Learn what makes this plant so incredibly powerful
It’s no secret that cannabis has healing properties. This high‐level overview links the laws of nature to human physiology to help make sense of the science beneath the leaf.
The Cannabis Plant
Exceptionally versatile and valuable, the cannabis plant can be used in a vast array of products ranging from paper and clothing to building materials and fuel. Pushing its historical use of medicine aside in the 20th century, most recently, cannabis has been known primarily for its psychoactive effects in humans. Only now as the industry continues to expand cannabis research, its medicinal properties and uses continue to unfold and pique the interest of patients, healthcare professionals, and cultivators alike. The rebirth of cannabis as a medicine is upon us. Let’s take a deeper look at this incredible plant and understand why it’s so special.
Beyond the Leaf
The five- or seven-bladed leaf that has become iconic with the cannabis plant is actually the least important of its features. While this image serves as a common rallying flag to both the industry and cultural aspect surrounding it, the plant itself is much more complex than it’s distinguishing leaves.
Cannabis, like many plants, is a flowering species that undergoes multiple life stages. The plant’s “buds” (or racemes) are actually branches of tiny, tightly clustered flowers of the female plant. They reach their final form after a slow, controlled drying process, at which point they are snipped off and ready for consumption.
There are many uses for the leaves, stalks and seeds of the plant, however most cannabis cultivators harvest only its flowers, as they hold the highest concentration of trichomes. Tiny, crystalline growths found on the flower buds, these trichomes produce the oils that contain the majority of cannabis’s medical properties.
A Not-So-Simple Seed
Cannabis is a dioecious species of plant, meaning there are both female and male plants that grow independently of one another. As opposed to many self-pollinating flowers, cannabis requires a male reproductive organ (“male”) in order to create seed. When a male’s pollen is caught by the female’s stigmas, it initiates the seed development, which is the plant’s only natural method of reproduction.
As the seeds develop inside the bracts of the female flower, their color changes, progressing from off-white, to pale green and finally becomes a rich, tiger-striped brown, indicating its ripeness. The female plant continues to carry the seeds to term, whereas the male’s role is finished. The male generally dies long before the female finishes its life cycle.
The Cannabis Life Cycle
The life stages of the cannabis plant are generally divided into the following three phases:
Phase One: Propagation
In the beginning, the plant is very tiny, simply trying to “establish a foothold” in its environment. There are two different ways plants can be produced in this stage: by growing a seed, or via rooted cutting, known by horticulturists as “cloning.” A clone is a genetic copy of the parent plant, which is created by cutting a branch from the “mother” plant and placing it in a special solution to stimulate root growth. Once its roots are developed, the plant begins stretching upward towards the light, signaling the next life phase.
Phase Two: Vegetative Growth
During this stage, the plant is adding as much mass as possible to its frame. In ideal growing conditions, it can grow many times its original height in just a matter of weeks. From a tiny, two-leaved seedling comes a plant. This is also the stage in which cultivators are able to identify the gender of their plants. Traditionally, for flower production, the males are culled from the crop, and the females become the sole focus for proceeding.
Phase Three: Flowering
The key to this phase is controlling the plant’s environment and mimicking nature, especially with respect to light. For instance, exposure to less than 12 hours of light per day, a cycle similar to an outdoor setting in autumn, allows the plant to enter the flower stage of development. At this point, it undergoes an initial burst of growth and vigor, triggering a natural reproductive response to create more surface area that allows for increased flower production, which in turn creates more area for seed population in females, that in nature would then create the next generation of plants.
During this growth spurt, plants can double or triple in size before their vertical height eventually slows, thus signaling the plants to concentrate their energy and resources on producing flowers.
As the weeks pass by and the light diminishes, the flowers begin to develop rapidly, spreading throughout the female plants. As the flowers continue to grow, the stems become totally covered with fully formed racemes, or “buds. ” As the buds grow larger and denser, their crystalline trichomes undergo a maturation process of their own.
If the plant is allowed to continue flowering for an extended period, it will eventually die on the vine. Careful adjustment of the plant’s light exposure however, i.e., a natural change of season outdoors, harsh winters notwithstanding, increasing its exposure above 12 hours per day indoors, will allow the plant to return back to a vegetative state. It can then begin the cycle anew, shooting fresh green branches out of old, brown stumps.
Rejuvenating a plant in this fashion rarely takes place in commercial cannabis production, as the plants are usually harvested at peak ripeness rather than left to die or revegetate.
