The Chinese Roots of Medical Cannabis

This is part two in my series on cannabis history in the United States. It is a deeper dive into the medical benefits of cannabis that the scientific community has discovered.

Shennong was a legendary Emperor of China around 2700 B.C. His name means Divine Farmer or Divine Husbandman. He is also widely known as the “God of Chinese herbal medicine”. There is no written history of him because he lived before people could write. Therefore, they did not keep historical records yet. He is apocryphal and has attained the status of a god. He spent his life sampling the rich plant life that abounded in the territory that now bears his name, the Shennogjia Forestry District (In July of 2016, UNESCO added it to their World Heritage list.). He is credited with creating Chinese herbal medicine.

It would not be for anther 2000 years that his name would be attached to herbal medicine. Several authors decided to write down the “earliest complete pharmacopeia references and lists an astonishing 365 Chinese medicines” (100 of those medicines would include cannabis) in 220 BC. They placed Shennong as the author of Shennong Bencaojing to honor him as the father of Chinese Medicine.

shennong1Soon after this book was published, there was another doctor in the region who understood the benefits of cannabis. Hua Tuo lived around 108 BC. Some say that he invented the first anesthetic when he mixed cannabis with wine, called Mafesan. He was also familiar with acupuncture, which has long been used to treat pain and restore the flow of qi in the body. It is possible that the herb used for moxibustion was cannabis, not mugwort. If this is true, then the medical benefits of cannabis and acupuncture are largely unexplored currently.

People have recognized acupuncture to be a useful treatment for inflammatory pain for a long time. Medicine recognizes that electroacupuncture (EA) “has been regarded as an alternative treatment for inflammatory pain for several decades”. EA has been connected to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in therapy. A 2012 EA study concluded that “Our results suggest that EA reduces inflammatory pain and proinflammitory cytokines in inflamed skin tissues through activation of CB2Rs”

Research on how EA interacts with CB1 receptors has been done for depressed suicide victims, alcoholic withdrawal, and mice with arthritis. A 2004 Molecular Psychiatry article documented “the mood and cognition altering ability of exogenous cannabinoids and alcohol, and the association between depression, suicide and alcohol abuse raise the question whether endogenous cannabinodergic system plays any role in the etiology of depression and suicidal behavior.” The study concluded by saying that “the upregulation of CB1 receptors…strongly suggests a role for the participation of abnormal endocannabinoidergic neurotransmission in the etiology of depression and suicide. The pharmacological manipulation of endocannabinoid system may serve as a new therapeutic target in the treatment of depression.”

The Shanghai First People’s Hospital School of Medicine did a study in 2013 that was based on “Accumulating evidence… that the CB1 and dopamine systems sometimes interact and may operate synergistically in rat striatum…D1/D2 receptors are involved in EA analgesia.” Their conclusion was that “a strong activation of the CB1 receptor after repeated EA resulted in the concomitant phenomenon of the upregulation of D1 and D2 levels of gene expression”.

Cannabis use in Chinese medicine is as old as Chinese medicine itself. Now, as Eastern medicine comes from the west and Western Medicine comes from the east, we are at the convergence of a key herbal remedy that has been known for millennia.

Up next in the series: The Endocannanibinoid System.


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