The Healing Benefits of Cannabis

The wellness industry is tapping into the benefits that alternative healers have utilized for a long time, flooding the market with products infused with these once-taboo botanicals. DANA SHAW

With THC now legal for recreational use in 11 states and counting, and CBD being hawked everywhere from high end department stores to the corner bodega, people are seeking out the healing benefits of cannabis more than ever.

After decades of being systematically demonized, cannabis has reached a tipping point in the United States. The wellness industry is tapping into the benefits that alternative healers have utilized for a long time, flooding the market with products infused with these once-taboo botanicals. But how exactly do these products work, and are they worth the hype?

Cannabanoid receptors exist throughout the body as part of the central nervous system, and the immune system, and when cannabis is ingested, it interacts with these systems.

“The compounds in cannabis act like a break on the signaling system between the cells,” explained Dr. Dale Deutsch, professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Stony Brook University. “It’s like a speed bump in the road — it slows down the transmission.”

This slowing down in the communication of the cells has many healing effects for our minds and bodies.

CB1 receptors exist in the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors are in the immune system. If the immune system is inflamed, and a cannabis compound binds to the CB2 receptor, it will quiet the inflammation, helping with aches and pains. Or, if the nerves are activated and cannabis compounds bind to CB1 receptors, it can have a calming effect on stress responses.

There are 110 cannabanoids in the cannabis plant, but the two most active are THC and CBD. THC is the compound in cannabis that “gets you high,” while CBD has no psychoactive effects.

Even though many of the benefits of cannabis have been understood for millennia, in the United States, it has been a misunderstood plant. Nic Stephenson, co-founder of OHHO CBD company based in Bedford, New York, used to work in the pharmaceutical industry, and she believes that the reason cannabis wasn’t sufficiently researched was because it wasn’t something that could be owned.

“The pharmaceutical industry wants proprietary drugs that are exclusive,” she said, “because that’s how they make money. So they weren’t interested in cannabis because it was available to everybody.”

Still, from supporting cancer patients to easing glaucoma, anecdotal evidence continued to build a case for the health benefits of cannabis. Arguably the biggest breakthrough came in the late 1990s when the Stanley Brothers of Colorado pioneered research on the effects of the CBD compound on young Charlotte Figi, who suffered from crippling seizures related to a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet’s syndrome. Ms. Figi’s seizures were quelled by the use of CBD oil, so much so that her mother weaned her off of other anti-seizure medications.

With that body of vernacular research, CBD and THC experienced a surge of interest for medical as well as recreational use. Now, the wellness industry is bursting with products that claim to harness the benefits of the herb. But most dyed in the wool cannabis aficionados are cautious to jump too quickly into any value added products, opting instead to source pure hemp oil or flower.

“A CBD oil is the most universal product,” said David Falkowski, founder of Open Minded Organics in Bridgehampton. “You can use the oil under your tongue for rapid onset. But the same oil can be used topically. If you went jogging and your knee hurt, you could take the oil orally or topically. Or you could put it in the bath with Epsom salts. Sometimes you feel like your nerves are screaming, and this will calm everything down.”

Mr. Falkowski started moving his family farm toward hemp growing in 2017, as New York State was opening licensing applications to hemp growers and processors. With a strong foundation in mushroom cultivation and the powerful healing benefits of mushroom extracts, hemp was a natural extension for Mr. Falkowsi. But as he saw products popping up claiming to cure everything from wrinkles to depression, he kept his focus on the purest form of the herb.

“We focus on minimally processed hemp extracts that respect the mother herb,” Mr. Falkowski said. “We want as complete an extract as possible.”

That’s because the many active compounds in the herb interact with each other. It’s called the “entourage effect.” So isolating one compound, like CBD, as opposed to extracting the hemp oil in its entirety, would logically limit its efficacy.

“It’s not about what we put in there, but what we don’t take out,” Mr. Falkowski said. “That’s where quality lies with our cannabis products.”

These extracts are called full spectrum products because they contain all the aspects of the herb. But at both Open Minded Organics and OHHO, they are in the hemp business. They’ve cultivated strains of cannabis that are extremely low in THC. That’s why CBD products may help with inflammation or anxiety or sleep issues, but they don’t have the same effect as smoking a joint.

Still, there’s a wide range of efficacy, and it’s hard to know what’s going to work best for you. The best approach, as with anything you put in or on your body, is to know what’s in it.

“People are paying a premium to have their products infused with CBD,” Mr. Falkowski said, “but you have to know what the active ingredient is. I’ve seen labels where the active ingredient is white willow bark, which is a natural form of aspirin. The active ingredient should be CBD or other cannabanoids.”

You can find out what exactly you’re consuming by scanning the QR code on the product, which is required in most states.

Of all the beauty products on the market, Ms. Stephenson said that the best beauty remedy of all is a good night’s sleep. And that’s an area where CBD can be extremely helpful.

“Sleep is the most important beauty benefit,” she said. “And one in three Americans can’t sleep. It’s a real problem. A good night’s sleep will help heal and restore the skin and the body. Sleep is fundamental for a beauty routine, and many members of our OHHO team take CBD before bed to settle down to sleep.”

The OHHO body balm, which is packed with CBD but also has essential oils and St. Johns Wort, can be applied all over the body, and is especially effective when rubbed into the joints. As a ritual, the body balm contributes to a sense of relaxation through the simple act of applying it, improving circulation and bringing blood to the surface, and also just giving yourself a little care.

The effect on stress levels, said Ms. Stephenson, is also a major contributor to health and beauty benefits. Relaxing the muscles of the face and the unclenching of the jaw are natural ways to reduce wrinkles. And calming the mind and slowing the thoughts can soften your reactions.

“The anger reaction where you’re already slightly on edge — that feeling of heat — it affects the nervous system,” she said. “Having things that support you in getting out of that state of alarm are hugely advantageous to the body’s overall wellness.”

Proponents of the healing benefits of cannabis hope that the new laws around marijuana, as well as a general trend towards cultural acceptance, will help to remove the stigma of the herb.

“This is another tool in your toolkit,” Ms. Stephenson said. “This industry is successfully addressing a new way to get you back to homeostasis.”