Cannabinoids are compounds that play a critical role in medical cannabis. There are three types of cannabinoids, which are characterized by their source of origin. Endocannabinoids, which are synthesized in the body; plant-based phytocannabinoids, predominantly found in the cannabis plant; and, synthetic cannabinoids that are created in laboratories to mimic the first two. The chemical profile for all cannabinoids includes flavonoids, terpenoids, sugars, proteins, enzymes, amino acids and fatty acids.
The most common and prevalent chemical in the cannabis plant, THC molecules, are responsible for the majority of the plant’s psychoactive effects in humans. THC has a host of effects depending upon body chemistry, but its primary medical benefits result from its analgesic, anti-spasmodic, anti-tremor, anti-inflammatory and anti-emetic properties. It is also known as a stimulant with regard to appetite, and has therefore been credited for helping patients suffering from AIDS, chemotherapy and cachexia. There are two forms of THC: THCA and THCV.
THCA is the most prominent compound found in the raw cannabis plant. It is inactive and naturally non-psychoactive in its raw form, but converts to the active, psychoactive cannabinoid THC when heated above 250 degrees Fahrenheit. (This process can take place over an extended period of time through extraction or instantly, by burning or vaporizing the material.) THCA is credited for the anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic effects of cannabis, and is also believed to be a factor in its anti-proliferative effects, as well.
Activated THCA, or THC, concentrations normally range from 10% to 25% in raw, dried cannabis flower, and from 50% to 90% (or greater) in concentrated products.
Fewer studies have focused on this cannabinoid, however, THCV is believed to enhance many of the signature effects of THC. Often found more frequently in sativa-dominant plants, varieties rich in THCV are known for hallucinogenic effects. Although more research is necessary for statistical assumptions, many scientists believe that THCV may be a contributing factor in reducing appetite. THCV is rare and normally yields an extremely low concentration of less than 5% of total content.
A compound largely ignored until recently, CBD contains a host of medical properties associated with neuroprotective and immunomodulatory functions specifically related to anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsion, anti-psychotic and anti-oxidant effects.
Unlike THC, CBD is not psychoactive. In fact, it is known to temper the stronger effects of THC. Yielding lower concentrations of THC than most cannabis varieties, CBD content can normally range from 15% to 25% for select varieties.
A compound not inherent in the cannabis plant, CBN is created as a result of two different processes. The natural maturation and degradation that takes place within the plant’s trichomes; and, when THC is exposed to oxygen or heat over time.
While CBN is not technically a psychoactive compound like THC, it is nonetheless highly effective, and most commonly credited for its sleep-inducing qualities. With many properties similar to those in THC and CBD, CBN is known for reducing inflammation, convulsions, nausea and pain, as well as appetite stimulation.
CBN concentrations are typically lower than both THC and CBD, normally ranging from 1% to 5% of total content.
Have you ever noticed how a handful of mint leaves smells just like a pack of spearmint gum, naturally? Or wondered how the lemony scent in certain cannabis strains mirrors the citrus burst of a Meyer lemon, even though its form is dried and green, not juicy and yellow?
We have terpenes to thank for the the distinguishing aromas we find in many plants. Scents such as, menthol, citrus, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and eucalyptus are all derived from terpenoids. The aromatic properties of plant terpenoids play a traditional role in medicine, ranging from herbal remedies believed to fight cancer to pharmaceutical and antibacterial functions.
Benefits Beyond the Senses
Terpenes aren’t just pleasing scents, they are the main building blocks of the essential oils and resins instrumental in the plant’s defense systems. For example, honeybees are attracted to the scent in certain flowers that provide nourishing pollens, which in turn, play a positive role in the plant’s reproductive cycle. Alternatively, predatory creatures have an innate response to avoid specific scents that some plants create to protect survival. Terpenes also provide the foundation for complex molecules like pigments, sterols, hormones and vitamins. In fact, terpenes are the basis for aromatherapy practices.
Cannabis terpenes are believed to play an even more important role in health benefits, either directly or indirectly. For example, the terpene, myrcene, is known to make cells more permeable, which increases the absorption of cannabinoids by the body. Beta-Caryophyllene (BCP) terpenes, which are normally found in black pepper, rosemary and highly concentrated in cannabis, have demonstrated the direct effect of cancer-killing properties.
A Scientific Snapshot
While many terpenes interact harmoniously, some combine with cannabinoid receptors in the body to block the formation of other compounds, while others act as a binding agent. This explains why terpenes are believed to produce a broad range of both psychoactive and physiological effects commonly associated with THC and CBD alone. In fact, it is the synergy of these many compounds and receptors working together that creates the commonly known “entourage effect.”
