefits of medical marijuana, but also want to be able to go about their day and not be locked on the couch.
To understand these CBD-specific benefits, we have to understand how cannabis (in general) works in the brain.
A marijuana plant contains over 60 different chemical compounds called cannabinoids that act on the body’s endocannabinoid system.
This system modulates all sorts of mind-body functions.
For example, if you’re in pain it keeps your body from going haywire -- this is called downregulation.
It downregulates stress-related signals that lead to inflammation and pain.
It also works in your immune system and elsewhere in the body.
THC and CBD both have similar chemical makeups but different structures, which is why scientists suspect they act differently in the brain.
So, of all these promising applications, CBD is most famous for its potential to treat pediatric epilepsy -- or more importantly the seizures that are inherent to children with epilepsy.
To put it simply, a seizure happens when the brain’s electricity spikes and the brain's circuitry freezes.
One parent described their son's seizures like "an overtaxed electrical grid.”
Researchers haven't fully identified the mechanisms underlying CBD's capabilities to reduce these seizures, but scientists think CBD may improve the function of the endocannabinoid system, somehow.
Then it can regulate the central nervous system and protect against convulsive activity.
Evidence of CBD’s benefits for pediatric epilepsy has been largely anecdotal, until now.
A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that children with a complex form of epilepsy who took CBD saw a 23 percent greater reduction in convulsive seizures than those taking a placebo. Researchers used a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial; the gold-standard for trials.
It’s a big deal for the future of CBD-as-medicine.
There’s a lot we still need to figure out about CBD, but more research is hard to do.
At the end of 2016, CBD was declared a Schedule I drug, in part, because THC and CBD are both in the same plant.
The DEA says it’s easier to keep track of CBD if it’s regulated in this way, but after recent studies, we’re starting to see medicinal benefits of CBD.
And Schedule I-ing a drug stymies research because scientists have to go through an incredible amount of bureaucratic hoop jumping to get access to it.
At this point, scientists still have to prove that it’s safe and well tolerated, with a set dosage and a known list of side effects.
Hopefully, the scientific process will continue to run its course, even within the limitations.