Health Benefits of Medical Marijuana

Updated on January 25, 2019.  Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer

health benefits of marijuana

Health Benefits of Medical Marijuana

Marijuana. Pot. Ganja. Mary Jane. Whackatabacky. The names are countless, but they all refer to the same familiar substance: cannabis. This plant is best known today for the “high” it produces, but it has actually been used as a medicine by civilizations around the world for thousands of years. Although it has been criminalized in recent history and is still illegal in many parts of the world, more and more people today are using marijuana for its many medicinal benefits.

How Marijuana Works

Marijuana contains chemical compounds called cannabinoids, which activate cannabinoid receptors in our cells. This activation, in turn, affects the neurotransmitters that are released in the brain and influences a wide variety of body processes. The two most well-known cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which produces a “body high,” and cannabidiol (CBD), which produces a “cerebral high.”

Types of Marijuana

Marijuana strains fall into one of three groups:

  • Indica strains, which are higher in THC and effective at relieving stress and anxiety
  • Sativa strains, which are higher in CBD and provide increased energy
  • Hybrid strains, which produce effects that fall somewhere between indica and sativa, depending on which characteristics they inherit from their parent strains

Within each of these groups, a large number of strains exist. Each strain has a different concentration of cannabinoids and, as a result, produces different effects. Speak with your physician to figure out which strain will best suit your needs.

How Can One Drug Provide so Many Health Benefits?

One of the reasons marijuana provides so many health benefits is because its cannabinoids interact with the receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system, which regulates a variety of important functions like sleep, mood, pain control and immune response. Normally, the body produces its own type of cannabinoids, endocannabinoids, to bind with these receptors, but when there aren’t sufficient quantities of these endocannabinoids, the cannabinoids of marijuana can be used as a replacement to keep these functions working properly.

Below are a few of the health benefits that marijuana can provide:

  • Keeps Skin Looking Youthful

Our skin is constantly bombarded and damaged by free radicals, which are harmful compounds found in UV rays and pollutants. Cannabis, which is rich in antioxidants, can neutralize these harmful compounds and protect our skin from damage.

marijuana skin care

As we age, our skin secretes less oil and becomes drier as a result. The endocannabinoid system regulates oil secretion, and marijuana is thought to help maintain the secretion and keep our skin moisturized as we grow older.

Although no study has yet been conducted on the long-term effects of cannabis on aging skin, marijuana has been effective in treating dry skin conditions like eczema.

  • Regulates Blood Pressure

Some researchers believe that marijuana can lessen hypertension, a serious condition that can lead to cardiovascular disease. It was discovered that some compounds in marijuana bind with cannabinoid TRPV(1) receptors, producing hypotensive effects.

  • Helps Maintain Healthy Body Weight

Some studies have found a positive correlation between marijuana use and healthy body weight. One 2010 study concluded that marijuana consumers had thinner waistlines than those who abstain from the substance, and a study in an Inuit community found pot smoking use to correlate to lower BMI. These reports also concluded that pot smokers are 30 percent less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

Although better known for causing hunger, some studies suggest that cannabis may actually help suppress your appetite. In one experiment, researchers administered the cannabinoids CBD and THCV to mice and observed that it increased their expenditure of energy by increasing their metabolism.

  • Strengthens Bones and Protects Joints

One of the many functions regulated by the endocannabinoid system is the formation of bones and protection against age-related bone diseases like osteoporosis. Both THC and CBD are involved in maintaining bones, and CBD has even been shown to improve the healing of fractured bones.

Additionally, researchers have found that cannabis can provide relief from joint pain and can help to protect the nerves in joints.

  • Reduces Inflammation

Several studies have concluded that cannabinoids have anti-inflammatory properties. One study administered THC to mice, which caused the death of T cells and dendritic cells, which in turn led to suppression of the immune system. These results suggest that THC may be beneficial in situations where the immune responses should be dampened, such as with autoimmune diseases and graft rejection. This application of THC could have a far-reaching impact, as some researchers believe that chronic inflammation is a possible cause of many aging-related diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

  • Reduces Migraines

In one study, 121 patients diagnosed with migraine headaches were given medical marijuana. Patients found that the number of migraines they experienced per month decreased from 10.4 to 4.6 with the use of cannabis, and 14 patients reported that the migraines vanished completely.

