How Does Cannabis Work? Understanding Cannabinoids

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How does marijuana work?  It all comes down to the cannabinoids.

Due to its psychoactive properties, THC is the cannabinoid that gets all the hype, but it is only one of about 60 cannabinoids found in marijuana.

These complex organic molecules found in cannabis have a profound effect on our bodies if for no other reason than we naturally produce cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids, for a virtual cornucopia of physiological processes.

How does cannabis work? As a supplement!

Ingesting marijuana is just supplementing the cannabinoids that our body naturally produces. Cannabis should be seen not so much as a medicine but rather as a supplement.

Cannabis is not the only plant that produces cannabinoids.

The term phytocannabinoids is now making the rounds in scientific circles for plants that produce compounds that can activate the body’s cannabinoid receptors.

However, cannabis is the only plant which produces THC and THC gets all the media coverage.

I certainly don’t mean to downplay the importance of THC.  It is vitally important to our well-being both in terms of everyday health and longevity. I

t’s just that in order to truly understand the importance of ingesting cannabis for maintaining good health, we need to understand the cannabinoid system and the role cannabinoids play in that system.

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Understanding Cannabinoids: Meet Your Endocannabinoid System

First off, the cannabinoid system is old—very old. Its origins date back over 650,000 million years ago when modern cells, known as eukaryotic cells, first evolved.

As they developed the ability to communicate with each other, the cannabinoid system gained greater prominence.

Found in early mollusks and hydrae, the cannabinoid system evolved along with our other evolving systems—digestive, muscular, nervous—as a biological regulator that maintains homeostasis; physiological equilibrium resulting from a balance of functions and chemical reactions in our bodies.

The cannabinoid system is composed of an ubiquitous number of cannabinoid receptors found just about everywhere in our bodies. They are one of the most abundant receptors in the human brain and present in nearly every tissue and cell.

Cannabinoids call the shots in basic metabolic processes and govern intercellular communication, especially in the immune and nervous systems.

Cannabinoids that we naturally produce (endocannabinoids), along with related compounds (phytocannabinoids) that are found in cannabis, interact with our cannabinoid receptors found in tissue, organ and body systems.

Cannabinoids modulate and coordinate the functions of the cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, excretory, immune, musculo-skeletal, nervous, reproductive and respiratory systems.

Dr. Robert Melamede, in his seminal publication Harm Reduction—The Cannabis Paradox, published in the peer-reviewed Harm Reduction Journal, proposes that the “homeostatic action of cannabinoids on so many physiological structures and processes is the basis for the hypothesis that the endocannabinoid system is nothing less than a naturally evolved harm reduction system.

Endocannabinoids protect by fine-tuning and regulating dynamic biochemical steady states within the ranges required for healthy biological function.”

One of the major ways cannabis works to promote harm reduction is through its action as a potent anti-inflammatory.

A powerful example is found in the ability of cannabis to mitigate the effects of auto-immune diseases such as arthritis and MS. By inhibiting the consequences of free radicals caused by these diseases, cannabis can significantly slow the progression of these debilitating ailments.

Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, the ingestion of supplemental cannabinoids can slow not only the aging process, but the development of age-related illnesses like cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.

How does cannabis work? THC is a big part of it

Cannabis is the only plant that produces THC and an abundance of other cannabinoids that are so important to maintaining physiological health.  

The health of almost all living organisms is dependent on a properly functioning cannabinoid system. For higher organisms, the ingestion of additional cannabinoids is very beneficial.

For humans, especially in this day and age of stress, rapidly changing social interactions and environmental pollution, consumption of supplemental cannabinoids is critical for both the health of the individual and society.

Far from being discouraged by oppressive laws and draconian regulations, consumption of cannabis should be encouraged and supported.

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About the author 

Lanny Swerdlow

Lanny Swerdlow, RN is host of the Internet radio show Marijuana Compassion & Common Sense and founder of the Marijuana Anti Prohibition Project and the Brownie Mary Democratic Club. Contact him at

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