By Janelle Lassalle
No matter what you call it, chances are you’re familiar with the plant we’ve come to know as cannabis.
Despite a surge in popularity during the 1960’s, cannabis has actually been around way longer than you think. Believed to be native to Central Asia, we know it was used in China as a textile and food crop around 2,600 BCE. Humans have been cultivating it ever since, and with the passing of time, our knowledge of this unique plant has only grown.
Cannabis is a plant that contains over 400 unique compounds. Many of these compounds are currently being studied for their role in pain management, inflammatory diseases and other neurological disorders like epilepsy.
Canna-curious? We’ve broken down everything you need to know about cannabis in one nice, easy to read blog post for you below. Check it out, revel in learning something new or even share it.
Cannabis versus ‘marijuana’
You might be thinking, “Wait. Why are you calling it ‘cannabis’ and not ‘marijuana’ or ‘weed?’ Which is it?”
That’s a very astute point you’re bringing up there, dear reader. You’re right in noting that the aforementioned terms have historically been used to refer to cannabis. However, these terms were used to “play off of anti-immigrant sentiments” and have since fallen out of use.
‘Cannabis’ is the genus name of the plant. Within the cannabis genus we have two different species of the plant: cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. Some researchers go as far as to say cannabis actually has four species: “Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, Cannabis ruderalis, and Cannabis afghanica (or kafiristanica).”
Sativa versus indica
‘Indica’ and ‘sativa’ are two different species of the cannabis plant. Cannabis indica is believed to have originated near Afghanistan (does the term ‘Hindu Kush’ ring a bell, anyone?) [*]. In terms of structure it’s a short, squat plant with wide leaves [*].
Cannabis sativa, on the other hand, is native to portions of Central America, Africa, and certain areas in Asia [*]. This type of cannabis grows taller, thinner and has narrower leaves. It also typically takes longer than an indica to grow [*].
The best way to determine how cannabis will affect you is to examine its cannabinoid and terpene content [*]. You can get a better feeling for what cannabinoid content is right for you once you learn a little bit about the Endocannabinoid System.
The Endocannabinoid System
Part of what makes cannabis remarkable is the unique way in which it interacts with our body [*].
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is designed to maintain balance, or homeostasis, in the body [*]. As such the ECS is thought to play a role in regulating sleep, memory, mood, appetite and inflammation [*].
The ECS is composed of a series of chemical messengers and their receptors located throughout the body [*]. Our ECS also produces compounds called endocannabinoids [*]. These compounds act as messengers that regulate signalling within the ECS [*].
The two main binding sites for endocannabinoids are CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found throughout the central nervous system and are thought to play a role in mood, cognition, GI motility and vasodilation [*]. CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are found in immune cells and may play a role in "neurological activities, such as nociception, drug addiction and neuroinflammation" [*]. Researchers believe there may even be a third, currently undiscovered binding site as well [*].
Much like endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD can also bind to sites in our ECS [*]. This activity can then produce a wide range of effects ranging from euphoria to a reduction in pain.
While more research is still needed to determine how cannabis interacts with the ECS, what we do know about cannabis’ therapeutic potential is promising [*].
Cannabis has many unique properties, such potential anti-inflammatory and anti-proliferative properties. Studies show it may event help to reduce seizures. Its potential reported analgesic (painkiller) and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties are being evaluated for therapeutic use in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Its antimicrobial and anti-bacterial properties may help to fight off resistant types of MRSA bacteria, and research shows that it may even help to combat psychiatric and mood disorders.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. Remember how we mentioned cannabis has over 400 compounds? Over 100 of those compounds are cannabinoids, and each one has its own unique properties [*]. We’ve only just started learning about CBD, which means we’ve still got a long way to go.
The Entourage Effect
One interesting thing we do know about cannabis is a phenomena referred to as “the Entourage Effect” [*]. Coined by biochemist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam in 1998, the entourage effect states that cannabinoids have maximum therapeutic effect when combined than when used individually.
Full spectrum versus isolate
Cannabis plants contain what we think of as a spectrum of cannabinoids. This is often expressed as a large amount of the primary cannabinoid—usually THC or CBD—with the plant producing small or trace amounts of other cannabinoids (minor cannabinoids) [*].
Products like infused oils that preserve the full spectrum of cannabinoids are known as full spectrum [*]. The entourage effect means that full spectrum products are often more therapeutically beneficial than isolates. You may also encounter the term ‘broad spectrum.’ This denotes a full spectrum product that lacks any THC.
Like its namesake suggests, an isolate is a single, lone cannabinoid that’s been isolated from the rest of the plant [*]. Isolates are generally CBD or THC and come in the form of white powder.
