The cannabis plant is full of antioxidants. The US Federal Government even has a patent to the effect. Sounds great, right? But why should we care?
You’re probably a bit like me. You know that antioxidants are good for your health; turn to any article on nutrition and you’ll be regaled by a list of foods fit to brimming with the little fellas. But sometimes it feels like little more than a marketing ploy to get us to buy more stuff: high in antioxidant = must buy, but not sure why.
But since writing about medical cannabis, I keep seeing a recurring theme appear at a root of many illnesses and that is oxidative stress.
Ok, so it’s got the word stress in it, so it’s most probably going to be bad, and oxidative means rusty. So what? Our bodies are stressed out and full of rust? Sounds more like something that would happen to the tin man from the Wizard of Oz.
What is oxidative stress?
But no, seriously, oxidative stress is something that as we get older happens to our bodies, and the rate at which it happens actually determines how quickly we age and what age related illnesses we get.
So what is it exactly?
According to Nishi Whiteley in her book, ‘Chronic Relief: A Guide to Cannabis for the Terminally & Chronically Ill’, oxidative stress is “a natural process that occurs at the cellular level. When energy is created in the cell, waste products called free radicals are generated. Free radicals also result from stress and exposure to environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke and smog as well as ingested toxins such as fluoride.”
Free radicals – biological bad guys
Ok, ‘free radicals’ – so there’s another one of those terms that we’ve all heard of, but probably have no idea what they are.
Having studied political science, if something is called a ‘free radical’, it sounds like it should be pretty cool. Maybe a socialist libertarian, or a Che Guevara revolutionary type. But in biological terms, free radicals are actually quite destructive and more like molecular kleptomaniacs. They are incomplete molecules that rampage through the body stealing electrons from other proteins, causing damage to our DNA and other cell structures.
Osteopathic physician and author Dr Mercola describes how this can “create a ‘snowballing effect’ – as molecules steal from one another, each one becomes a new free radical, leaving a trail of biological carnage.”
The result: what Mercola terms a sort of ‘biological rusting’ where there is too much oxygen in our tissues, causing the body to perform poorly and leading to a host of age related diseases such as chronic inflammation, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, autoimmune conditions, heart disease and strokes, to name just a few.
That’s not to say oxidative stress is bad per se. It can serve to promote what Project CBD research associate Adrian Devitt-Lee calls “a cellular housecleaning,” in which “faulty cell parts – misfolded or aggregated proteins, dysfunctional mitochondria, etc. – are removed and replaced by newer, better-working components.”
However according to Devitt-Lee there is a tipping point where healthy house cleaning turns into cellular damage. “Too much oxidative stress is a signal for the cell to destroy itself in a regulated way, a process called apoptosis. It’s as if there’s a tipping point when oxidative damage exceeds the capacity of a cell to repair itself, so the cell pivots from survival mode and commits suicide for the betterment of the team.”
Antioxidants protect us from free radical damage
Our body’s response to mitigate the damage wreaked by free radicals is to produce – you guessed it – antioxidants. These act as electron donors to free radicals, preventing more electron pilfering from neighbouring molecules, thus protecting the body from damaging levels of oxidative stress.
We produce our own antioxidants in the body such as Glutathione, Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA) and CoQ10. Probably at some point these internally generated antioxidants were enough, but as causes of oxidative stress from external factors such as pollution, chemicals in our food and levels of emotional stress rise, we ourselves don’t produce enough antioxidants and must turn to other sources to give ourselves that protective antioxidant shield.
Cannabis plant – a powerful source of antioxidants
Food is a tremendous source for the ‘antioxidantally challenged’ amongst us, in particular fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables. Anything containing vitamins C and E will give an antioxidant boost, but did you know that the cannabis compound CBD has been found to be just as powerful, if not even more so, than these household vitamin names?
Cannabinoids protect our brains against age-related toxicity
Brain cells use a huge amount of energy to transmit information throughout the body, with all that activity creating high levels of oxidative damage, loss of functioning and symptoms of age-related decline.
An ageing brain also has a tendency to accumulate excessive levels of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that is involved with nerve cell signalling. When glutamate causes cellular damage, it becomes an excitotoxin, with excitotoxicity viewed as a potential cause of many neurodegenerative diseases of the central nervous system.
In one study carried out on rats, the cannabinoid Cannabidiol was “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.”
Neuroinflammation can both be a cause, and a consequence, of chronic oxidative stress and is commonly experienced neurodegenerative diseases.
In a paper published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, it found that CBD can reduce neural inflammation in mice injected with amyloid-β (Aβ), the protein that scientists believe leads to neuronal cell death in Alzheimer’s.
While research carried out in 2014 at the University of South Florida showed that extremely low doses of THC actually reduces amyloid-β (Aβ) production.
“THC is known to be a potent antioxidant with neuroprotective properties, but this is the first report that the compound directly affects Alzheimer’s pathology by decreasing amyloid beta levels, inhibiting its aggregation, and enhancing mitochondrial function,” said study lead author Chuanhai Cao, PhD of the study.
By increasing mitochondrial function it also means a healthier brain due to a better energy supply and improved signalling.
US Government patents cannabinoids as antioxidant but still denies medicinal use
In fact it’s the cannabis plant’s antioxidant content and potential to protect the brain from neurodegenerative disease that has led to one of the greatest contradictions in the history of medical cannabis.
Back in 2003 the US Government published a patent 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.”
It goes on, “the cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.”
CBD gets a particular mention in the patent saying, “non-psychoactive cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol, are particularly advantageous to use because they avoid toxicity that is encountered with psychoactive cannabinoids at high doses useful in the method of the present invention.”
One would imagine that this infamous Patent US 6630507 would have marked a federal reclassification of the cannabis plant. But alas not, as it still sits alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
Cannabis – an antioxidant and much, much more
It’s clear that cannabis isn’t the only plant source of antioxidants around, which is great if you happen to live in a part of the world where cannabis products aren’t legally available.
However, cannabis, through its unique combination of cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids etc is possibly the most complete plant therapeutically, with its antioxidant potential being just one tool in the box. Combine that with the plant’s anti-inflammatory properties and ability to bring homeostasis to the body through the endocannabinoid system, and it’s clear there’s more health benefits to cannabis than taking any other off-the-shelf antioxidant.
And for anyone already taking plant cannabinoids like CBD, it’s reassuring to know that as well as reportedly helping conditions like anxiety, chronic pain, epilepsy, even the US federal government suggests you may also be protecting yourself against the onset of age-related disease.