  • Protects the Brain from Trauma

Researchers discovered that marijuana has neuroprotective properties, which means it can protect the brain from injury. In fact, leading Harvard researcher Lester Grinspoon even wrote an article to the NFL suggesting that its players consume cannabis to combat head trauma.

marijuana brain protection

  • Could Prevent Cancer

We all have cancer cells somewhere in our body at any given time. Studies show that THC helps to increase the production of ceramide, a molecule which kills cancer cells. CBD is thought to help prevent cancer cells from spreading.

  • Reduces Pain From Chemotherapy

Cannabis is known to provide relief for one of the most unpleasant treatments — chemotherapy. It lessens chemotherapy patients’ pain and nausea, and increases their appetite.

  • Inhibits Tumor Growth

Marijuana doesn’t just lessen the side effects of chemotherapy — it can also treat cancer itself. Researchers in Spain observed that THC causes cancer cells in the brain to die, in a process called autophagy. In this experiment, mice with human tumors were given THC, which induced autophagy and slowed the rate of growth of the tumors. When given to two human patients with aggressive tumors, similar results were found. Researchers at Harvard had similar success reducing lung tumors implanted in mice — in three weeks the tumors shrunk in half.

  • Relieves Neuropathic Pain

Marijuana is thought to lessen the pain of patients with diseases that affect the nerves, such as diabetes and HIV. Researchers studied the effects of marijuana on 16 HIV patients suffering badly from neuropathy. After just a week of smoking the substance, 10 of the patients reported more than a 30 percent reduction in their pain.

A 2012 report found that CBD is the main cannabinoid responsible for this effect, which reduces neuropathic pain by targeting A3 glycine receptors.

  • Helps Relieve Chronic Pain

One of medical marijuana’s most common uses is the treatment of chronic pain — a condition that 1.5 billion people around the world suffer from. Chronic pain is now a qualifying medical condition in many states, which means you can be treated by the drug.

  • Relieves Anxiety

Some of you may have heard that cannabis increases anxiety, which is sometimes true — but it depends on the content of THC and CBD. If you consume a strain high in THC, this will lead to anxiety and paranoia. But if you consume a strain low in THC but high in CBD, which counters the effects of the THC, you’ll feel more relaxed.

  • Relieves Depression

It is believed that marijuana can also relieve depression — a disorder affecting 350 million people worldwide. It acts in the same way many antidepressants do, but it doesn’t require daily doses. Its side effects are also mild compared to those of other antidepressants, which include insomnia, fatigue and sexual dysfunction.

  • Provides Relief From Muscle Spasms

Several studies have concluded that marijuana relieves muscle spasms, a symptom common to spinal cord injuries and conditions like multiple sclerosis. In a 2012 experiment, researchers gave synthetic cannabis a to group of 30 MS patients unable to walk, and administered a placebo to 30 others. The group that was given the cannabis saw a decrease in muscle spasms one third more than the placebo group.

  • Relieves Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are symptoms of countless illnesses, and cannabis is a powerful treatment for both symptoms. It’s more effective than pharmaceutical drugs and has fewer side effects.

nausea and vomiting

  • Reduces Nightmares

Although marijuana can disrupt sleep cycles, it has also been shown to reduce nightmares, which is particularly useful for those suffering from PTSD. In a study published in ScienceDaily, subjects given cannabis reported an average of 75 percent reduction of their PTSD symptoms.

  • Helps Relieve Seizures

Marijuana is now being considered as a treatment for epilepsy. A new drug called Epidiolex, which contains CBD, may become the first drug of its kind to be approved by the FDA to help treat children with the disorder. In a recent study, researchers administered the drug to 214 epilepsy patients — none of whom were responding to other treatments — and observed an average of 54 percent fewer seizures.

A Safer Recreational Drug Than Alcohol

Substituting the booze with the bud as your recreational substance is one of the easiest ways to improve your health. Cannabis has fewer side effects and the withdrawal effects are less unpleasant. Here are reasons that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol:

