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What is Cannabis? Pt 2: Everything You Can't See

First, we looked at the outside of the plant and examined everything we were able to visually see. But what can we discover when we zoom in a little further, where all the magic happens? 

The trichomes of the cannabis plant house an entire universe of molecules called Phytocannabinoids. The popular THC and CBD are among the 100+ phytocannabinoids produced by that teeny tiny trichome. One day, we will explore phytocannabinoids in more depth, but for now, let’s move onto to something really cool. Cannabinoids aren’t just produced in the Cannabis Plant. Predating human existence, the cannabis plant has coevolved with many species and have unique relationships with all of them. One of these species is us, the Homo Sapiens. Every human being has a vast and wondrous system called the Endocannabinoid System. Much like any other system in your body, like the nervous system and digestive system, the endocannabinoid system keeps the body functioning and alive. And it does this by producing cannabinoids - specifically endocannabinoids. Two of the most famous endocannabnoids in research are the 2AG and AEA molecules, which we’ll learn about in a minute. First, let’s figure out what the endocannabinoid system is and what it does. 

The endocannabinoid system spans throughout your body, and interacts with all your other bodily systems when it is needed. It has one goal, and one goal only: maintain homeostasis. It’s a big goal for one bodily system, but it achieves this with hundreds of molecules that interact with 2 primary receptors: called cannabinoid (CB) receptors. 

Located along the Central Nervous System, which includes the brain and the spine, are large concentrations of Cannabinoid 1 (CB1) Receptors. Intuitively, these receptors have strong interactions with cognition and perception. For example, THC, which is known for its psychoactive effects, is a cannabinoid that favors CB1 receptors. Inversely, CBD, known for its therapeutic effects, favors interactions with CB2 receptors. These receptors can be found along nerves and muscle throughout the body, known as the Peripheral Nervous System. 

Cannabinoid Receptors are stimulated by both Phytocannabinoids and Endocannabinoids, each in their own ways. Anandamide (AEA) is a famous endocannabinoid that has earned the nickname “Bliss Molecule.” It is believed that AEA contributes to the perception of happy and uplifted feelings. When it stimulates CB1 receptors, AEA can interact with various neurotransmitter and hormone releases that allow the mind and body to “level out,” reducing anxiety levels and increasing cognition. 

Regulating the release and secretion of various hormones and neurotransmitters is the main way the ECS provides its services to the body. While Anandamide is more attracted to CB1 receptors, and holds little interest with binding to CB2 receptors, its best friend, 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), does not favor one over the other in any meaningful way. 2-AG takes on the responsibility of providing the body with methods of fighting pain and inflammation. By interacting with CB2 receptors throughout your body, you can think of 2-AG as a reinforcement unit ready to provide aid to your muscles and neurons when they need it most. But it doesn’t stop there, 2-AG specializes in a plethora of cognitive functions as well, and is highly versatile to achieve its goals. While fighting pain and inflammation from the source, 2-AG additionally interacts with CB1 receptors to alter the minds perception of the pain and emotions it is feeling. 

So, although it gets little credit for it, the endocannabinoid system in the human body has evolved to provide the body with the essential tools to cope with harsh environmental and stressful conditions. With various endocannabinoids, the ECS helps the body manage pain and cognition, keeping the other systems functioning at 100% efficiency. If the ECS can do this without any external help, what happens when cannabinoids from an ancient plant interact with it?

Phytocannabinoids aren’t produced in the body. Instead, phytocannabinoids are produced in the Cannabis plant, and they have entirely different functions than the endocannabinoids in our body. THC, as mentioned earlier, is able to stimulate CB1 receptors to affect the release of dopamine and serotonin. When this happens, the mind will begin to experience waves of euphoria and happy sensations. THC also interacts with CB1 receptors in other parts of the brain and body, which play a role in how your body manages stress and anxiety. So, while THC can provide euphoria and feel-good sensations, increased dosages can lead to increased anxiety levels and cause the mind and body to undergo its fight-or-flight responses. Because of this, THC has earned a controversial legal status, outlawing its usage in most jurisdictions. 

CBD, the partner-in-crime to THC has managed to keep its legal records clean throughout its history. However, CBD is potentially the most complicated cannabinoid in the Cannabis plant. Unlike endocannabinoids and other phytocannabinoids, like THC, quirky little CBD has no intentions of binding to the cannabinoid receptors found in the body. Instead, CBD, being the high and mighty phytocannabinoid that it is, actually changes the shape of CB1 receptors, dictating how the ECS is able to interpret the cannabinoids that do bind with them. Yes, CBD is Him, and it is able to change the effects of other cannabinoids at will. If that wasn’t enough of a God-level flex, CBD extends its reach beyond cannabinoid receptors. This all encompassing molecule will carry the audacity to interact with major receptors found in the brain, such as the serotonin receptors. While it doesn’t provide any psychoactive effects, it can help the mind to avoid feeling stressed. 

It really sounds like CBD is the main character, but without other cannabinoids, it wouldn’t really have a role. And to throw another curveball out there, cannabinoids aren’t the only chemicals in the cannabis plant that interact with the human body and mind. Cannabis flower hosts a large array of special molecules called Terpenes. Terpenes are actually found in just about every plant that has a smell. See, while cannabinoids are really powerful, they are odorless, and colorless. So, how does a plant with such powerful molecules like CBD and THC survive for so long without being devoured by nature? Well, it stinks, really bad.

Most cannabis in nature contains the terpene called Myrcene. Myrcene is the terpene that gives Cannabis plants the well-known, pungent, “skunk” smell. This tiny little terpene, has acted as the aromatic shield for the cannabis plant for thousands of years, and its also the biggest snitch on the streets. Even though Myrcene can actually contribute to the therapeutic effects of Cannabis, its odor will give itself away to any authority figure within sniffing distance. But myrcene isn't the only terpene in Cannabis. There’s hundreds of unique and special terpenes, and each cannabis “strain” will have its own blend of terpenes. So, not all Cannabis will smell skunky. Flower with large amounts of limonene will carry citrusy aromas, and strains with a large amount of linalool will have lavender aromas.

Each terpene has its one effects and aromas, but the way they interact with each other and other cannabinoids allows each strain of cannabis to provide a different set of effects. This is known as the Entourage effect, and it is still being researched in modern science. The endocannabinoid system is a dynamic system, interacting with hundreds of molecules to aid the body and mind. For thousands of years, both the cannabis plant and the human body have co-evolved to fight against harsh conditions, both in nature and society. All of this magic happens at a microscopic level, and it is everything you can’t see, when you look at the cannabis plant, that makes it so extraordinary.

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