We’ve historically favored cultivating THC-rich cannabis plants for thousands of years now. It’s easy to see why; THC has intoxicating effects as well as antiemetic and analgesic properties that make it useful in helping to treat chronic conditions.
CBD (Cannabidiol) is another common cannabinoid. Unlike THC, it’s non-intoxicating and is a potent anti-inflammatory agent that may be helpful in treating health conditions.
However, advancements in research have led us to discover that minor cannabinoids are also extremely therapeutic agents in their own ways. This, in turn, means breeders are now striving to grow plants that favour the so-called minor cannabinoids [*].
A few minor cannabinoids include CBG (Cannabigerol) and CBN (Cannabinol). Understanding your flower’s unique cannabinoid composition—along with its terpene profile—is the best way to figure out how it might affect you [*].
Terpenes are aromatic molecules produced by cannabis plants [*]. They may have a wide variety of health benefits and as such have been used for hundreds of years. We also know there are at least 60+ terpenes to analyze and learn from. A few of the most common terpenes include myrcene, limonene, pinene, linalool and beta-caryophyllene [*].
It’s a good idea to make yourself familiar with the unique properties of each terpene. Knowing what your desired terpene and minor cannabinoids are can then help you choose the ideal strain to suit your unique needs.
Certificate of Analysis
Many manufacturers today will have a Certificate of Analysis (CoA) available for their chemovars. A CoA is a document that analyzes a chemovar’s cannabinoid and terpene profile. It’s generally conducted by a third party laboratory and is sometimes accessible by scanning a barcode on a particular product.
You should always strive to purchase cannabis that’s been thoroughly tested by a third party for the presence of mold, heavy metals and other potential toxins.
A CoA can also be a very effective tool for determining your ideal chemovar.
Bi-phasic properties & dosing
Dosing cannabis can be tricky as everyone’s body metabolizes cannabis differently [*]. A few factors that affect your personal cannabis metabolism include age, weight and genetics.
Cannabis is bi-phasic. That means a large dose of cannabis can have the opposite effect of a small dose (rather than a greater cumulative effect) [*]. This property is often thought to be the reason behind why some people enjoy cannabis while others don’t.
The best way to determine your ideal cannabis dose is to start small and work your way up. You can also augment THC with CBD as CBD can reduce unpleasant side effects from too much THC.
There are many different ways to consume cannabis. Each method comes with its own pros and cons.
The most common consumption method is smoking, or combusting cannabis. You can smoke cannabis out of nearly anything, but water pipes (bongs) and joints are the most common variations. Smoking cannabis delivers a near instantaneous effect that typically lasts for a few hours [*]. Bioavailability ranges between 2−56%.
In terms of consumption methods, smoking is commonly cited as one of the least beneficial ways to consume cannabis for patients. This is due to the fact that combustion can produce compounds that aggravate throats and lungs.
One of the most ideal ways to consume cannabis is vaporizing it [*]. Vaporizing is the act of heating material to produce vapour without combusting it. As such, it’s thought to be a safer, gentler alternative to smoking. This method also yields the most potent flavor and preserves the greatest amount of terpenes.
The effects from vaporizing cannabis are also felt nearly instantaneously, peaking at 30 minutes and lasting up to 3 hours.
Those who don’t enjoy smoking can always opt to eat cannabis, provided it’s infused in a fat. The most common fats are typically coconut oil, canola oil or cannabutter.
Edibles take longer to kick in because they have to go through our digestive systems to be absorbed [*]. This phenomenon is known as “first pass digestion” and subjects your edible to additional cannabinoid breakdown[*]. Oral bioavailability of cannabis is estimated to be 4-12%, with peak effects occurring 2-4 hours after consumption.
Another consumption route is sublingually, or administered under the tongue.
Tinctures are concentrated cannabis solutions that are either oil or alcohol-based. They’re absorbed via mucosal membrane linings in the mouth rather than via the digestive tract, resulting in a significantly higher bioavailability. Duration is typically 4-6 hours.
You can also apply cannabis directly to the skin. Products that utilize cannabis extracts and mix them with fats for this purpose are called topicals.
Topicals are often used to treat localized pain. They have poor bioavailability, which is why it’s recommended to apply them in generous amounts.
The best way to tailor cannabis to suit your needs is to consider its cannabinoid and terpene content [*]. This can be done by analyzing its certificate of analysis (CoA).
You can consume cannabis in many different ways. Each consumption method comes with its own unique pros and cons. Vaporizing cannabis is often cited as one of the healthiest ways to consume cannabis. Edibles are another popular option for those who may not like to smoke or vaporize cannabis.