The cannabis plant is made up of more than 500 unique, natural compounds, including around 85 cannabinoids. Of these, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) stands out, due to its psychoactive properties. In other words, it’s the reason a person feels high, euphoric, or in an altered state of mind. High THC levels are sought after by recreational because it produces a better, longer-lasting “buzz”. Medical cannabis users, researchers and medical professionals also recognize that it has medicinal properties that can be applied to a variety of illnesses, ailments and conditions. It’s a fascinating substance, but what, exactly, is THC and what are its medicinal applications?

What Is THC?

The answer to this question is actually quite simple, THC is a naturally occurring cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. It’s chemically similar to cannabinoids that the human body already makes for the endocannabinoid system, therefore it readily connects to special receptors in the brain, as well as those within the immune system. The receptors in the brain are primarily associated with pleasure, memory, thinking, appetite, coordination and time perception. Researchers are currently looking at the role these immune system receptors play in the treatment of diseases, such as cancer.

Appetite

One of the most well-known medical uses for THC is to treat nausea and vomiting associated with certain diseases and conventional treatments, like chemotherapy. It’s also known for its appetite-stimulation properties, which is beneficial to patients whose appetite is suppressed due to illnesses, such as anorexia. It’s also been used effectively to treat lack of appetite in Alzheimer’s patients, who had previously refused to eat. What’s more, users of cannabis for increasing appetite and decreasing nausea tend to maintain a stable body weight over the long-term. While some patients smoke the plant, others use it in its edible form, both methods have proven effective.

Pain and Inflammation

Doctors generally prescribe opioids for severe, chronic pain. The problem is, these drugs carry with them a high risk of addiction, especially with long-term use. What’s more, opioid use has negative impacts on the quality of life for patients. THC has proven to be useful in treating chronic pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, headache, menstrual pain, chronic bowel inflammation and nerve damage. There is a low risk of addiction, unlike opioid use, and fewer side effects. A study by the University of Michigan, involving 185 patients, showed that medical cannabis patients also reported a 45-percent increase in their quality of life.

Anxiety and Depression

Millions of people across the country suffer from anxiety and depression, for which doctors generally prescribe anti-depressant medications. The problem with these drugs is that they are addictive, and often have accompanying negative side-effects such as suicidal thoughts. THC, on the other hand, does not carry with it side effects. In fact, in smaller doses, it increases serotonin levels, which can offer relief from depression. According to one study, there was a decrease in the number of suicides for 15 to 19-year old men in states that have legalized medical cannabis, compared to states where it is not legal.

While all of the medical benefits of THC have yet to be discovered, or applied, it is preferable, in may cases, to highly-addictive opioids and other medications. It has been difficult, up until now, for doctors and researchers to experiment with cannabinoids due to its status as a Schedule I drug. However, as more states legalize the plant for medical use, it is likely that research will become easier, and more conclusive. Until then, proponents of medical cannabis use will continue to offer anecdotal evidence of its benefits and effectiveness. Likewise, opponents will continue to point towards out-dated, inaccurate information as the basis for their desire to keep it designated as an illegal substance with no medical benefits.