What Are the Health Benefits and Risks of Cannabis?
The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that people have been using cannabis to treat various conditions and symptoms for at least 3,000 years — with first records of medical cannabis use dating back to ancient China and Emperor Shen Nung (2,700 B.C.).
However, due to the chain of unfortunate events from the past 70 years, cannabis has gained a reputation of a dangerous substance with high potential for abuse and no approved medical applications, having been placed somewhere between ecstasy and heroin.
Now we witness a true turnaround of these events, as weed is slowly but surely retaking its good name thanks to continuous research and efforts from cannabis advocates across the world.
In this article, we’ll cover the most remarkable health benefits of cannabis — and shed some light on the potential risks of using the herb.
What Are the Medical Benefits of Cannabis?
As mentioned, people have been using cannabis for medical purposes for thousands of years. Over the last few decades, research has yielded results indicating that cannabis may be an effective treatment for a range of severe conditions — without the dangerous side effects caused by some prescription medications.
Below we give you a list of conditions most commonly treated with medical cannabis.
1. Chronic Pain
In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a comprehensive review evaluating more than 10,000 scientific studies on the health benefits of cannabis.
One of the most thoroughly examined areas of this report was the use of medical cannabis for chronic pain, a leading cause of disability that affects over 25 million people in the U.S.
The review discovered that cannabis, or products containing cannabinoids — active ingredients in the plant — are effective in alleviating chronic pain.
Another large review of the evidence, published last year in the journal Psychology Review, concluded that using cannabis may help people overcome alcohol dependencies and other substance addictions.
These findings stay in stark contrast to the claims made by the National Academies of Sciences, according to which marijuana use could drive increased risk of abusing other substances. They also debunk the gateway drug myth that has been attributed to marijuana use since the early 30s of the last century.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that a person can’t abuse marijuana. In fact, the more someone uses cannabis, the more likely they are to develop behavioral dependence — even though the plant isn’t physically addictive.
It’s estimated that 1 in 9 users will develop a dependence on cannabis.
3. PTSD, Depression and Social Anxiety
According to the review published in Clinical Psychology Review, cannabis may relieve depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
The review indicates that there is also some evidence suggesting that cannabis might curb symptoms of social anxiety which — again — contradicts the statement from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that said regular users of cannabis could actually be at a higher risk of social anxiety.
Evidence from many studies indicates that cannabinoids are effective against the side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea and vomiting, and some small studies have found that smoked marijuana is the go-to method to relieve these symptoms.
Other studies on cannabis and cancer revealed that cannabinoids may either slow the progression of tumors in some types of cancer cells. Early studies from human subjects revealed that cannabinoids are a safe treatment, although their efficacy in controlling or curing cancer is yet to be further examined on larger groups.
The vast majority of studies from the 1990s and early 2000s with regards to cannabis and epilepsy were conducted to test the efficacy of both THC and CBD. They were conducted on animal models and brought surprisingly positive results.
Further research in this subject shifted to CBD, the non-psychoactive and second most abundant cannabinoid in the cannabis plant. After several double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical human trials, the FDA approved the first CBD-based pharmaceutical drug Sativex for treatment-resistant childhood forms of epilepsy.
A 2017 study that examined 120 children and teenagers with Dravet syndrome (a rare form of epilepsy) found that subjects who were administered an oral CBD solution went from having around 12 seizures per month to an average of six seizures per month compared to the placebo group. Three children from the controlled group didn’t experience any seizures at all
Those more familiar with using cannabis to control epileptic seizures have been using CBD-rich extracts long before the FDA’s approval, when the story of Charlotte Figi, an epileptic girl treated with CBD oil from high-CBD cannabis strain, made it to the mainstream media.
Now we know why ancient Egyptians were using cannabis to treat intraocular pressure. Research shows that when THC enters the bloodstream, it dilates blood vessels and capillaries (also in the eyes), improving the overall blood flow and thus reducing pressure.
With more blood running through your ocular capillaries, the eyes become red, hence the bloodshot eye effect.
So the next time you start to worry about having red eyes after smoking a jay, think about this side effect as something rather positive.
According to recent studies, frequent cannabis users have 16% lower fasting insulin levels and 17% lower insulin resistance than non-users. They also tend to have smaller waist circumferences.
Not only that, but cannabinoids such as CBD can promote the so-called fat browning process, in which white fat cells — the ones you accumulate as extra body fat — to brown fat cells that are readily used by the body to produce energy. This may contribute to boosting a person’s metabolism with regular cannabis use.
When the cells in your body resist insulin, they are unable to facilitate the transportation of glucose to cell tissues. This can result in a glucose buildup in the body, which leads to elevated blood sugar levels. Ideally, the cells should be able to process insulin to use them for energy. In diabetes sufferers, the body can’t do this.
Cannabinoids are capable of improving the body’s efficiency in absorbing and using insulin, contributing to lower blood sugar levels.
