The ancient Egyptians used cannabis and cannabis oil for glaucoma, inflammation and enemas, referencing them in The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE) which is the one of the first medical textbooks in recorded history. The ancient Greeks used cannabis to dress wounds and sores on their horses. In humans, dried leaves of cannabis were used to treat nosebleeds, and cannabis seeds were used to expel tapeworms. The most frequently described use of cannabis in humans was to steep green seeds of cannabis in either water or wine, remove the seeds, and use the warm extract to treat inflammation and pain resulting from obstruction of the ear.

The ancient Egyptians used cannabis and oil

Indian medicine expanded the medicinal uses of cannabis, using all parts of the plant for some sort of illness or another (whether physical or spiritual) and led the charge in holistic and herbal medicine. Specifically, the Atharvaveda (1000 BCE) makes reference to medicinal cannabis, which is described as one of five sacred plants within the five kingdoms of herbs that release us from anxiety.

Cannabis, medicinally speaking, was recommended in India to quicken the mind, give strength and agility, achieve spiritual freedom and higher consciousness, lower fevers, stimulate appetite, improve digestion and relieve headaches.
A mixture of cannabis and milk was used as an anesthetic in India.

And so it goes around the world, through history: cannabis is used to treat leprosy, earaches, edema, gout, joint cramps, pain, migraines, vomiting, hemorrhage, diarrhea, anorexia, depression, arthritis, menstrual cramps, headaches, insomnia, neuralgia, convulsions, opium addiction—and on and on. How could one plant treat so many diverse ailments?

It took thousands of years before the answer revealed itself, and in so doing, it opened the door to one of the most exciting and revolutionary medical advancements of our time. It turns out that medical cannabis doesn’t work by getting you high. Instead, it works by way of a hitherto unknown system in the body that affects how almost every other system works: the endocannabinoid system (ECS), named after the cannabis plant.

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The endocannabinoid system consists of a group of specialized receptors in the brain and peripheral nervous system of all vertebrates. It is involved in a variety of physiological processes including appetite, pain sensation, nausea, or mood, memory, and inflammation.

In 1964, Dr. Ralph Mechoulam identified tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as the chemical in marijuana responsible for making people feel high. But that didn’t fully explain how cannabis quelled nausea or seizures, dampened nausea, or lessened pain. Experiments showed it didn’t work with the endorphin system or any other known system. Where were cannabinoid receptor sites in the brain?

It turns out, just about everywhere. In the late 1980s, scientists found receptor sites all over the brain that reacted to THC. These cannabinoid receptors, CB1 as they called them, were more abundant in the brain than any other kind of neurotransmitter receptor.

Then scientists discovered a second type of cannabinoid receptor, which they called CB2 as opposed to the first type, CB1. While CB1 receptors are mostly in the brain and central nervous system, CB2 receptors are mostly in the peripheral cells, especially immune system cells. To a lesser extent, CB1 receptors are also in the lungs, blood vessels, muscles, digestive tract, and reproductive organs. CB2 receptors are also in the liver, bone marrow, pancreas, and brainstem. In other words, they’re all over!

Here’s how they work: The cells in your (and your pet’s) brain and nervous system communicate with each other by means of various types of chemicals called neurotransmitters. Specific chemicals are released from the end of one nerve cell, travel across a tiny gap, and fit into a receptor site on the beginning of the next nerve cell.

Once the next nerve cell is activated, that cell releases its own endogenous cannabinoids, which travel backward across the same gap to the nerve cell that released the neurotransmitter, attach to a cannabinoid receptor on that nerve cell, and tell the nerve cell to cut down on releasing the neurotransmitter. It acts sort of like a thermostat.

The body produces its own neurotransmitters (called endogenous neurotransmitters) and its own endogenous cannabinoids. Each of the types of neurotransmitters and cannabinoids fit only in certain receptors because the receptor is shaped so it only accepts certain shaped chemicals, like a lock and key.

Many drugs work because they have the exact or nearly exact shape as a particular endogenous neurotransmitter. For example, the active
chemical in opium is morphine, which has a chemical shape similar to endorphins, a type of feel-good chemical the brain makes when the body feels pain. Morphine locks into those same endorphin receptor sites and alleviates pain.

But why would our bodies have receptors for a plant chemical? It turns out that just as we naturally produce our own endorphins, we also naturally produce our own endogenous cannabinoids: endocannabinoids or what some have dubbed our “inner cannabis.” Scientists named the first endocannabinoid they discovered “anandamine,” from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” meaning bliss.

The plant chemicals (phytochemicals) found in cannabis closely mimic the body’s endogenous cannabinoids. Thus, when cannabinoids from cannabis interact with cannabinoid receptors, they elicit the same response as would the body’s endogenous cannabinoids. No wonder cannabis can impact so many body systems!