The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug – a violent narcotic – an unspeakable scourge – The Real Public Enemy Number One!
from “Reefer Madness,” 1936
When the movie “Reefer Madness” was made in 1936 it was anti-marijuana propaganda. When it resurfaced in the 1970s, it became something of a cult film, outdated and laughable to pro-marijuana users. In today’s world, the church group that first financed its production might well be shocked by our knowledge of the legitimate medicinal properties of the cannabis plant.
The body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS)
Among the many internal communication systems that exist in our bodies, there is an important and powerful one first identified in the 1980s. It is called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), named for the cannabis plant (marijuana) that led to its discovery.
The ECS involves the entire body in humans and animals. It plays a key role in creating and keeping wellness. It affects our organs, immune system, and nervous system. “By understanding this system, we begin to see a mechanism that could connect brain activity and states of physical health and disease.”i
There are three parts to the ECS:
- Cannabinoid receptors on the surface of cells that are sort of information antennas. They receive biochemical information in the form of molecules, and transmit the data to the inner cell environment. For example, one of the plant cannabinoids in marijuana is tetrahydracannibinol (THC), which interacts with cannabinoid receptors in the brain to give the user a “high.”
- Special molecules manufactured by the body, called endocannabinoids (endo = within), that are produced and used on an as-needed basis.
- Particular enzymes that break down endocannabinoids as soon as they are used, so they don’t linger or have lasting effects.
The role of the ECS
In our body, the ECS is not there to get us “high” but rather to keep us at baseline function, called homeostasis (homeo = same; stasis = stay). Our bodies like to remain in a healthy state, but the daily events and challenges of life can be stressful. The ECS registers when certain body systems respond to stress or injury by going into a higher gear (out of balance) that can strain its resources, so the ECS is activated, manufacturing endocannabinoids that ultimately return the body to its baseline resting state in which all parts work together in balance and harmony. Thus, our internal cannabinoids help us “survive in a quickly changing and increasingly hostile environment.”ii
Essential tremor and cannabinoids
What about using cannabinoids from the cannabis plant? If inhaled or ingested, they too act upon our cannabinoid receptors. I mentioned THC earlier as the source of feeling high. Another cannabinoid derived from marijuana called cannabidiol (CBD) has a different effect, and is being researched for medical uses. Whereas THC brings relaxation, sensory enhancement, reduced aggression, and often leads to a sense of hunger and fatigue, CBD lowers anxiety, reduces physical inflammation, relieves convulsions, decreases nausea, and can even lessen psychotic symptoms.
CBD studies have explored its application in multiple sclerosis (MS), alleviating chemotherapy side effects, reducing eyeball pressure (glaucoma), relieving pain, calming anxiety, and controlling tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease, strokes, brain and spinal injury—even essential tremor (ET). Animal studies show hopeful but mixed results. However, the problem with animal studies is that tremors are artificially created in experimental animals using a toxic chemical or surgical procedure. When CBD is administered and the animal regains more normal function (tremors diminish or disappear) it is really not possible to know if CBD will act the same way in humans with tremors.
However, many people with ET who hear about such promising developments are trying various forms and preparations of CBD, sometimes in combination with THC. Some of them experience lessening of tremors, others don’t (though there may be side benefits such as better sleep, etc.) A big issue is that ET is actually a “family” of brain abnormalities. One person’s tremors might look the same as another’s, but there are numerous ways in which abnormal tremor signals move through the brain. Thus, not every agent (drug or natural substance) will address a particular individual’s neurological variation.
A word of caution
At Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, we recognize and empathize with the feelings of having one’s life devastated by severe tremors and some of the other syndromes that can accompany them. We understand the powerful need to reclaim a normal life, and the willingness to try other means when pharmaceutical agents don’t help. That said, we highly recommend involving your neurologist and primary care professionals before trying CBD or other biochemical agent in order to use and monitor responsibly.