While many features of the cannabis plant are associated with human health benefits, it has one component of exceptional importance: the trichome. To the naked eye, trichomes are recognized as the translucent, crystal-like hairs on the flower buds. If you were to view them under a microscope, however, you would see thousands of glistening, resin-filled glands on the surface of the plant’s leaves, buds and stems.
A Significant Step Beyond Survival
Trichomes are epidermal outgrowths that play an important role in nature, particularly in plants. In general, trichomes serve as a defense system to protect the plant from predators such as, insects or birds, inhibit the growth of certain fungi, and guard against environmental elements. Many plants have trichomes, however the cannabis plant is unique. In addition to producing its own immune and defense system, one of its trichomes — Capitate-stalked trichome — performs an important function. Specifically, the Capitate-stalked trichome facilitates the maturation of the plant’s medicinal properties accredited to cannabis.
Where the Magic Happens
As the female plant matures, these tall, glandular trichomes sprout from the plant’s cells into crystalline structures that resemble tiny glass mushrooms on the flower bracts. The bract, a stem-like piece, or “stalk,” serves as a tunnel through which the chemical compounds are transported from the plant’s cells to the cap-shaped “head” of the trichome. The head is made of a hard, outer shell, which encases an oil-rich interior that contains the plant’s medicinal compounds and a vast majority of its aromatic compounds (terpenes).
The Kinetic Kaleidoscope
As the trichomes catalyze this chemical process, they evolve physically, exhibiting a colorful metamorphosis over a period of time. The outer head is clear before advancing through a series of color changes, ranging from milky white to amber to a deep, reddish brown, and finally turning black when the plant reaches its final life stage. This final stage is a result of the chemical transformation occurring inside the head during which prolonged exposure to light and oxygen causes the degradation of its THC into CBN. This stage also signals an important transformation of the plant’s terpenes, as the intensity of their aroma begins to dissipate once the plant passes its peak in the cycle.
The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) helps to provide and improve homeostasis — a state of balance and stability — within living organisms. While this system is a natural feature of humans and other mammals, its structure is complex. Through a “lock-and-key” signaling system, the ECS impacts various physiological systems by orchestrating communication among the body’s enzymes, receptors and cannabinoids.
What Constitutes a Cannabinoid?
The term “cannabinoids” refers to organic chemical compounds present in cannabis. Technically, a plant-based cannabinoid is referred to as a phytocannabinoid. There are also lab-manufactured, synthetic cannabinoids. Few people realize that the human body produces cannabinoids, too; these are known as endocannabinoids.
Making Sense of Signals and Structure
Basic ECS structure includes three essential elements: receptors, lipids and enzymes. Following is a brief description of each, which helps to illustrate how they work together:
Researchers at the St. Louis University School of Medicine discovered the cannabinoid receptor in 1988. Today we know of two types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. (Both are also G protein-coupled receptors.) CB1 receptors are found mainly in the brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are located in peripheral organs.
Two lipids produced by the body serve as ligands (bonding agents) for the cannabinoid receptors: anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Both are endocannabinoids.
Enzymes (including monoacylglycerol lipase and fatty acid amide hydrolase) create endocannabinoids.
Receptors at Work: Balancing Acts
CB1 and CB2 receptors create chemical signals to produce and dissolve metabolic enzymes. In turn, the enzymes influence a variety of physical and psychological conditions, including inflammation, appetite, pain, metabolism, muscle control, sleep, intra-ocular pressure, stress response, mood and weight loss, among others. CB1 and CB2 differ in their functions and balance points.
- Research indicates that a dominant CB1 decreases nausea, vomiting and pain.
- Anecdotal reference also points to reduced anxiety, paranoia and stress, as well as enhanced immunotherapy associated with certain cancers.
- Over-active CB1 receptors may lead to increased appetite, and therefore the potential for obesity, muscular insulin resistance and increased glucose intake.
- Predominant CB2 receptors are associated with decreased tissue injury and inflammation.
- Other reported benefits include improved insulin signaling, better metabolic health and energy balance.
- Over-activation of CB2 receptors may result in decreased function of the immune system and impaired wound healing.
Bottom Line: More Therapeutic Options for Patients and Practitioners
Since its discovery about 30 years ago, the ECS has opened new vistas of beneficial therapeutic options for patients and physicians alike:
- Positive effects, physically and emotionally. For example, the ECS can help diminish (and sometimes known to eradicate) nausea associated with some cancer therapies. Similarly, the ECS can increase or decrease appetite, just as it can alter mood — from peaceful and pensive to active and imaginative.
