Enhancing Education Around Cannabis Chemistry

Written by Laurel Friesen

Understanding How Truly Unique and Complex Cannabinoids Are

Understanding the complexities of body chemistry and how plant- and lab-derived compounds interact is crucial for determining if certain substances hold objective medical benefits. One system that is essential to fully understand if we want to see cannabinoids take their place in mainstream medicine is the endocannabinoid system (ECS) — the system of endogenous lipid-based retrograde neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors throughout the body.

The discovery of the ECS by scientists in 1988 dramatically expanded the potential for cannabinoid use in medicine. [1] However, the time between their discovery and the present day means our complete understanding of this system is still extremely limited, though not for a lack of trying.

Without a sufficient volume of research and the removal of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, peer-reviewed research for medical professionals and consumers will continue to be difficult to obtain. And without medical institutions actually making the ECS part of routine curriculum, healthcare professionals cannot currently point to imbalances within the ECS and ways to correct them.

The future of cannabinoid use in medicine depends on research institutions being able to fully understand these molecules and how they interact with other chemicals like terpenes, and determining which claims can be labeled as anecdotal evidence and which have clinically validated medical, scientific merit.


Difficulty Presented by the Uniqueness and Complexity of Cannabis and the Endocannabinoid System

As far as plant chemistry goes, over 100 cannabinoids and at least 400 unique terpenes have been identified but cannabinoid chemistry is still not thoroughly understood. [2] Each person has an ECS, and cannabinoids can interact with each system uniquely muddling recommendations for use. [3] Moreover, varying numbers of receptors, endogenous cannabinoid levels, and enzymes can alter an individuals’ experience. Correspondingly, what works for one person may not work for another, with impacts varied per cannabinoid type, dosage, or route of administration.


More Research on Terpenes and Cannabinoids is Needed

As cannabis chemistry is so complex, it requires much more research to understand how terpenes and cannabinoids interact. Similarly, research from accredited universities and research institutions regarding the ECS must be increased to determine how cannabinoids can be employed to serve conditions and medical needs. Correct dosage and delivery are critical components [3], and those using cannabis must be able to take their specific needs into consideration while determining which delivery method to employ.


Delivery Methods Can Impact Dosage Consistency

Presently, we know certain delivery methods can impact dosing consistency. For example, tinctures can be administered sublingually and membranes under the tongue enable cannabinoids to rapidly move to the bloodstream. However, this method lacks consistent absorption, meaning you might not get the entire dose.

Meanwhile, edibles are processed by the liver, where ingested cannabinoids are converted into other forms of cannabinoid compounds like 11-hydroxy-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Essentially, this means the effects will be different than other types of administration due to first pass metabolism. However, ingestible methods could prove effective as they provide a longer relief period, though they do need a longer time to take initial effect.

Topicals are used on the skin and may be effective in targeting local inflammation such as eczema and muscle pain. Used correctly, topicals can also help pain originating from the body’s dermatomes, which are areas of skin in which sensory nerves stem from a single spinal nerve. Headaches, elbow pain, and the like can actually originate from a specific part of the spine, so targeting dermatomes can be effective in pursuing pain treatment.

Inhalation methods via smoking and vaporizing can also offer relief. Although these types of administration provide more immediate relief and are easier to control dosing, they do not produce those same long-lasting effects and offer the potential to introduce carcinogens into the body.

Finally, there is some evidence that people experiencing asthma may benefit from certain terpene and cannabinoid combinations. In one study, after administration of delta-1-THC, study participants saw improvements in breathing even without typical asthma medications. [4] Other research has further demonstrated the human airway may dilate as a result of cannabis inhalation or other administration of delta-9 THC. [5]


A Roadmap for Cannabinoid Preventative Care

Currently, cannabinoid use primarily relies on anecdotal evidence, but clinical research has progressed far enough for the FDA to approve several cannabis-derived and synthetic cannabis-related drug products, specifically Marinol™ and Epidiolex™. Although these studies only examine two specific cannabinoids for very specific indications, more research that garners mainstream medical approval could pave the way for cannabinoids to be used more widely in preventative care, including as a way to treat inflammation [6] and provide more restful sleep [7].

