As more states are legalizing medical marijuana, people are talking more about pros and cons. We’d like to think we’re offering a different slant to consider.
If you ask three of your closest friends what they think of medical marijuana, you’ll likely get at least six different answers. Because the concept of medical marijuana is so new, relatively speaking, this can still be a subject of controversy. To help cut through the noise, we’re going to provide a definition of medical marijuana, briefly go over how to dive into research about its pros and cons, and then focus on one very specific aspect of the conversation—how much it’s stressing your brain—before sharing information about other options.
Hang tight! Here goes.
What is Medical Marijuana?
According to one governmental site, the term “medical marijuana” refers to “using the whole, unprocessed marijuana plant or its basic extracts to treat symptoms of illness and other conditions.” There are certain chemicals found in this plant, called cannabinoids, that are also being researched for medical purposes. As of yet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved marijuana as a medicine, although they have approved two pill-form medications containing cannabinoid chemicals. That said, certain states have approved the use of medical marijuana, and that number is likely to grow.
The reason that the FDA hasn’t approved marijuana as medicine is that this agency requires clinical trials to be conducted on hundreds, even thousands, of people to determine how safe this would be, and how effective it could be as a medicine. In other words, researchers haven’t yet conducted enough large-scale studies to have a thorough enough understanding, from their perspectives, of benefits and risks of medical marijuana.
Recent statistics show that medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states, while recreational use of the drug is legal in ten (the latter being a whole other subject, entirely!). The state of New York is on the brink of making its decision, at the time of writing this post, while Guam just became the first U.S. territory to send legislation to its governor.
Times, they are a-changin’.
With these changes comes plenty of heated discussion, so we decided to explore the topic in depth. Before we begin, you might notice the word “Cannabis” used in other articles. And, that’s the actual name for the plant we typically call “marijuana.” They are one and the same.
Pros and Cons of Medical Marijuana
This site, for example, shares physicians’ perspectives on the subject, both for and against, as well as the opinions (again, both pro and con) of medical organizations and government officials in the United States. The site delves into health risks, how marijuana can address pain, its addictiveness (including whether or not it can serve as a gateway for stronger drugs), its effects on children and more.
For the sake of fairness, we’ll share one pro-medical-marijuana statement by a doctor and one against its usage. Then, we encourage you to explore what else the site has to offer as you make your own decisions about using medical marijuana. And, we also have a whole lot more to share in this post, so head right back here if you do dive into ProCon.org.
According to Sanjay Gupta, MD, there is “promising research into the use of marijuana that could impact tens of thousands of children and adults, including treatment for cancer, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s, to name a few. With regard to pain alone, marijuana could greatly reduce the demand for narcotics and simultaneously decrease the number of accidental painkiller overdoses, which are the greatest cause of preventable death in this country . . . Marijuana is a medicine, that should be studied and treated like any other medicine.”
On the flip side, Stuart Gitlow, MD shares the following opinion: “There really is no such thing as medical marijuana . . . The dangers and risks of marijuana use are well-known by the scientific community, even if they are downplayed by corporate interests wishing to get rich off of legislation. Apathy, lost productivity, addictive disease, deterioration in intellectual function, motor vehicle accidents, and psychosis are all among the negative outcomes. All from a product that has no demonstrated benefit. For nearly all conditions for which marijuana has purported benefits, we already have existing medications—safe medications—demonstrated to have value.”
Remember how, earlier on, we said you could ask three friends and get six opinions? We’d like to up that to “Ask three friends and get a dozen different opinions.” It’s that controversial right now. And, because medical marijuana is being considered for so many issues, from pain to nausea, anxiety and more, we couldn’t possibly summarize it all up in one post. So, we’re going to focus on one very specific issue connected to medical marijuana—its impact on the brain.
Marijuana and Its Impact on the Brain
MedicalNewsToday.com discusses the issue of marijuana and blood flow in a 2017 article. It reviews a study that consisted of 175 people, 75 who were habitual users and 101 who did not use marijuana. The participants in each groups were “matched as closely as possible for age and IQ levels.” Those who used were people who had used marijuana at least 5,000 times in their lifetimes, including “daily ingestion in the 60 days before they enrolled onto the study.” Then, before the study began, they were asked not to ingest for 72 hours.
Researchers used MRI technology to monitor the amount of blood being supplied to the brain, both overall and in specific locations. They also watched to see how much oxygen was delivered and how much the brain actually used (oxygen extraction fraction, or OEF), along with how quickly that oxygen was metabolized in the brain (cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen, or CMRO2).
