When you read or discuss the benefits of cannabis, you will almost always hear about its anti-inflammatory characteristics. The profound anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis are being taken seriously as people start to steer away from large pharmaceutical medications to natural, and often healthier remedies.
As we continue to better understand the endocannabinoid system, we increasingly observe the benefits THC and CBD offer when administered together. The amount of THC versus CBD found in a given cannabis product is also known as the THC to CBD ratio. Understanding this ratio can be helpful to the end user, communicating if a product has been optimized to focus on relieving pain, anxiety, or inflammation.
At the end of the day, we feel healthiest when our bodies are not struggling to achieve chemical balance. And the biggest offender and cause of the pain we experience with infection or disease is inflammation.
Homeostasis and the Endocannabinoid System
Understanding how to build a product line around various concentrations of THC and CBD starts with a solid understanding of our endocannabinoid system (ECS). Many cannabis products marketed for healing, recovery, and anxiety relief normally contain both Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). This is because these two cannabinoids work very well together to help the endocannabinoid system regulate a host of internal processes such as:
- Immune response (inflammation)
- Body temperature
These physiological, chemical, and neurological systems within the body are always trying to achieve homeostasis. This word has Greek origins and translates roughly to “same” and “steady.” Our bodies are constantly balancing internal processes, especially when we are bombarded with external/environmental and internal stimuli.
These stimuli include any damage to the human body including bacterial, viral, or physical (such as a splinter in your skin or a broken ankle.)
Inflammation: The Necessary Evil
When your body is injured or fighting off a virus or infection, it activates its immune response. After a physical break (such as a broken arm), the immune system floods the area with white blood cells (to battle infection), and then repair cells begin stabilizing and rebuilding the break. When you are fighting a viral infection, your immune system reacts in nearly the same fashion. It uses the inflammatory process to call your white blood cells into action to eliminate the virus. For example:
- If you get a viral or bacterial infection, it’s often accompanied by a fever.
- Should you accidentally slam your finger in a car door, it swells and feels very warm to the touch.
- A bacterial infection such as E. coli (food poisoning) or streptococcal pharyngitis (strep throat), will again result in a fever.
All of these are instances where your body uses its immune response and inflammation to heal and eliminate intruders. So as you can see, inflammation isn’t just normal – it’s absolutely critical to our survival.
Without inflammation (our immune response), our bones wouldn’t mend, most viruses would be fatal, and treating infections would be a daunting task. Thankfully, the healthy human body can achieve all of these things on its own, enhanced even more through our expanding understanding of medicine and biology.
Wait. Isn’t Inflammation a Bad Thing?
As with most things, that which can be used for good can also be a detriment if misapplied or abused. This idea is especially true regarding your immune response. When it’s performing as expected, it saves your life; when it’s confused or defective, it can cause significant pain and damage to your body.
Imagine your immune system as your personal, biological army. Much like an army, it performs an array of tasks including:
- Protecting your body from invaders (such as viruses and bacteria)
- After a natural disaster (like getting over a respiratory infection or breaking your leg), it sends cells to clean up and remove damaged and dead tissue
- It sends repair cells to fix and rebuild broken bone and muscle.
And just as with a real army, your immune system can inflict friendly fire or go rogue altogether. When this happens, we have a negative experience with inflammation.
Chronic Inflammation: When the Immune System Gets Angsty
Up to this point, we’ve discussed types of positive inflammation. Physical injury, viruses, and bacteria are considered acute inflammation. These are external threats to our physiological homeostasis that are temporary and manageable by our immune system and inflammatory response.
Chronic inflammation (“bad” inflammation) occurs when your immune system does not relent, resulting in a prolonged, systemic inflammation response within the body. The immune system could remain hypersensitive to a perceived threat, and continue its onslaught even after there is no real danger present. This causes continuous stress on the body and begins to break down and kill healthy cells and tissue.
Diseases Rooted in Harmful Inflammation
You may be very surprised to learn just how many diseases are the result of our own life-saving immune system going wrong. Some of these conditions are preventable, others are genetic and must be medically treated. The list of inflammation-based diseases includes:
- Diabetes – An inappropriate immune response destroys the beta cells within the pancreas. The body cannot manufacture it’s own insulin without these beta cells.
- Rheumatoid arthritis – Systemic inflammation resulting in the swelling of joints and breaking down of cartilage. RA creates an environment within the bloodstream that encourages atherosclerosis to develop, placing the patient at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Psoriasis – A skin disease where the immune system causes skin to regenerate at a much faster rate than needed, resulting in red, scaly, dry skin.
- Allergies – When the immune system is overly sensitive to a foreign substance or food, it triggers a (sometimes violent) inflammatory response. This results in swelling, redness, itching and can sometimes be very dangerous.
These are just a few common diseases caused by an inappropriate immune response. Medical scientists are currently researching if treating specific types of inflammation early on can help mitigate the damage caused by these types of diseases. One day, doctors hope to at least partially cure diseases that originate as a result of chronic inflammation.
THC and CBD: The Dynamic Duo
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) work together to alleviate inflammation and the associated pain using different tactics. And although the two cannabinoids work better together than apart, they operate very differently.
THC’s Role in Therapeutic Relief
We talked a bit about THC’s interaction with our endocannabinoid system in our article surrounding the decarboxylation process. In short, the THC molecule closely resembles the endogenous cannabinoid, anandamide. Much like the naturally occurring anandamide, THC activates the CB1 receptors that affect pain perception, appetite, and sleep.
Because THC activates the CB1 receptor, it’s considered a CB receptor agonist. A common metaphor would be to imagine a key and a lock. If the key fits, the mechanism unlocks and performs its function. And because the CB1 receptor helps the body alter pain perception, THC’s analgesic benefits have been used to manage chronic pain for decades in the United States, and for thousands of years around the world.