Due to its federally illegal status, cannabis studies must be viewed for their potential, and peer-reviewed research is still invariably crucial to underscore how cannabinoids might aid in various conditions like insomnia. For example, folks who need more sleep know it is beneficial for their health and may notice that with cannabis, they are able to sleep longer and feel more rested. However, this approach is individual-dependent, making it difficult to prescribe cannabinoids for sleep in a medical setting without peer-reviewed clinical research. For people using cannabinoids in this way, an evidence-based understanding of product potency is required to move beyond anecdotal evidence.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is non-intoxicating, and research has pointed to its potential as a supplement to support sleep as well as reduce conditions like pain and anxiety. [8,9] However, CBD uses are varied, meaning correct dosage is vital. Due to lack of regulation, many CBD products may be underdosed compared to what is advertised. Intoxicating cannabinoids further exemplify the necessity for proper studies and dosing guidelines beyond simple trial and error. For instance, intoxicating cannabinoids like THC can be used as supplements, but as the dose increases, of course the intoxicating effects concomitantly increase. Like CBD, these compounds can be explored for pain management, anxiety support, improved sleep, and appetite. Due to the entourage/ensemble effect, they could also be used in lower doses and combined with additional cannabinoids (or terpenes) to encourage a blended effect to benefit individuals with particular needs.


Introducing Cannabis Education into the Mainstream

Currently, more research by accredited institutions and a fundamental understanding of the ECS by medical professionals is necessary to properly determine where and how cannabinoids fit into medical recommendations. Arriving at this destination requires several structural changes and the proper incentives for research universities to study these compounds more extensively. The biggest way to provide this incentive is to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, which would open the door for more public universities to obtain funding to study these cannabinoids.

Once researchers have the ability to study cannabinoids more freely, a related issue arises regarding which research is trustworthy. The term “peer-reviewed research” is not synonymous with “accurate research.” Be alert for papers that reference a “cure,” as this is a sure sign of misleading data or analysis.

As previously discussed, everyone’s body chemistry is different, so it’s important not to over-generalize study findings because, often, the sample population evaluated is small and likely does not represent the vast majority of people. Keep a close eye on articles or studies that claim a particular substance works for everyone. Without caveats, it is safe to assume the paper has structural issues with its data collection or methodology.

Studies from the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health’s findings about potential cannabis synergy [10] and combining cannabinoids [11] are a good basis for comparison, as are the National Library of Medicine’s paper on lessons from cannabis-based medicines [12].

Cannabis and other cannabinoids are not a panacea. Combinations of terpenes and cannabinoids might not work very well together, causing other treatments or trial and error with cannabinoids and terpenes to be necessary. However, we won’t know until we can properly study these compounds the same ways that we study other substances to determine their viability for medical treatment. In their role as medical aids, I believe cannabinoids will prove to work just as well as, if not better than these other substances given the same testing and application opportunities.


About Lo Friesen

Lo Friesen started Heylo to help anyone get more out of life. Heylo creates cannabis vapes and concentrates made with high-quality cannabis flower and rigorous extraction standards to help consumers achieve greater control over their experience. Lo’s passion for cannabis extraction started after college when she began learning more about the medical uses for cannabis. Using her knowledge of chemistry and success in clinical research, Lo set out to create a product that goes beyond THC content and delves into the unique qualities of the plant, specifically utilizing rare terpenes and cannabinoids.



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About the author

Laurel Friesen

Laurel Friesen obtained a degree in Environmental Chemistry from Northwestern University in 2013. After working in a gastroenterology lab and contributing research with renowned Dr. John Pandolfino at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Laurel left the medical field to explore the intersection of chemistry and business. Laurel joined Eden Labs, a well-established extraction equipment manufacturer, in July of 2015 to build their Research and Development department. Leading a team of 5 people she managed the development of Eden Labs’ newest systems, the FX2 Supercritical CO2 Extractor.

Laurel’s experience with Eden Labs inspired her to pursue her own processing license in Seattle. Mother Earth Cannabis Extracts became licensed by the State of Washington in January of 2017. The company now has 3 employees in a facility located in SODO, Seattle, Washington.

Laurel is committed to education and facilitates community engagement by hosting educational events at her facility including public tours, seminars, and hosting American Chemical Society – Cannabis Chemistry Division events. Her mission is to enable cannabis users with as much information as possible and to enable active and engaged lifestyles alongside cannabis consumption.

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