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Is Cannabis Just The Beginning of a Botanical Medicine Movement?

Is Cannabis Just The Beginning of a Botanical Medicine Movement?

Published
April 24, 2020
What if cannabis just represents the beginning of a broader botanical medicine movement? In this blog we explore the implications of the changes cannabis has created in the context of plant medicine.

Beyond its diverse healing attributes, cannabis has changed the global conversation on medicine, wellness, and health. The discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) alone dramatically altered the fields of science and medicine. These advancements have also created a ripple effect for those who use the plant, galvanizing a deeper interest in botanical therapies in a greater way than ever before. 

By integrating cannabis into their healing regimen some people are able to move away from pharmaceutical preparations. Others use it to treat complex health situations that traditional medicine could not touch. Modern medicine gravitates toward the “active ingredients” of plants rather than the whole botanical and the multitude of functions its components may serve. The overwhelming interest in cannabis has taught us that there are alternatives to the standard way to view the healing process and that plants possess far more than just one active compound. 

Our bodies are made to use plants

The human body contains receptors that directly respond to cannabis on a pharmacological level. The discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the 1990s occurred when researchers injected THC-like molecules into various species and tracked their impact across the body. [1] It had falsely been believed that THC was the sole “active component” of cannabis. The discovery of the endocannabinoid system led to ongoing investigation of phytocannabinoids (within the plant) and endogenous cannabinoids (produced within our bodies), which all function to bring about homeostasis. Cannabis has the cunning ability to act on many ailments due to its strong influence on a variety of systems. Later discovery unveiled more than 200 cannabinoids within the plant, some of which have been identified, and others which have yet to be explored. [2]

The discovery of the endocannabinoid system led to ongoing investigation of phytocannabinoids (within the plant) and endogenous cannabinoids (produced within our bodies), which all function to bring about homeostasis.
endocannabinoid system overview

It’s a marvel of nature that we have systems within our bodies that plants directly act on. The endocannabinoid system came before the cannabis plant— not the other way around. [3] The same goes for the opioid receptors we also possess, named for the opium flower and its derivatives. Another example is Willow bark (Salix spp.) which inspired the discovery of aspirin, catalysing the later creation of around 100 nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. [4] Capsaicin, the “active component” in chili peppers which gives them their spicy punch, led researchers to uncover the TRP channels, which are instrumental in pain response and other functions within the body. This uncovered other plant products that act on similar channels such as horseradish, Szechuan pepper, and more. [5,6]

Botanicals brought us along the path to a deeper understanding of our own bodies. Without them it would arguably have taken decades longer to discover these systems and their pharmacological effects. And the exciting thing is that these profound Eureka! moments can happen again with something else. 

Different paths, same journey

Since our bodies are designed to receive the influential properties of plants, shouldn’t we use them? As with everything, diversity is essential to a dynamic and functional inner and outer ecosystem. If we can see more to botanical medicine than one lone, beneficial compound, then we surely open ourselves to the abundance of healing provided by Mother Nature. 

The evolutionary divergence of cannabis from its closest botanical realization, Hops (Humulus lupulus), happened some 27 million years ago. Hops provides a wide variety of medicinal benefits, with some potential synergies with cannabis, while also being uniquely impactful in its own right. Hops and cannabis share some of the same terpenes, such as myrcene, beta-pinene, alpha-humulene, and others. These along with other phytonutrients in both botanicals have potent antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-cancer, and neuroprotective properties. [7] Hops and cannabis separated for a reason. Why they did may go down as a great mystery of botany and evolution. But perhaps both plants had distinct missions in which to serve us and the planet. 

Respectful reverence for plant medicine

People often say that the general population is disconnected from plant medicine and must be reintroduced back to it. But this isn’t the case for all cultures. There are some exceptions, such as in Germany, where herbal medicine has stayed mainstream. The country maintains very high quality and standards for herbal medicine. [8] Indigenous groups across the world still carry on their traditional knowledge of plant medicine from one generation to the next. It was colonization and imperialism that tried to prevent them from using it and blocked access to this information. Modern medicine tries to verify what some of these groups already know, capitalizing on their knowledge in order to distill plant medicine into an “active component”. It must be noted that, “Many mainstream healers have gone to other countries to gather ancient knowledge only to come market it back to the descendants of the creators of that knowledge at a premium price.” (Learn more from Queering Herbalism

