According to a new research by Swiss researchers, a compound in marijuana might be a potent anti-inflammatory agent, which won't get people high.
The finding could be a blessing for the sufferers of arthritis, cirrhosis, and other diseases.
The drugs that are currently existing for the diseases can be less effective for some people and can carry side effects, from stomach ulcers to increased risk of heart attacks.
Marijuana supporters have long argued that the plant's active ingredients, known as cannabinoids, are safe and effective treatments for pain, nausea, and other ailments. The most active cannabinoid-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC-is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. But it is also responsible for the plant's psychotropic effects.
Now researchers say that another cannabinoid, called beta-caryophyllene, or (E)-BCP, helps combat inflammation without affecting the brain.
The scientists note that (E)-BCP is already part of many people's daily diets.
Foods that are particularly high in the compound include black pepper, oregano, basil, lime, cinnamon, carrots, and celery.
Essential oils from cannabis plants-whose leaves and flowers are used to make the marijuana drug-contain up to 35 percent (E)-BCP.
But even after decades of cannabis research, scientists hadn't previously known that the compound had anti-inflammatory properties.
"This is because the focus was on the classical cannabinoids [rather than (E)-BCP]," National Geographic quoted lead study author Jurg Gertsch of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, as saying.
Cannabinoids in marijuana are known to primarily affect two of the many molecular receptors in the human body.
The CB1 receptor is found in the brain and central nervous system and is responsible for the high people experience when they smoke pot.
The other receptor, called CB2, is found in tissues in the rest of the body and triggers a cascade of biochemical reactions that can help combat inflammation.
"Our interest is to exploit the pharmacological nature of the CB2 receptor," because it does not have psychotropic side effects. Targeting the CB2 receptor could be a therapeutic strategy to prevent or treat diseases like Crohn's disease [inflammation of the intestinal tract], liver cirrhosis, osteoarthritis, and atherosclerosis," Gertsch said.
THC activates both receptors, so it won't alleviate inflammation without also making people high.
But (E)-BCP affects only the CB2 receptor, according to the study.
As part of their research, the scientists engineered a strain of mice that lacked the CB2 receptor. The team then fed the modified mice and normal mice a diet rich in (E)-BCP.
When the scientists induced inflammation with chemicals, normal mice experienced an anti-inflammatory effect while the genetically engineered mice did not.
"This experiment shows that the anti-inflammatory effects are mediated via the CB2 receptor," Gertsch said.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.