If you’re a science geek who knows anything about cannabis and plants, you know there were no plants 650 million years ago. But cannabinoids are a different story.
As you know from biology, every organism on the planet shares DNA. As you go back in the evolutionary tree, you see connections and how things like the eye and spine developed.
Scientists have traced the origin of the human spine, hormone production, nervous system, and immune system to about 650 million years ago with the sea squirt, which is a little sea floor animal still present today. They kind of look like blobby sea cucumbers. In their pre-adult form, they evolved a soft tissue rod in their back, so they could swim – the origin of the first spine.
We can find cannabinoids at this moment in biological history. We also know that all organisms need to fight stress and pathogens. The sea squirt originated the DNA that evolved into what we now know as cannabinoids.
This is important because cannabis plants didn’t exist until hundreds of millions of years later. I want to emphasize this point because our modern culture is obsessed with this idea that cannabis is a dangerous thing or a potentially harmful drug that we need to study.
What We Need to Know
To understand what the cannabis plant does inside our body, all we need to study is the endocannabinoid system, which is this complex feedback system in the cells of vertebrate organisms. This system originated 650 million years ago with these sea squirts. However, it’s not until about 30 million years ago that the cannabis plant finally came into existence as a unique species. That story of plants producing cannabinoids that connect with our endocannabinoid systems began on the Asian plateau of the Himalayas.
To protect itself against UV light from the sun, the developing cannabis plant genetically mutated to produce the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The plants evolved and perfected this system while primates eventually evolved into humans around the foothills of the Himalayas. Around 500,000 years ago, it’s pretty safe to assume human ancestors in this region gathered the sticky resins from the plant and very quickly realized it effects the body when ingested.
These human body and plant systems are connected out of magical coincidence. We all share some biological history, it’s just a fascinating biological fact that cannabis plants were producing this chemical with the right sequence and structure of molecules to fit all vertebrates.
Our human connection to cannabinoids gets a little confusing because of culture over the years. There is evidence that humans were using herbs approximately 50,000 years ago. We know this because we can find the residue of specific herbs in the plaque tartar of skeletons. Although we have actual evidence for human use of cannabis going back 10,000 years, we can extrapolate and assume that it could go back thousands of years before that.
The development of Ayurveda about 5,000 years ago is a fascinating aspect of the Asian steppe and the Himalayan foothills. Ayurveda is a traditional medicine of India. It is the oldest continually passed-down medical practice and culture in human existence. Cannabis is one of the primary herbs used in their repertoire.
I love to tell this story because it’s not often connected in the cannabis field. We essentially have two varieties of cannabis plants today that have different effects when we ingest them. Indica plants are low-growing and sedative. They tend to be dense with fatter leaves. We also have sativa plants, which are taller-growing, airier, and tend to have more creative and activating effects. Ayurvedic medicine refers to a body type called kafa, which is denser, lower to the ground, and prone toward sedation. There’s another body type called mata, which is more prone toward activity, movement, and creativity. I like to speculate that there was a connection between understanding how our bodies work, how different bodies need different things, and how these plants actually share similar qualities when we join them together.
As the plant needs various cannabinoids for its health, we also need various cannabinoids from indica and sativa that balance depending on our body structure. In the West, we would call these concepts ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph. Ectomorph is tall and skinny – like me. Endomorph is more like Santa Claus, right? Thick, curvier, and a wider face. That’s like indica and sativa, right there. That’s a fascinating connection to Ayurveda, early human history, and cannabis.
What Science Knows and What People Don’t
But let’s fast forward. We also need to connect with science. It wasn’t until the 1800s that a famous physician and scientist named William O’Shaughnessy stationed in India began discovering the local uses of cannabis that had been passed down for generations. Most of the claims for cannabis are now corroborated by science. There’s a lot of evidence that cannabis helps with pain, sleep, sedation, muscle spasms, and other things like that. O’Shaughnessy brought this herb back and did some controlled trials on what was called “Indian hemp” at the time. People in Europe and eventually America started using this like crazy. The Queen of England at the time is famous for having used it for her menstrual cramps.
The fascinating thing is we didn’t know what was happening in the plant. We didn’t understand what cannabinoids were or the system in our bodies. The culture and medical field in America became really confused even though we had hemp growing wildly and Indian hemp with higher THC. If you read my book Cannabis Consulting: Helping Patients, Parents, and Practitioners Understand Medical Marijuana, which comes out this summer, you’ll see I talk about this confusion and certain states saying we should make this plant illegal because people were getting too high in some cases. Other times they would find plants where the cannabinoid content was so low because it was just traditional hemp and the medicines weren’t working.
Eventually, people did not understand cannabis. It’s my argument for why we should have practitioners, people like myself who understand the plant and how it’s used in the body, to educate people. It wasn’t until the 1960s that we synthesized THC and in the 1990s discovered that it mimicked a chemical called anandamide. Its root word “ananda” means bliss in Sanskrit. Coming from Ayurveda, right? Circling back to the Indian roots of the plant.
We then discovered our bodies already produce these chemicals mimicked by cannabis. That’s why we had the legalization of medical cannabis in California in 1996 and the recreational legalization of cannabis in Colorado in 2005. Now, we’re at this amazing crux.
Part of my book talks about making sure that we fully understand how the endocannabinoid system works in the body, how cannabinoids work in the plant, and how we can go back to that primal need for stress relief and balance in the body. If we go toward cannabinoids that are just super high in THC and we’re only taking it recreationally, it can flood our endocannabinoid system and create imbalance.
It’s important to know the history of endocannabinoids and know how they work in the body so that we can use them for health, because our body doesn’t care about getting high. Our body does care about maintaining balance, and that’s what the endocannabinoids do in the system.