  • Alcohol kills people. Marijuana does not. In the U.S., over 30,000 deaths in 2014 were attributed to long-term health effects of alcohol use. Some researchers even calculated that one is 114 times more likely to die from the health effects of alcohol consumption than from marijuana consumption.
  • You can overdose from alcohol. No one has ever overdosed on marijuana. According to the CDC, alcohol overdoses are responsible for 1,600 deaths per year in the U.S. A marijuana overdose, on the other hand, has never even been recorded. American Scientist conducted a study on the toxicity of the common drugs by calculating the ratio of the lowest effective dose to the lowest fatal dose. The researchers found alcohol to be one of the most dangerous drugs on the list — with a ratio of 10. Marijuana, on the other hand, was the most harmless of all. It was estimated that you’d have to consume 1,000 times the effective amount to die.
  • People spend more on alcohol-related health costs. A study found that alcohol users spend an average of $165 per year on alcohol-related health expenses, where marijuana users spend just $20.
  • Alcohol is known to cause cancer. Marijuana is not. Alcohol is linked with cancer in numerous organs, including the esophagus, stomach, liver, colon and prostate. Marijuana, on the other hand, is not linked with any type of cancer. A study in 2006 even found that cannabis smokers had lower incidences of lung cancer than non-smokers.
  • Alcohol has calories. Marijuana doesn’t. Not only will you ingest fewer calories when using marijuana, the drug is even thought to boost your metabolism.
  • Cannabis can help you cut back on alcohol. It has been found that consuming marijuana can help alcoholics kick their habit more effectively than with traditional treatments. Alcoholism is thought to disturb the endocannabinoid system, suggesting that alcohol addicts could benefit from cannabis. Tod Mikuriya, a longtime advocate of marijuana to treat alcohol addiction, conducted a study that administered cannabis to 92 patients with alcohol dependence. All of the patients found the treatment either “effective” or “very effective,” and nine were even able to abstain completely from alcohol for more than a year.

A Safe Alternative to Opioids

If you’re experiencing chronic pain, you and your physician may want to consider medical marijuana as a substitute for opioids. Marijuana, unlike opioids, is not addictive, and there’s no risk of overdose. In fact, reports show that states with medical cannabis laws have 25 percent fewer opioid-related deaths than those states without. It is thought that many of these deaths are a result of opioid prescriptions, and when medical cannabis becomes legal in a state, many patients opt for the safer alternative.

Marijuana Myths

In addition to sharing some health benefits of cannabis, we’d like to dispel a few myths about its harmfulness:

  • It damages your lungs. Many assume that inhaling marijuana causes lung damage, but research suggests the opposite. In a study that measured the lung function of tobacco and cannabis smokers over the course of 20 years, researchers found that, while the smokers’ lung function decreased, subjects who smoked low to moderate amounts of marijuana actually experienced an increase in breathing capacity over time.
  • It damages your brain. Although researchers did find a “very small” impairment in memory and learning of long-term marijuana consumers, they didn’t observe the substance to cause any brain damage. In fact, one study found that marijuana actually protects brain cells by reducing the release of intracellular calcium.
  • It is a gateway drug. It is true that most heroin and cocaine addicts started off by taking marijuana, but most marijuana users don’t actually go on to use other drugs. In 2009 3 million Americans tried pot, much higher than the 617,000 who tried cocaine and 180,000 who tried heroin. As marijuana is one of the most popular and most easily obtainable controlled substances, it is often the first one people encounter.
  • Pot smoke causes cancer. While marijuana smoke does contain carcinogens, pot smokers tend to inhale much less of it than tobacco smokers do, and it’s most likely not enough to cause cancer.
  • Marijuana is addictive. Technically speaking, you can’t develop an addiction to marijuana. You can, however, develop a dependency, or a mental attachment to the substance. Although there are some psychological withdrawal symptoms associated with quitting cannabis — such as a slightly higher pulse — these are mild in comparison with the withdrawal symptoms experienced by alcohol and opiate addicts. Addiction is characterized by compulsive, out-of-control behaviors, which marijuana users do not exhibit.

non addictive

Consult a Medical Professional

For most medical marijuana users, the health benefits greatly outweigh the side effects. In some instances, however, patients may experience a negative reaction, so make sure to speak with your doctor and dispensary before trying. These professionals will help you find the strain and method of ingestion that will work best for you.

The health benefits of marijuana may already seem countless, but these findings are a mere teaser of the many exciting discoveries to come. Cannabis has over 400 chemical compounds, and we’re only just beginning to understand their potential. Marijuana’s illegal status and designation as a Schedule I Controlled Substance have sadly hindered research of the drug, but as more states and countries around the world legalize the substance, more researchers will have the opportunity to explore its medicinal possibilities.

If you’re interested in using marijuana as a health supplement and live in a state where it is legal, we encourage you to find a doctor in your area. And if you’d like to stay on top of the exciting developments in medical cannabis, consider signing up for our newsletter.