In the past few years, medical cannabis has come a long way. It has rightly received recognition from professionals in the scientific and medical communities as a treatment for various ailments. And ever since Dr. Sanjay Gupta did a dramatic about-face on medical marijuana and released his pro-marijuana documentary entitled WEED, more and more of us average Joes have learned about some of the exciting medical benefits of cannabis. Specifically, cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a chemical substance derived from cannabis and hemp, is being shown to have many curative benefits without producing the psychoactive effects of the high-THC herb. This article will give a brief overview of the science behind CBD and outline some of the diseases for which there is growing evidence that CBD is a viable treatment–and in some cases a better one than conventional pharmaceuticals. In particular, the article will focus on a number of studies that have suggested that CBD is a powerful antitumor drug that can treat breast cancer.
Medical marijuana has been used for centuries in Chinese, Indian, European, and medieval Islamic medicine to cure a wide range of diseases. In traditional Chinese medicine, dàmá (“big hemp” a.k.a. cannabis) is considered one of the 50 fundamental herbs and has been used for anesthesia, hair loss, blood clots, constipation, ulcers, and menstrual problems. Every part of the plant is used. Modern science has confirmed the benefits of the plant by investigating its interaction with what is known as the human endocannabinoid system, a network of enzyme receptors in the brain and immune system. The body produces its own substances, known as endocannabinoids, that are similar to substances found within the cannabis plant. It is theorized that an endocannabinoid is responsible for the “runner’s high” or feeling of euphoria caused by exercise. This is how healing the ECS can heal a number of seemingly unrelated disorders. The following disorders are all related to homeostasis, and the ECS is implicated in their treatment:
The U.S.-government-funded National Cancer Institute has published a considerable amount of information on their website related to cannabis’s efficacy as an anticancer drug. Aside from the growing preclinical evidence that CBD treats the tumor cells themselves, the NCI observes that a growing number of doctors treating cancer patients recommend cannabis for help in managing symptoms. Also, two drugs whose active ingredient is THC, dronabinol, and nabilone, have been approved by the FDA for treating nausea in chemotherapy patients who do not respond to standard treatment. The website also mentions promising studies of cannabis treatments for stimulating appetite, relieving pain, and helping with anxiety and sleep–all problems that afflict many cancer patients.
In a 2006 study, lab rodents who had breast cancer were injected with CBD. The CBD induced apoptosis, or programmed, controlled cell death, in the tumor cells and was shown to be the most potent anti-tumor cannabinoid. At the same time, there was no effect on healthy cells. The study concluded that further testing of CBD and other cannabinoids should be pursued.
In 2011, Another group of researchers used electron microscopy to observe antitumor activities of CBD. They acknowledged that CBD kills cancer cells both in vivo (in living tissue) and in vitro (in tissue samples) and observed that CBD treats breast cancer by coordinating what is known as “cross-talk” between the “delicate interplay” of apoptosis and autophagy in malignant tissue. Autophagy is the disassembly or destruction of unhealthy or unnecessary components within cells.
Another 2011 study, this one at the California Pacific Research Center, looked into the multiple pathways CBD uses to fight cancer: By modulating protein pathways in cells, CBD downregulated (decreased) Id-1, a gene that is involved in cancerous cell growth, thus slowing the growth of malignant cells. The researchers noted the importance of CBD’s non-toxicity. CBD is decreasing how fast breast cancer tumors grow and replace healthy tissue. CBD is able to achieve this without the toxic side effects of chemotherapy.
A 2012 study by a team of molecular biologists at Daiichi University of Pharmacy in Fukuoka, Japan, led by Shuso Takeda, observed that cannabidiolic acid synthase (CBDA), a compound that participates in the process of creating CBD, blocked the growth of MDA-MB-231, a “highly invasive” breast cancer cell. Then, in 2017, another research team led by S.
How do cannabinoids work their antitumor effect at the cell level? The mitochondria, those famous powerhouses of the cell you learned about in grade school, serve as the regulators of cellular energy intake and use. They transform energy from outside the cell-like glucose into ATP, which is the energy cells use to power vital functions. It is theorized that mitochondria may themselves have been single-celled organisms millions of years ago. Interestingly, it turns out that the mitochondria in many kinds of human cells contain cannabinoid receptors. This is useful because many kinds of cancer involve the dangerous, uncontrolled growth of malignant cells–a process that involves mitochondria. In healthy tissue, mitochondria help with apoptosis, killing degraded cells that are no longer useful to the body and replacing them with fresh, new, shiny cells.
