New research suggests that we can nurture some responses from our endocannabinoid system from plants other than cannabis, helping to keep it regulated and “healthy.”
According to Dr. Ethan Russo, author of “Beyond Cannabis: Plants and the Endocannabinoid System,” “numerous additional plants whose components stimulate, antagonize, or modulate the different aspects of the system” have been identified. Previous research has shown that our endocannabinoid system is responsible for our “relax, eat, sleep, protect and forget” functions, additionally performing major regulatory conditioning and maintenance functions in the brain, skin, liver, genitals, digestive tract, cardiovascular system and bone.
Russo first published the theory that some conditions, such as migraine, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome, could be due to endocannabinoid system deficiency, in 2001 — though Russo revisited the subject in more detail in 2004. And, in 2008, subsequent research on this hypothesis (also by Russo) concluded that it is “highly likely that additional regulatory roles for endocannabinoids will be discovered” for modulating these systems and potentially treating these disorders when “modern medicine fails to cure.”
The endocannabinoid system has two cannabinoid receptors. When activated, CB1 is responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana when triggered by THC, while CB2 reduces pain and other inflammatory systems. However other systems have similar responses when triggered, such as TRPV1, which is triggered by capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers. TRPV1 regulates temperature and pain responses and can be blocked by the non-psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, CBD. Using CBD to block TRPV1 “turns down” neuropathic pain, including; migraines, burns, chronic pelvic pain, bowel disorders, fibromyalgia and irritable bladder symptoms.
Russo notes that CBD has “not been definitively identified in other plants.”
In much the same way TRPV1 can be blocked by the introduction of CBD, the endocannabinoid system can be inhibited as well.
Carrots, for example, contain the natural pesticide and fungicide falcarinol – which has shown in studies to block cannabinoid receptors. If that caratoxin can be absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, blocking cannabinoid receptors, it could be used as an appetite suppressant because of the role the endocannabinoid system plays in regulating our eating habits.
CBD and THC are not the only compounds in marijuana that help to modulate the endocannabinoid system. Cannabigerol, the “parent” to THC, only presents itself in trace amounts. Despite making up just a small part of cannabis DNA, cannabigerol has shown antidepressant effects in rodents and effectiveness as an antibiotic against MRSA. The compound has also been found in a flower native to South Africa, which could lead to additional research on the compound because it is not subjected to the same regulatory oversight as marijuana.
Beta-caryophyllene is another agent found in cannabis that interacts with CB2 receptors – which, due to this relationship, has anti-inflammatory properties. This compound is found in commonly used substances, such as; black pepper (up to 35 percent), lemon balm (up to 19.1 percent), cloves (up to 12.4 percent) and hops (up to 9.8 percent). Interestingly, black pepper has shown to mimic the effects of cannabis in mice at 2.5-10 mg/kg greater than placebo.
Frankincense also shows similar anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antiseptic effects to those found in cannabis. Additionally, it meets the “cannabinoid tetrad” – the four signs researchers use in animal experiments to determine that a substance stimulates CB1. This does not mean that frankincense can be used to get high; rather it means that it could be useful in maintaining endocannabinoid system health without cannabis.
Some varieties of terpenoid-producing herbs and other plants bearing glandular trichomes and lipids contain THC analogs but there is no evidence to conclude they have any psychoactive effect. Because these compounds – found in salvia, citrus and two types of liverworts (relatives of moss found in Japan and New Zealand) – seem to mimic THC on a molecular level, they too could be used to some effect in maintaining the health of the endocannabinoid system.
Despite the gains made in recent years, there is still a lot of work to be done in studying not only the endocannabinoid system, but what compounds could help modulate it. If some debilitating diseases are the result of a dysfunctional endocannabinoid system, as suggested, then finding ways to nurture this system could lead to potential treatments and, quite possibly, cures.
“When the substances involved may also include potentially forbidden substances resembling THC, which are subject to regulatory scheduling, the barriers to research become greater still,” Russo wrote. “…This educational deficit, born perhaps of lingering prejudice toward a plant called cannabis, must surely end soon, as it is contrary and detrimental to the potential significant contributions to public health.”