- Maintaining equilibrium and stability. Most importantly, the ECS promotes homeostasis — the body’s natural tendency to maintain internal equilibrium and stability, even under adverse conditions of illness, pain and emotional duress.
- A foundation for well-being. Consequently, the ECS has earned recognition as a central component of mental and physical well-being. Small wonder that both traditional and homeopathic medical practitioners continue to research the ECS and the wealth of therapeutic value it holds.
Indica vs Sativa vs Hybrid
Cannabis is grouped into two primary types — Indica and Sativa — distinguished by their physiological effects, as well as their physical experience once consumed. Indica cannabis traditionally produces an overall calming or relaxed state, whereas Sativa is known for its energizing or uplifting effects. These two types, when crossbred, create a third category, hybrid, which yields a blended effect. Because the basic Indica/Sativa/Hybrid distinction is a very general way of looking at a complex chemical interaction happening inside the body, therefore, variation is expected and may have the opposite effect once consumed.
Cannabis forms and response time
The growing medical cannabis movement has inspired the creation of many different cannabis products that provide effective therapies for chronic patient conditions. The breadth of choices include three primary forms of cannabis, each offering an assortment of consumption methods, as well as varying degrees of potency and effects.
The flower is the actual flower bud that is found on the cannabis plant.
When harvested and dried, flower is typically either smoked or vaporized using any number of devices to suit individual needs. Traditionally, this is the most commonly used form of cannabis and is available in numerous flower strains, all of which are distinguished by appearance, effect, odor, potency and taste.
In spite of the relatively quick response time of utilizing flower, the vast arrays of strains and the relative potency levels among cannabis flowers yield similarly vast spectrums of efficacy and usage results. As each person may respond differently, it is recommended to start slowly with a single inhalation, and wait at least ten minutes before taking a second inhalation. Repeating the process in ten‐minute intervals allows the patient to safely measure and achieve the desired effects of the medicine.
Concentrates are oils from the cannabis plant that are extracted through scientific processes using solvents such as CO2, ethanol or butane.
Concentrated cannabis is a more diverse form of medical marijuana than its flower counterpart. Its products range from stalked resin glands or trichomes in solid or resinous forms, to waxes and oils. Like flower, concentrates are typically smoked or vaporized, including smokeless inhalation methods. The potency of this cannabis form tends to be stronger than flower or infused products.
Concentrates deliver an immediate effect, typically recognized within five minutes of usage, although each person may respond differently. As with any inhaled cannabis product, it is recommended to start with a single inhalation and wait a period of time (at least five to seven minutes in this case) before taking a second inhalation. Repeating the process in seven‐minute intervals allows the patient to safely measure and achieve the desired effects of the medicine.
Infused products are any products infused with concentrated cannabis extracts. Forms of infused products include candy, baked goods, beverages, tinctures, oral sprays, pills, topical products and personal care products.
As there are many infused products that can be purchased in various potency levels, it is not possible to predict response times for this category as each person may respond differently. It is important to note, however, that these products may have a longer response time than experienced with flower or concentrates. Therefore, when testing an infused product for the first time, it is recommended to use only a small dose in a controlled environment (i.e. do not plan to drive, operate heavy machinery, etc.) and wait at least 30–60 minutes before taking another dose.
Cannabis consumption methods and response time
Just as the potency and form of cannabis determine the reaction time of each product, so does the method of its consumption. The different consumption methods for all forms of cannabis and their relative impact on reaction time are as follows:
Flower and Concentrates
Inhalation allows a majority of the medicine to enter into the blood stream by passing through the lungs. There are a variety of ways to inhale cannabis flower or concentrates, the most common being the use of a pipe (made from a variety of materials such as glass, ceramic and wood), or a cannabis cigarette. A relatively new addition to these methods is vaporization, which requires a special device to vaporize the active ingredients of the plant material, for the purposes of inhalation. Doing so ultimately reduces exposure to carcinogens, making it a popular alternative.
This direct method of consuming cannabis generally produces an effect within a few minutes (as mentioned above in “flower” and “concentrates”). Both inhalation forms yield a short duration period, and may require repeated treatments within a few hours.
Cannabis can be ingested through infused edible products, which patients find more convenient and innocuous than inhalation. In this method, cannabis is introduced through the gastrointestinal tract and processed by the liver, before entering the blood stream.