Cannabinoids help apoptosis. One team of Spanish brain cancer researchers showed how they do this in brain tumors, which are generally treatment-resistant. The team asserts that “experimentation in novel strategies” is “essential to improve the prognosis.” THC applied to brain cancer has successfully “induced a considerable regression of malignant gliomas” in rodent trials, which means it made tumors smaller and less harmful. Gliomas are cancerous growths in the glial cells, which are cells in the spinal cord and brain that support nerve cells. In the trial, no side effects harmful to neural cells were associated with the use of THC. The researchers wrote that “[t]hese results may provide the basis for a new therapeutic approach for the treatment of malignant gliomas.” In a disease that is as hard to treat as brain cancer, such advances are a godsend.
But cannabis-derived drugs’ potential usefulness is not just confined to something as groundbreaking as cancer. Take a disease as seemingly prosaic as eczema, for example. It has been shown that CBD oil applied topically to itchy, dry areas of the skin can bring balance to dermal lipid levels and leave the skin looking and feeling refreshed. As someone who has dealt with eczema since my youth, I know how frustrating it can be to find the right treatment. It took me a long time to find a cream that works for me. Others struggle their whole lives with more intense eczema symptoms like persistent irritation, pain, and scarring. They should be allowed to try CBD oil.
In other illnesses, especially certain forms of epilepsy, CBD has worked wonders for patients, some of whom are children who struggled with dozens of seizures every day until they started using CBD. Charlotte Figi, who started having seizures at the age of two, is one of these children. Her parents tried everything. They put her on a ketogenic diet. The diet caused side effects including bone loss, a poor immune system, and behavioral problems. After two years, the seizures came back, and she also developed cognitive problems. At her worst point, she was having 300 grand mal seizures every week, some of which caused her heart to stop. Eventually, her parents got in contact with doctors who were willing to work with them to obtain marijuana that could treat her seizures. They had to get a friend to derive the CBD directly from raw plant buds. It was very expensive. But almost immediately after she started taking CBD, her seizures stopped. CBD is an anticonvulsant. In some cases of its use, children have had only a tiny fraction of the number of seizures they had before. This is the case for Charlotte, who has seizures only two to three times per week. Compared to how she was doing before, she is thriving. There is now a company that produces low-THC, high-CBD medicines, named Charlotte’s Web in honor of her.
The undeniable evidence for CBD’s effectiveness has caused even my home state of Indiana, which is otherwise utterly backward on CBD, to create a database of certain patients who have been approved to use CBD for epilepsy. If even Indiana is on the right side of this issue, people should certainly be paying attention.
In other neurological diseases, the THC in cannabis targets CB1 receptors in the brain to control symptoms. There is growing evidence that cannabis can treat Alzheimer’s Disease by controlling the buildup of neural plaque, preventing cell death, stimulating regeneration of cells, and healing brain inflammation.
Speaking of inflammation, the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD are being shown to be useful in treating a number of diseases. It has been demonstrated that CBD blocks CB2 receptors that cause inflammation, so CBD works for inflammatory diseases such eczema, as mentioned previously, and gastrointestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease (of which Crohn’s disease is a subset) and irritable bowel syndrome.
Nabiximols (Sativex), is a botanical oral spray whose active ingredient is a 50/50 composition of THC and CBD. It was developed by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company, and has been approved in the UK and a number of other countries for treating spasticity, neuropathic pain, and overactive bladder in multiple sclerosis. It is also used for other disorders. The whole-plant botanical nature of Nabiximols is theorized by marijuana advocates to create an entourage effect involving not only THC and CBD but also terpenes and other phytocannabinoids in the plant that work together to modulate the effect of the drug. The entourage effect remains controversial among researchers.
With all this evidence in mind, I urge you to support the legalization of medical cannabis and, if you live in a jurisdiction where it is legal and are living with a disease that may be treated by cannabis, to ask your doctor if medical cannabis is right for you. Like Charlotte, you may get your life back.