Unique cannabis chemovars and the indigenous knowledge associated with its use are constantly at risk of being misused and misappropriated, referred to as “biopiracy.” The diversity of plant botanicals and traditional wisdom must be protected on an ongoing basis. They are “invaluable assets determining global food security especially with expanding global population and climate change.” [9] Botanical allies provide important resistance to environmental stresses. Humans have learned the hard way that overpopulation, global pandemics, clearcutting land, and the abundant use of toxic fertilizers have negatively impacted natural habitats. This obviously also threatens the genetic diversity of food and plant medicine. (FAAT

Medicine by the people, for the people

One of the biggest advantages of plant medicine is that we can grow it ourselves. Because the cannabis movement was birthed from the fringes, we have an important opportunity to demonstrate an ideal way to cultivate the plant. Regenerative agriculture implements techniques that are carried out in accordance with the Earth, leaving it in a better state than which it was found. A multitude of plants and foods are grown in the same garden, each one carrying out a unique function for the betterment of the collective community. 

Botanicals are a dynamic part of the complex inter-weavings of a given system. Monocultures rarely exist in nature. The Entourage Effect applies to realms outside of the cannabis plant. We’re far more potent and effective in synergy than alone. And one of the most profound actions we can take for the planet and our health, is to grow our own food and medicine utilizing sustainable means of cultivation. It’s carrying out a millennium-old duty. And it’s also showcasing the type of future we want to have for the years to come. 


Get high, but diversify 

With all the cannabis hype, it is important to generate interest in the vast healing potential of other botanical medicines. Human ego fuels a botanical hierarchy. Cannabis is amazingly versatile, yet it isn’t the only plant on the planet. Yes, it has the power to revolutionize our health and our perspective on the world. But it isn’t a panacea and it doesn't cure in isolation. There are some folks it may not work well for. For others cannabis may be an adjunct therapy when adding other plants to their healing regimen. 

Plant medicine works in tune with our own bodies to inspire their own natural ability to heal. Be polybotanical. Have love for the mighty plant kingdom in all its forms. You don’t have to choose just one. Use cannabis and go for a walk or a hike. Let it guide your eyes to the vast world around you and the plant allies that you may have been walking past. They are here for our (respectful) use. Maybe under the influence of cannabis, you may notice a bit of dandelion or mint springing up from a crack in the ground. Or get high and play in your regenerative garden. You will reap far more than the fruits of your own labor. 

Botanical medicine gives us the ability to get into tune with ourselves. It can help us face our realities with different perspectives and open us up to a greater path to healing and self-discovery. You carry the torch. Plants just help light the way.

Curious about CBD? Explore some of the best programs in this niche of cannabinoids


Sources

  1. Pertwee, Roger. Cannabinoid pharmacology: the first 66 years. Br J Pharmacol., 2006
  2. Russo, Ethan. Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Br J Pharmacol., 2011.
  3. Russo, Ethan. The Case for the Entourage Effect and Conventional Breeding of Clinical Cannabis: No “Strain,” No Gain. Front. Plant Sci., 2019
  4. Desborough, Michael & Keeling, David. The aspirin story – from willow to wonder drug. British Journal of Haematology, 2017.
  5. Yang, Fan & Zheng, Jie. Understand spiciness: mechanism of TRPV1 channel activation by capsaicin. Protein Cell., 2017.
  6. Jardín, Isaac, et al. TRPs in Pain Sensation. Front. Physiol., 2017
  7. Nuutinen, Tarmo. Medicinal properties of terpenes found in Cannabis sativa and Humulus lupulus. European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, 2018.
  8. Joos, Stefanie, et al. Herbal Medicine in Primary Healthcare in Germany: The Patient's Perspective. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012.
  9. Riboulet-Zemouli K, Anderfuhren-Biget S, Díaz Velásquez M and Krawitz M. (2019). “Cannabis & Sustainable Development: Paving the way for the next decade in Cannabis and hemp policies.” FAAAT think & do tank. 



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Authored by

Sarah Russo

Sarah Russo is a longtime plant enthusiast and globetrotter. She got her degree in environmental studies and social justice, with a focus on plant medicine from the Evergreen State College. She is a freelance writer, consultant, and project manager with over 13 years of experience in the cannabis and herbal medicine space. Her main objectives are fighting for the right to use plants, implementing social justice approaches in the cannabis industry, as well as encouraging sustainable agricultural practices. She is currently based in Ibiza, Spain.

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