CBD has also been shown to reduce pancreatic inflammation, the leading cause of type I Diabetes, an autoimmune type of this disease.
8. Nausea and Vomiting
Here’s what a 2014 review of scientific progress regarding cannabinoids from the European Journal of Pharmacology said about cannabis and nausea:
“Cannabis has long been known to limit or prevent nausea and vomiting from a variety of causes. This has led to extensive investigations that have revealed an important role for cannabinoids and their receptors in the regulation of nausea and emesis (vomiting).”
Evidence from experiments suggests that cannabis may control nausea by acting on the serotonin receptors in the brain. Cannabinoids may decrease the release of serotonin, which leads to lower stimulation on the vomiting controls in the brain.
Studies have also found that the release of anandamide — a cannabinoid receptor type 1 agonist — relieves the feelings of nausea and reduces the urge to vomit. However, anandamide is quickly broken down by the Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH) enzyme.
According to the results from animal-based studies, CBD can block that enzyme, increasing the amount of anandamide available for the body. The same happens when you consume cannabis. THC causes your brain to think there’s more anandamide in the system, whereas CBD extends its life while blocking the sites of CB1 receptors that react to the psychoactive effects of THC.
9. Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple Sclerosis is a progressive illness, meaning that things can only get worse with time. One of the most disturbing symptoms of this condition is muscle spasticity that, for some patients, may be debilitating.
A significant amount of evidence indicates THC and CBD-based medications can be used for treating that muscle spasticity, but most studies have focused on these cannabinoids in their synthetic form. Only a few have examined whole-plant cannabis products.
Nevertheless, cannabis seems to relieve the following symptoms:
- Sleep disturbances
- Muscle spasms
- Abdominal problems
- Mood swings
The endocannabinoid system has been proposed as a major factor when it comes to migraines and its management through cannabinoids.
A study published in the Journal Experimental Neurology has linked the endocannabinoid system to central and peripheral pain signaling. That’s likely due to the endocannabinoid’s ability to block the release of neurotransmitters responsible for pain signaling.
The authors of the study suggested that the endocannabinoid system is where migraines may start and that cannabis could be beneficial for migraine sufferers, both when it comes to preventative measures and controlling its symptoms.
If this thesis proves accurate, the lack of endocannabinoids might just as well be a contributor to migraine. This state is called endocannabinoid deficiency and could be the cause of migraine headaches in many people.
Data from animal research confirmed that a compromised endocannabinoid system may cause the development of migraines.
Again, cannabinoids are able to manipulate anandamide levels within the body and maintain its adequate amounts in the brain through the modulation of CB1 and CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system.
What are the Possible Risks of Cannabis?
Cannabis is a highly versatile medicine that comes with a very short list of side effects that can be considered as mild when compared with those induced by some conventional treatment options.
Many people joke that the only risk of cannabis is the risk of getting caught in a place where it’s illegal.
The majority of side-effects of cannabis are short-lived and don’t pose a threat to a person’s health. When it comes to the long-term risk of cannabis use, there’s simply not enough research to draw conclusive claims.
There’s some evidence suggesting that marijuana may exacerbate existing symptoms of psychosis and bipolar disorder in people who have this mental health issue. However, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, there’s only limited evidence of a link between marijuana use and developing bipolar disorder in healthy people.
Some experts argue that chronic cannabis users are exposed to a higher risk of schizophrenia. But a curious finding among people suffering from schizophrenia suggests that a history of marijuana use is linked to improved performance on memory and learning assessment tests.
Another potential risk is the development of testicular cancer. The National Academy of Sciences did find some evidence indicating an increased risk of the slow-growing seminoma type of testicular cancer. Again, there’s no hard evidence to suggest a possible link between using cannabis and a higher risk of most cancers.
Last but not least, regular cannabis smoking is associated with increased risk of chronic cough, although it’s not obvious whether it’s marijuana alone that compromises lung function and increases the risk of asthma or other pulmonary diseases.
There’s a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the health benefits of marijuana. The herb appears to succeed where many traditional treatments fail, from chronic pain to severe inflammation, trauma, depression, epilepsy, and more.
Cannabinoids are so effective because they engage with our endocannabinoid systems to help them maintain chemical balance in our bodies and improve our mental well-being. Both THC and CBD appear to play an important role in that regulation.
Although recent years have been very fruitful for researchers investigating the way cannabis may relieve certain conditions, we still need more studies that would highlight the possible risks of long-term cannabis use.
The main concern people have about using cannabis is the way most people inhale their herb — by smoking it. But today, there are so many different consumption methods that you can eliminate the risks associated with combusting the plant material — either by vaporizing cannabis or taking an edible.
As with any substance you introduce to your system or take regularly for medical reasons, remember that moderation is the key to responsible use. Knowing your limits is particularly important because it also allows you to avoid the short-term side effects of consuming too much THC, such as anxiety or paranoid thinking patterns.
How did cannabis help you improve your quality of life? Are you a medical or recreational user? Give us a shout in the comments below!