Individual responses to edibles vary depending on the product’s potency and the patient’s metabolic rate and/or prior food consumption. While the reaction time may not be immediate for edibles, taking up to two hours to realize the effects, the duration time of their effects is known to last as long as 10 hours.
Topical and Sublingual
In addition to ingesting edibles, cannabinoids can enter the blood stream through absorption, via the mucous membranes and blood vessels abundant in the mouth. Infused products within this category include, but are not limited to: medicated tinctures, sublingual sprays and dissolvable strips, each of which may be placed on or under the tongue, as well as inside the inner cheek pocket. The response time of this delivery method is immediate with relief generally attained within a few minutes.
Cannabinoids can also be absorbed through the skin, through topical products such as, balms, salves, creams, lotions, patches and liquid sprays. Topical applications are generally used for localized pain, allowing cannabinoids to focus on a specific area. The response to the application usually occurs within minutes.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the most notable chemical compounds found in cannabis. It’s the psychoactive substance that produces the feeling of being high. A higher level of THC can produce an increased “euphoric” experience. While can effect mood and behavior, it also has been known to have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Cannabidiol (CBD), unlike THC, is not psychoactive. As a safe, non-addictive substance, it is a natural alternative best known for its medicinal purposes. CBD has the capability to act on the brain’s receptor for serotonin, the hormone that stabilizes our mood and well-being. As a therapeutic, it may help to reduce chronic pain, anxiety and depression.
Cannabinol (CBN) is a cannabinoid that is less known than THC or CBD, but offers several therapeutic medicinal purposes: anti-insomnia, pain relief, anti-inflammatory, anticonvulsant and appetite stimulant. CBN is formed from aged THC, found in older cannabis. Similar to THC, CBN is a psychoactive compound, but milder.
The Simplified Science of Strains
Several elements define and influence every cannabis strain. Its individual phenotype (meaning the genetic expression of that individual plant, which can mimic the mother plant, father plant, or exist along a spectrum somewhere in between), chemical profiles, growing environment, and methods all distinguish the strain. The cannabinoid profile within each strain contains the compounds such as THC, CBD, etc. that largely determine its effect (psychoactive or physiological). The strain’s terpene profile, however, has significant importance for two main reasons:
The Chemical Connection
First, by combining with select cannabinoid compounds, terpenes catalyze chemical processes central to the plant’s medicinal properties. This enables them to either block certain cell formations (e.g., those believed to cause cancer or inflammation) or act as a binding agent (i.e., forming molecules to stimulate appetite).
Indeed the knowledge of the chemical processes taking place at a molecular level is integral to inform scientists and doctors of the many medical benefits cannabis offers. Knowing what to address for particular health conditions or overall wellness can be daunting, however the physical traits of terpenes are equally helpful—if not more so—to its chemical counterpart, for patients and practitioners alike. Many scholars also believe that terpenes are most responsible for the strain specificity and the subtle differences between varieties, which are genetically similar and have similar cannabinoid profiles.
Enter the second powerful property of the terpene: its capability to produce and emit many distinctive aromas, which is actually a feature of a plant’s defense system. The good fortune for insects is that their attraction or repulsion to plant-based scents is instinctive. For example, honeybees are attracted to the scent in certain flowers that provide nourishing pollens (and, in turn, play a positive role in the plant’s reproductive cycle). Alternatively, predatory creatures have an innate response to avoid specific scents the plant creates to protect its survival.
The olfactory sense in humans, however, isn’t so intuitive. While we might share a common positive or negative association with certain smells, our nervous system isn’t hard-wired to discern which aromas represent the potential physiological responses we need or seek for comfort or relief. (In fact, from a very basic herbal medicine perspective, many therapeutic or nutritional resources are “hiding” in the produce section of the grocery store!) How could our bodies possibly self-select the cannabis strain most likely to generate successful results? Due to the complexity of the chemical interactions at play when a person consumes cannabis, there is sometimes a feeling out process that has to occur before a patient can determine which strain(s) are best for their particular conditions.
As our knowledge of cannabis continues to expand, so do the opportunities for its therapeutic value. As a result, medicinal cultivators continue to breed new strains of cannabis in an effort to expand the universe of health conditions this plant can potentially benefit. While research uncovers the relevant chemical properties in terpenes (and other molecules called ‘flavonoids’ which are also responsible for aromas and flavors in cannabis), their many unique aromas can aid patients in choosing the cannabis strain most appropriate for each condition or desired effect.