You’ve probably heard of cannabinoids, but what about the endocannabinoid system? That’s not something in cannabis — the endocannabinoid system is a biological system present in every human being. As a wellness-oriented Massachusetts dispensary, we want to empower cannabis users to learn the relationship between our endocannabinoid system and our favorite plant.
Rev spoke with Dr. Benjamin Caplan, MD, to learn more about how our bodies interact with cannabis through our endocannabinoid systems. Here’s how the endocannabinoid system works, and how its healing potential could be applied to illnesses — even vicious viruses like COVID-19.
Dr. Caplan and cannabis
Before we dive into endocannabinoids, let’s meet Dr. Caplan! A traditional family doctor trained here in Massachusetts, Dr. Caplan began his career at a family medicine practice in the suburbs. Initially, cannabis medicine wasn’t something Dr. Caplan considered. “But I kept hearing from patients that were using cannabis as a part of their regimen, totally unsupervised,” he recalls.
Immediately, Dr. Caplan began to notice the benefits of medical cannabis. “My patients didn’t need medicine for their ailments — they used cannabis for their headaches, back pain, menstrual cramping, whatever was going on with them,” Dr. Caplan says. But what Dr. Caplan didn’t immediately know was how to guide these patients on their medical marijuana journey. “And so I dove headfirst into research!”
Taking a data-driven approach to cannabis medicine, Dr. Caplan began consuming as much cannabis medical literature as he could. Through his continued research, Dr. Caplan has now become a well-learned expert in the Massachusetts medical cannabis world. One element of cannabis medicine that Dr. Caplan often discusses with his patients is set and setting — the idea that how our bodies interact with cannabis depends heavily on our external and internal environment.
“The variables involved in cannabis consumption for medicinal purposes are pretty intense, and the influence of environment is extremely powerful in all human physiology,” Dr. Caplan reveals. “In fact, it actually seems like the concept of set and setting is quite endocannabinoid driven.” That means our endocannabinoid system is partially responsible for the fact that the effects of cannabis (and other elements that interact with the body) vary greatly depending on who we are, where we are, and how we’re feeling.
What is the endocannabinoid system and how does it work?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is essentially a “pivot point between the outside world and the inside of ourselves,” to use Dr. Caplan’s language. Inside our brains are cannabinoid receptors that, like many of our brain’s receptors, transmit signals from our brains to the rest of our bodies.
Cannabinoid receptors are designed to bind to certain types of molecules, known as cannabinoid molecules. Dr. Caplan explains that some cannabinoid molecules are naturally produced and innate in our bodies, called endocannabinoid molecules. But there are also “copycat” cannabinoid molecules found in nature, which only a few plants in the world produce — “the most popular being cannabis, of course,” Dr. Caplan quips.
While all cannabinoid molecules aren’t completely identical, they all interact with cannabinoid receptors. Dr. Caplan compares this process to keys and locks: cannabinoid molecules act as the same shape “key” that fits into a “lock,” which is the cannabinoid receptor. “Other keys won’t turn the lock or activate the receptor, but cannabinoid molecules will,” he explains.
One interesting note here is that when a cannabinoid receptor interacts with the exact same endocannabinoid molecule over and over again, the receptor actually involutes — essentially, it goes into the cell and disappears. This is what we often refer to as building a tolerance. “But when there is a subtle variation in the army of cannabinoid molecules,” Dr. Caplan explains — consuming different cannabis forms at varying times and volumes — “you actually get longer-lasting effects with cannabis and you don’t have as much tolerance build-up.”
What does the endocannabinoid system do?
So, what signals do endocannabinoid molecules transmit through our endocannabinoid systems? How does it tell our body to feel, react, or change?
Dr. Caplan tells us that the endocannabinoid system is “the communication system of joy, contentment, and happiness” in our bodies. “The language of the endocannabinoid system is the essence of satisfaction, comfort, and joy,” he continues. In other words, the endocannabinoid system sends endocannabinoid molecules throughout the body, telling different parts of the body to relax and feel good.
Cannabis is famous for helping people relax and decompress from anxiety, but this calming of the mind is not directly related to the calming physical properties of the endocannabinoid system. However, they are not entirely unrelated. Dr. Caplan compares this relationship to getting a massage: “During a massage your muscles relax, there is a physical release, and you feel wonderful mental relaxation because of these great physical sensations. This is similar to cannabis acting chemically — there are different molecules, which are being subdued or enhanced by cannabinoid molecules, that can calm bodily inflammation and produce feelings of pleasure or relaxation.”
Cannabis and COVID-19
When endocannabinoid molecules interact with your brain and body, they can release positive emotional and physical sensations — including anti-inflammatory properties. Anti-inflammation is a quality that’s particularly pertinent to COVID-19, a virus that can cause the body to attack itself wrongfully in an attempt to fight off the viral cells.
This self-attack is one of the “catastrophes” about COVID as a disease, to use Dr. Caplan’s word. He explains that “COVID-19 hijacks the alarm system in the body” and causes the body to start attacking itself immensely through a massive inflammatory response, known as a cytokine storm. Often in these extreme situations, anti-inflammatories like steroids or antivirals are the mainstay of therapy. “But cannabinoids present in some cannabis components are some of the strongest anti-inflammatory medicine we have,” Dr. Caplan shares.
When it comes to calming the body alarm system down to avoid inflammation such as the cytokine storm, Dr. Caplan believes “cannabis is a strong advocate for the anti-inflammatory side of the equation.” Along with its anti-inflammation power, there are also some theories on a microscopic level of cannabis blocking coronavirus entry into cells and preventing their reproduction.
“There are specific areas where, when COVID-19 enters the body, the instructions for the coronavirus are reproduced inside your body’s cells,” reveals Dr. Caplan. “In certain instances, cannabis can physically block the virus from getting in and stop COVID replication.” However, this is not a quality unique to cannabis as a plant — “it’s just a feature of the endocannabinoid molecule shape,” Dr. Caplan explains. If you think of our lock and key model from earlier, these cannabinoid molecules act as anti-inflammatory and anti-reproduction keys that fit into certain locks to yield these positive reactions.
Endocannabinoid research: only the beginning
While cannabis has been shown to help with COVID-19 treatments in quite a few studies, cannabis isn’t the easy answer to our pandemic problems (or any problems you’re facing, for that matter). No formal studies show if cannabis can prevent inflammation or cause it to cease completely — and unfortunately, general cannabis research is still a relatively early endeavor.
“We are many years behind in cannabis research,” Dr. Caplan tells us. “There’s exciting but limited knowledge out there.” Dr. Caplan also reminds us that, due to the set and setting aspect of cannabis, “everything around you impacts how cannabinoids interact with your body.” This means consistency in cannabis medicine is often difficult to pin down, as there’s no way to know if a particular reaction can be consistently repeated.
No matter what the budding cannabis research tells us, Dr. Caplan is sure to be at the forefront. And rest assured, Rev will be right by his side! We are a Massachusetts dispensary dedicated to empowering all cannabis users to understand the medicinal healing power and potential of cannabis medicine.
Check out other discussions with medical professionals about cannabis and insomnia, cannabis and sexual relationships, and more on the Rev blog!