CBD’s Role In Therapeutic Relief
Although the CBD molecule is a poor fit for CB1 and CB2 receptors, its indirect effect on the endocannabinoid system is significant. There are several ways cannabidiol (CBD) interacts with and affects chemical processes within the body. We’ll dive into several, including:
- CBD acting as an antagonist to the CB1 receptor, partially impeding the psycoactive effects of THC.
- Its inhibition of the degradation of the endogenous cannabinoid anandamide, boosting natural cannabinoids levels.
- CBD (and it’s acidic form, CBDA) act as a COX-2 inhibitor or anti-inflammatory.
Cannabidiol – A Molecular Antagonist to CB1
Remember when we compared THC to a key that unlocks the CB1 receptor? Well, CBD loosely fits into the CB1 receptor like a key that will slide into the keyhole but will not turn or unlock it. When this occurs, a molecule is considered an antagonist of CB1. This means it temporarily blocks other molecules from activating the receptor, such as THC or anandamide.
In this way, CBD can partially mitigate the psychoactive effects of THC. This can be particularly useful if a patient has either:
- Taken too much THC and is not enjoying the exaggerated effects or;
- A cannabis processor is manufacturing a product focusing on medicinal benefits rather than simply providing a euphoric high.
CBD – Pain and Anxiety Relief
Although CBD can offer pain relief in the form of reduced inflammation, it can also have an indirect analgesic effect by boosting the levels of natural endocannabinoids in your system. This is accomplished by inhibiting an enzyme called FAAH from breaking down natural cannabinoids.
By impeding enzymes your body uses to lower anandamide levels, the concentration of endocannabinoids increases. This results in pain relief and a feeling of well-being. They don’t call anandamide the “bliss molecule” for nothing.
Incidentally, positive points of social and physical contact increase the body’s oxytocin production. This in turn causes the body to increase anandamide production as well. The cascade of oxytocin and anandamide that occurs during positive social experiences is often considered to be responsible for the feeling of being “in love.”
CBD by itself may not be Love Potion #9, but the potential to treat depression and anxiety by generating feelings of wellbeing has caught the medical industry’s attention.
CBD – The Anti-Inflammatory
Possibly the predominant reason CBD is frequently used for pain relief is due to its strong, anti-inflammatory effects. And scientists have identified how this mechanism works.
When your body perceives a threat or injury, it uses an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (expressed as either COX-1 or COX-2). This enzyme converts a molecule called arachidonate into prostaglandins – lipids that expand blood vessels at the site of injury or infection. Prostaglandins are hugely responsible for facilitating the inflammatory response. And COX-2 is thought to be the primary cyclooxygenase responsible for producing this compound.
COX-1 is responsible for homeostasis functions and synthesizing compounds that protect the gastrointestinal system. Since ibuprofen is a “non-selective” COX inhibitor, it reduces the activity of both COX-1 and COX-2. The downside to this is that in addition to reducing inflammation, it also reduces the body’s production of protective mucus in your stomach. Overuse of ibuprofen and other NSAIDs can result in stomach bleeding and ulcers.
In response to the side effects of a non-selective COX inhibitor, scientists set out to manufacture selective COX-2 inhibitors that specifically target inflammation. Incidentally, they have also discovered that CBD acts as a COX-2 inhibitor, which means it does not interfere with the gastro-maintenance roles performed by the COX-1 enzyme. Because of this, CBD is considered to be much safer than most over-the-counter NSAIDs.
THC and CBD: Why the Ratio Matters
As you see, both THC and CBD can play profound roles in natural pain relief and healing. And when administered together, their benefits are enhanced. In the end, the ratio of THC to CBD depends on the symptom you are treating.
Products with higher concentrations of THC may be used for:
- Pain relief
- Appetite stimulation
- Treating depression
Products with higher concentrations of CBD tend to be used for:
- Treating immune and inflammation diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.
- Alleviating anxiety
- Assisting those with PTSD to manage their symptoms
- Managing certain types of epilepsy
The ratio of cannabinoids in your product should reflect the desired end result and effect.
A Final Thought on Cannabinoid Concentrations
Savvy cannabis processors understand the importance of clearly labeling their products. And they are making strides in communicating the expected effects of any given cocktail of cannabinoids and terpenes. For the more experienced cannabis user looking for more than a righteous high, a 1:1 THC to CBD ratio could be a good place to start.
For patients dealing with inflammation or pain who have little experience with THC, a higher concentration of CBD partnered with a lower concentration of THC may be better. This may appear on a label as “CBD to THC 3:1”, for example. For every three parts of CBD, there is only one part of THC. This would dampen the psychoactive effects while increasing anti-inflammatory benefits.
Using lab-grade cannabis processing equipment, nearly any combination of cannabinoids and terpenes can be brought together, depending on the cannabinoid and terpene profiles characterizing the flower used for processing.
Scientists Are Still Learning
The science is still out on how to dose cannabinoids for maximum effect. Cannabis manufacturers, scientists, and medical professionals continue to study the effects of cannabis compounds on the endocannabinoid system, as well as how they interact with other physiological systems.
Sometimes the body loses its balance when trying to deal with injury and disease, and cannabinoids such as THC and CBD may allow us to right the molecular scales and find relief. Different concentrations of cannabinoids will affect people differently, as we all have nuances to our internal systems. Luckily, creative cannabis manufacturers continue to develop new products designed for the relief of much of what ails us in life.
It’s an exciting time where the potential for effective, natural medicine is gaining significant momentum. Even so, it’s important to remind customers to always consult a physician before taking a new drug or supplement – this is just as true for cannabis products.
*This content is for educational purposes only and not to provide medical advice.