Old age – name one person who’s looking forward to it. Especially when what greets us is a litany of ailments such as creaking joints, high blood pressure and failing eyesight. But studies suggest that compounds found in the cannabis plant might just help slow down the process, by protecting our cells from wear and tear, and improving memory.
That’s not to suggest that cannabis is some kind of fountain of eternal youth, but the plant’s ability to stimulate the body’s endocannabinoid system is key to its potential to protect the body against premature ageing.
Endocannabinoid system and ageing
The endocannabinoid system is a complex network of receptors and cannabis-like chemicals in the body, that together form a kind of communication system regulating everything from pain, appetite, sleep, mood, inflammation, and reproduction. Scientists have noticed that the system’s optimum function, otherwise known as endocannabinoid tone, decreases with age particularly in the brain where there is a reduction in receptors and endocannabinoid levels.
While still to be confirmed in clinical trials, the theory postulates that introducing plant cannabinoids into the body can stimulate endocannabinoid signalling, and with it slow down symptoms related to ageing such as cognitive decline.
So let’s take a look at 7 ways cannabis might delay ageing, keeping us healthy and happy for longer.
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1. Cannabis could improve memory in old age
Yes you heard it right. A study at Bonn University recently found that low doses of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, actually improves memory and cognitive function in the elderly. But before we get too excited, we’re talking elderly mice, not humans. Three groups of mice were studied, aged 2 months, 12 months and 18 months, representing adolescence, middle and old age in humans. Each group were given low doses of THC, and then tested to see how fast they could solve a water maze and recognise familiar objects.
While scientists noticed a decline in cognitive function in the younger mice, the oldest age group’s scores improved so much that they matched those of the drug-free, healthy youngsters. The authors attribute this extraordinary improvement in memory and cognitive function to “restored hippocampal gene transcription patterns” and a normalising of the endocannabinoid system, suggesting that “restoration of CB1 signaling in old individuals could be an effective strategy to treat age-related cognitive impairments.” So for the older population, a little bit of weed might be just what the doctor ordered.
2. Cannabis could slow down the cell damage that leads to ageing
There is a natural wear and tear that comes with ageing, but this can become accelerated through excessive oxidative stress. When energy is created in a cell, waste products called free radicals are generated. These are incomplete molecules that rampage through the body stealing electrons from other proteins, causing damage to our DNA and other cell structures. The result is oxidative stress, a kind of biological rusting where there is too much oxygen in our tissues, leading to a host of age-related conditions such as chronic inflammation, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, autoimmune conditions, heart disease and strokes.
Our body does its best to protect us against the damage caused by oxidative stress by producing its own internal antioxidants. However, our polluted, stress-filled 21st century lifestyles mean that in order to stay healthy we need a little extra help. Fresh fruit and vegetables abundant in vitamins C and E are a good source of antioxidants, but scientists have discovered that the two principal compounds found in cannabis – THC and CBD – are even more potent.
So much so that the United States Government issued a patent in 1999 entitled ‘Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants,’ on the basis that this antioxidant/ neuroprotectant quality be a novel discovery. It states that cannabinoids are “useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.”
3. CBD protects our brains from age-related toxicity
An ageing brain has a tendency to accumulate excessive levels of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that is involved with nerve cell signalling. This can lead to glutamate toxicity, an overstimulation of the cell, and ultimately cell death. When glutamate causes cellular damage, it becomes an excitotoxin. Excitotoxicity is viewed as a potential cause of many neurodegenerative diseases of the central nervous system, as well as strokes and hearing loss.
In one study carried out on rats, the cannabinoid Cannabidiol (CBD) ‘was demonstrated to reduce hydroperoxide toxicity in neurons. In a head to head trial of the abilities of various antioxidants to prevent glutamate toxicity, cannabidiol was superior to both alpha-tocopherol and ascorbate in protective capacity.’
Another age related toxicity that researchers believe may bring about the onset of diseases like alzheimer’s and parkinson’s is excessive levels of iron in the body.
Researchers from Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil examined the relationship between high levels of iron and cell death in neurodegenerative diseases. In particular they studied the potential use of CBD, which they found may protect the rapid cell death associated with iron.
