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Demystifying Medical Cannabis & CBD

by Donna Shields, MD, RDN is

Medical cannabis, CBD, cannabinoid therapy – it’s the new language that’s everywhere these days.

This exciting new frontier of healthcare is sweeping across the country, yet it’s shrouded in confusion. Patients are asking questions but, sadly, practitioners frequently do not have the answers. Why? Simply because they’ve never been educated about the endocannabinoid system and the medicinal value of the cannabis plant.

This huge educational gap is often filled by budtenders at dispensaries (in states where marijuana is legal) or, in the case of CBD products, by retail sales staff at health food and other stores. Not a good situation, no matter how you slice it. Clearly, there’s a tremendous need for both the health professional community and consumers to get clarity on cannabis and its healing properties. Getting the foundational basics down is the first step.

How the endocannabinoid system works

Without getting into a major biology lesson, it’s important to understand that we all have an endocannabinoid system – a network of receptors throughout the body whose job is to maintain homeostasis and balance for our bodies, sort of like a master control system. And while our bodies make their own endocannabinoids, life, through stress, toxins, poor diet, and illness, has a way of depleting the in-house supply or making those receptors “less receptive.” This is when adding cannabinoids, through vaping, edibles, tinctures, or topicals, can be a helpful boost.

Plant biology matters

Think of Cannabis sativa as the mother plant and, from that, we have marijuana, which contains THC (the psychotropic “high” cannabinoid), CBD, and various other cannabinoid compounds. That same mother plant also can be cultivated into hemp. Hemp has many different uses – from food products to building materials plus CBD oils, which are readily available online and on retail shelves.

Medicinal healing properties

Medical cannabis has been studied for decades with most of the research conducted outside the US – the result of antiquated drug policy law. More recently, clinical studies are happening at US-based hospitals and universities focusing on conditions such as seizures, PTSD, and autoimmune conditions.

What we do know is that people everywhere are finding relief for a host of chronic problems – the most common of which are pain, insomnia, and anxiety. Like most pharmaceuticals, the correct dosage for cannabis and CBD products relies on trial and error. One size does not fit all, so it’s critical for the practitioner and the patient to understand that the same cultivars (strains) and delivery methods may effect similar patients differently. This is personalized medicine at its best!

As Western medicine moves toward a more integrative approach, cannabis will become part of a healing plan. Because it has none of the side effects of pharmaceuticals, it has become a cost effective alternative for people of all ages. In fact, seniors are one of the largest demographics using medical cannabis and CBD products, demonstrating just how mainstream cannabis medicine has become.

Cannabis in the holistic healing paradigm

Cannabis is no different than other modalities – it works best when used synergistically with other healthy lifestyle practices. It’s not the silver bullet and it shouldn’t be viewed as the only tool in the toolbox. And this, too, is often misunderstood by both practitioners and patients. Health outcomes will improve when medical cannabis or CBD are supplemented with other modalities such an anti-inflammatory food plan, aromatherapy, acupuncture, energy medicine, yoga, meditation, and an overall stress-reduced, active lifestyle. For practitioners working in these modalities, offering cannabis and CBD counseling is a no-brainer.

What’s old is new again

Cannabis medicine may seem new to the US market, but this ancient herb has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Rooted in Ayurvedic and Vedic tradition, the cannabis plant has provided spiritual and physical healing for millennia. As we look backward to traditional healing principles, we find that cannabis has a great deal of merit for many of today’s chronic health problems.

Donna Shields, MD, RDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist and co-founder of the Holistic Cannabis Academy and ShopHolisticCBD. The Academy is a comprehensive, online education program for health professionals interested in becoming proficient in cannabis coaching for their clients.

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