The Potential For Medical Marijuana Therapy On The Human Endocannabinoid System

I can’t count the number of times a patient has told me, “My doctor doesn’t believe in it (cannabis)” or “my doctor won’t treat me if he knows I use cannabis” or “my nurse practitioner thinks I’m a drug addict because I use marijuana.”  Patients with chronic pain may be drug tested in pain clinics and will be terminated if a test comes back positive for marijuana.  Patients across the U.S. are learning about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, yet many don’t dare talk about it with their health care provider – even in the states that have passed medical marijuana (cannabis) laws.

Health care practitioners have never been taught about medicinal cannabis. They learn about marijuana as a drug of abuse.  They are taught that if someone uses marijuana, that person is a drug abuser or drug addict.  The good news is that more and more health care practitioners are beginning to question that viewpoint.  Fifteen states now have laws recognizing cannabis as medicine and allow patients to use this medicine with a recommendation from their health care provider (Since cannabis remains in Schedule I, a health care provider cannot write a prescription for it).

There is an exciting new field of study that will soon change this scenario.  Scientists have discovered a very important regulating system in the human body (actually it is found in all animals except insects).  It is called the endogenous cannabinoid system or endocannabinoid system or the ECS.  This scientific breakthrough began in 1988 with the discovery of cannabinoid receptors in the brain.  Cannabinoids are a specific type of molecule that at the time were known to exist only in the cannabis plant.  Over the years, researchers have discovered more than 70 different cannabinoids (called phyto-cannabinoids since they are made within the plant) in cannabis.  By 1992, another group of scientists discovered an endogenous (made within the body) cannabinoid and named it anandamide.  Although little mention was made of this by the media, it caused quite a stir among researchers around the world.  Research on the ECS is booming and scientists have learned that we have cannabinoid receptors throughout our body and we make more than one type of endocannabinoid.

The ECS is a very complex system that affects numerous physiological processes that help protect us from stressors (environmental pollutants, poor nutrition, trauma, cancer cells, and others) and keep us in balance.  The action by the ECS is that of a modulator; it acts like a light switch and can turn things on or shut them off.  Italian researcher Vincenzo Di Marzo summed it up by saying that the ECS affects how we “relax, eat, sleep, forget and protect.”  Wow!  This is a new area of science and more is being discovered every day.  This system is vital to life and it is helping scientist understand more about the how and why of the human body.  Neurologist and cannabis researcher, Ethan Russo, speculated that some conditions such as migraines, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome may be caused by a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.  If that is true, doesn’t it make sense that the cannabinoids found in cannabis may help boost or replace those our body should be making?

So next time you visit your doctor or nurse practitioner ask him/her, “What do you know about the endocannabinoid system?”  If they don’t know, encourage them to go to and learn about this system.  Once they understand the role of the ECS in the human body, they may finally understand how and why cannabis is effective for such a wide array of symptoms or illnesses.

Mary Lynn Mathre  is a registered nurse and co-founder of Patients Out Of Time.


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