4. Cannabis can reduce chronic inflammation
It’s commonly held that chronic inflammation is at the root of many age-related illnesses. While it still remains unclear whether inflammation is a by-product or a direct contributing factor, bringing an excessive inflammatory response into balance again is generally believed to be of benefit.
Gary Wenk, PhD, professor of neuroscience, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University, has studied how to combat brain inflammation for over 25 years. He says, ‘PET imaging studies of humans have shown that after age thirty the brain gradually displays increasing evidence of inflammation. With advancing age, brain inflammation continues to worsen leading to a decline in the production of new neurons, called neurogenesis, that are important for making new memories’.
He coined the phrase ‘one puff is enough’ after suggesting that ingesting small amounts of cannabis over years can be enough to protect the brain against inflammation, saying ‘the evidence available from studies of humans and animal models of Alzheimer’s disease do indicate that long-term, low-dose daily exposure, during mid-life, to the complex blend of compounds found in the marijuana plant can effectively slow the brain processes underlying Alzheimer’s disease’.
Researchers have also found that CBD, the non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, could lessen the impact of inflammation on oxidative stress related conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and metabolic conditions.
5. Cannabis could help our joints and bones
You’re truly blessed in old age if you wake up in the morning pain free. In the US 22.7% of the population are affected by some kind of arthritis, the leading cause of disability. Many people use medical cannabis as an alternative to prescription pain medication like opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), but Professor Jason McDougall a scientist at Dalhousie University in Canada, believes that cannabinoids found in cannabis could actually ease the pain by repairing the damaged nerves in our joints.
In an interview with CBC News he describes how the nerves of an arthritis sufferer are like “wires that have been stripped of their coating.” He goes on, “they’re all bare, they’re all raw and responsible for feeling a lot of pain. What we hypothesize is that by locally administering these cannabis-like molecules to those nerves, we’d actually be able to repair them and reduce the pain of arthritis.”
Osteoporosis, a condition where bones become fragile and susceptible to fracture could also be a therapeutic target for plant cannabinoids. Not surprising when you consider that decreased endocannabinoid receptor expression can lead to the disease’s development.
In research conducted at Tel Aviv University CBD was found to make “bones stronger during healing, enhancing the maturation of the collagenous matrix, which provides the basis for new mineralization of bone tissue.” Researcher Yankel Gabet says, “after being treated with CBD, the healed bone will be harder to break in the future.”
6. CBD can reduce stress and anxiety
Stress is a killer. We all know it. It compromises our immune system, pushes up our blood pressure, can contribute towards diabetes, and cause depression. In a study carried out on animal models at Buffalo University, researchers found that chronic stress brought about a reduction in endocannabinoids, and caused subsequent depression like symptoms. Author Haj-Dahmane theorizes that “using compounds derived from cannabis — marijuana — to restore normal endocannabinoid function could potentially help stabilize moods and ease depression.” The next step for the team is to see whether CBD returns the depressed animals to more ‘normalised behaviour.’
Other studies show that CBD reduces anxiety levels due to its interplay with the 5HT1-A receptor, a serotonin receptor found throughout the brain and in high densities in the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala — all heavily involved in mood and anxiety disorders. Human trials have shown it to be particularly effective for social anxiety disorder.
7. Cannabis may regulate blood sugar levels
Over the last 30 years the number of diabetes sufferers have quadrupled to approximately 422 million worldwide. Type 2 diabetes, otherwise known as insulin resistance, can lead to blindness, renal failure, cardiovascular disease and strokes. But studies suggest that the cannabis plant might protect against the onset of the disease by lowering blood sugar levels.
A five year study conducted in the US on the effects of cannabis on fasting insulin and insulin resistance showed that regular cannabis consumers have 16% lower fasting insulin levels and 17% lower levels of insulin resistance than respondents who’d never used cannabis. The scientists also noted a smaller waist circumference in regular cannabis users; all of which suggests that the cannabis plant does have some kind of impact on the body’s metabolic system.
So, once again, the cannabis plant is full of surprises. We’re not suggesting that the retired population turn into hardened joint smokers, but it’s possible a sensible micro-dosing regime of organic certified cannabis extracts, might just be the ticket for prolonging good health and wellbeing.