There are many different ways to use cannabis.
You may be surprised to find out that one of the oldest often overlooked ways to use cannabis does not involve getting “high” or consuming the herb at all.
For centuries, one of the most profound ways to reap the medical benefits of the plant was to apply it topically.
Now, in a Green Flower Media exclusive, Harvard-trained Dr. Gregory Smith gives patients the run-down on how and when to use these potent healing salves: Using Cannabis for Skin and Joint Conditions.
From psoriasis to joint pain, there are a surprising number of conditions that can be at least partially treated with topical cannabis.
Dr. Smith tells Green Flower which conditions may work well with topical cannabis and which won't:
1. Dry skin
Did you know that cannabis compounds can boost oil production in the skin?
People who have trouble with dry, cracked, and irritated skin may appreciate cannabis topicals.
According to Smith, compounds in the cannabis plant engage oil-producing glands in the skin called sebaceous glands.
These glands secrete an oily substance known as sebum, which waterproofs and hydrates the skin.
As it turns out, cannabis can kick sebaceous glands into overdrive and encourages them to produce more oil.
Not only do infused topicals hydrate the skin via oil-dense salves and balms, but the active compounds in cannabis encourage the body to produce more oil on its own as well.
Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, happens when layers of the skin become irritated and inflamed.
Dr. Smith explains that cannabis is beneficial for skin inflammation because of the way active compounds in the herb engage with the body.
Specifically, the active components in cannabis engage with a large receptor network called the endocannabinoid system.
“The [endocannabinoid system] has to do with maintaining homeostasis, or balance, between many systems in the brain and body,” Smith explains.
“It’s like the breaking system for a wide variety of other systems.”
In the skin, cannabis compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) readily engage the ECS all throughout the skin and in immune cells.
“As far as this class is concerned, the ECS keeps the various layers of the skin, the hair, the follicles, the sweat, and the sebum glands in balance,” says Smith.
With eczema, cannabis compounds work to fight inflammation and reduce sensations of itching and burning in the skin.
Psoriasis is a condition that causes the hyperproduction of skin cells called keratinocytes. These cells begin to proliferate and replicate very quickly, causing a scale-like buildup on the skin.
Dr. Smith thinks that this condition can be treated with cannabis, so long as it is treated in the right way.
“A combination of THC and CBD will impact this condition,” he says.
“Cannabis-infused topical medications will decrease how fast these cells are reproducing, or proliferating, and also increase the rate of programmed cell suicide, apoptosis.”
Simply stated, both of the two major cannabis compounds can slow down the hyper reproduction of keratinocytes while also causing unnecessary cells to self-destruct.
To top things off, Smith says that cannabis topicals can “decrease the perception of itch, heat, and pain” that so often accompany patches of psoriasis.
Did you know that sunburn and eczema have something in common?
Both sunburn and eczema are considered forms of atopic dermatitis, which simply refers to irritation and inflammation in the skin.
Smith explains that the cannabis compound cannabidiol (CBD) engages a specific cell receptor known as the TRPV1 receptor.
This receptor is responsible for controlling skin sensations of heat and temperature.
Not only are cannabis compounds potent natural pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, but they may ease irritation from sunburn by making the skin feel cooler and less itchy.
5. Arthritis (and other types of joint pain)
Apart from skin conditions, cannabis topicals can have an astounding effect on joint pain and arthritis.
“Localized joint swelling and inflammation, such as arthritis, can be treated very nicely with a combination of THC and CBD,” Smith says.
Using a cannabis topical, says Smith, results in decreased inflammation and swelling in the joint. Topicals may also decrease pain perception, making it easier to tolerate the condition.
However, topicals are not strong enough to permeate the skin to reach all joints.
“If you can touch the joint and it hurts,” explains Smith, “then it will get to that painful joint. So your knee, your ankle, your hands, and your shoulder area. If you can put your finger there and it hurts, then the medicine will get there and work.”
For larger joints, like the hip, there is too much tissue to allow cannabis compounds to absorb into the skin and reach the joint.
For pain in larger joints, using oral and topical cannabis in combination may be preferable.
Are there side effects when using cannabis for skin and joint conditions?
While medical cannabis may be a wonderful natural remedy for a variety of conditions, even topical cannabis can have some downsides.
Here’s when Dr. Smith recommends that you should be cautious with the herb:
Believe it or not, acne may not be the best use of cannabis topicals.
According to Smith, cannabis topicals may actually worsen acne.
“Acne and seborrhea are the most common skin conditions,” begins Smith.
“These conditions result in the excess production of sebum by the tiny glands in the skin. [...] These conditions would be aggravated or worsened by the use of cannabis-infused topicals because they increase CB2 activity.”
In the skin, a special cell receptor known as the cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2), is responsible for oily sebum production.
As Smith explains, cannabis boosts the activity of this receptor.
By increasing the activity of the CB2 receptor, you get more sebum.
More sebum means that there is more grease available to clog pores and give hungry bacteria a delicious snack.
Like any other lotion or balm, it is entirely possible to have an allergic reaction to cannabis topicals.
Topicals often include a variety of additional essential oils and additives, which is one reason why it is important to research any cannabis product before buying.
Still, if an allergic reaction occurs after switching out your original topical for another brand or two, you may be experiencing an allergic reaction to the cannabis medication.
3. Hair loss
Unfortunately for those with hair loss, cannabis may not help.
According to Dr. Smith, “activation of the CB1 on the hair follicle results in decreased hair shaft growth and also promotes the hair follicle to go dormant.”
Summarized, when cannabis compounds engage one of the primary receptor sites in the endocannabinoid system, the CB1 receptor, the herb may slow hair growth.
For some, this might seem like a good reason to rub cannabis lotions on your legs and underarms.
However, for those concerned about hair loss, the plant may not help.
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