Chronic users had brains that extracted more oxygen from the blood, and had a higher blood flow. One specific area where a higher blood flow was noted is called the putamen, which is known to be part of the brain’s reward system. So, this area of the brain is partially responsible for habits being formed.
This greater blood flow may indicate that THC, an ingredient in marijuana, dilutes blood vessels. Or it could mean that new blood vessels are formed through its use. Future research, an expert was quoted as saying, needed to study how this change in body function “may influence behavior.”
WebMD.com, meanwhile, discusses a study that shows how marijuana restricts blood flow to the brain. These researchers took brain scans of almost 1,000 “past and present” users, noting that their brain’s blood flow was “abnormally low” compared to 92 non-users. The lead researcher called the differences between the two groups “astonishing,” noting that nearly every brain area measured showed these results.
Blood flow was lowest in a certain brain area, though: the hippocampus, which is described as the “gateway to memory, to get memories into long-term storage.” It should be noted that, like the study described in Medical News Today, the users in the study were heavy users. In the study cited by WebMD, for example, these participants “have used marijuana so heavily that it has affected their health, their work or their family life.” They have in fact been diagnosed with cannabis use disorder and had sought out treatment for “complex psychology or neurological problems.”
By looking at just these two articles and the conflicting studies they cite, it’s clear that there’s a lot we don’t yet know about the effects of marijuana use, which correlates with the FDA’s reluctance to approve marijuana as a medicine. And, because both studies focused on heavy users, rather than more casual ones, it isn’t yet clear if the results—whether a greater blood flow to the brain than non-users or a lesser one—occur because of heavy marijuana use or simply ongoing use.
So, let’s tackle this topic from another angle: reasons why medical marijuana is prescribed in the states where it’s legal.
Medical Marijuana and Conditions
Leafly.com lists which conditions are legal to treat with medical marijuana, by state—and, even a quick glance will demonstrate how specifics vary by where a person lives. For example, in Alabama, this substance is only used, legally speaking, to treat “severe, debilitating epileptic conditions.” Compare that to Alaska, where these conditions are listed:
Whether a person ultimately decides to use medical marijuana or not for symptom relief is a personal decision that should be made with guidance from his or her doctor. Having said that, we’d like to suggest yet another way to look at this multifaceted topic.
Exploring Symptoms Versus Causes
According to MedicineNet.com, a symptom is “Any subjective evidence of disease. In contrast, a sign is objective. Blood coming out a nostril is a sign; it is apparent to the patient, physician, and others. Anxiety, low back pain, and fatigue are all symptoms; only the patient can perceive them.”
Then there are causes, things that are the sources of symptoms. Our point?
Medical marijuana isn’t prescribed to cure the cause of a condition. Rather, it’s given to relieve symptoms. So, whether you do or don’t take this substance for symptom control, it can make sense to find ways to boost your overall health—which, in some cases, would likely also help to relieve symptoms. In other words, it makes sense to treat the causes of health challenges, rather than simply masking or managing symptoms.
An entire article in PsychologyToday.com focuses on treating causes, not symptoms, and we’d like to include a quote: “I can’t emphasize enough that your symptoms are an indication that something significant is not right . . . Just like a warning light on your vehicle’s dashboard letting you know that something in your car is not functioning properly or needs attention. You wouldn’t just turn off the indication and ignore what is wrong. Yet, this is what many people do daily by taking medication, food or alcohol to alleviate their symptoms.” As you probably know, we’re a big fan of exploring the gut-brain axis at Hardy Healthy Gut, and for maximizing our gut health to boost health, overall. This includes what we eat, as well as in what combinations. We cite an article from Healthline.com that offers this advice: “A number of foods such as oily fish, fermented foods and high-fiber foods may help increase the beneficial bacteria in your gut and improve brain health.” We also share tips on how to strategically pair foods, avoiding combinations that slow down our digestion or even cause one enzyme to cancel the benefits of another enzyme out. Significant amounts of research also show how good gut health can also help with anxiety. And now, we’d like to encourage you to read about our partnership with Amare, one that focuses on helping you to unlock the natural ability for change that our bodies are capable of. This program is called Project b3, and it will help guide you with tips and tools to put you on the path to a sustainable holistic lifestyle. First off, it’s FREE, with no costs associated with joining any of the online weekly webinar calls, so you can dial in with the experts and get all the information about how modulating your microbiome and improving your gut-brain-axis can help with mood, energy, focus, and, yes – weight.
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