The emerging medical and health benefits of cannabinoids

Most people will be familiar with the term ‘cannabis’ and its widespread use as a recreational drug. This is because the active components of cannabis are a group of substances called cannabinoids, some of which have psychotropic effects when ingested.1 Anecdotally, cannabinoids have also had medicinal effects, and for this reason they have been used in medicines since ancient times in various parts of the world, such as China and India, to treat conditions such as asthma, malaria, neuralgias, and convulsions.2,3 In the nineteenth century, the use of cannabis tincture (an ethanolic extract of cannabis) became very popular in Europe and the US to treat a variety of disorders such as child convulsions, tetanus, cholera, and rabies. But during the first half of the twentieth century these tinctures fell out of favour because it proved too difficult to produce a formulation with a standardised dose.1

However, this started the ball rolling with scientific interest in cannabinoids, and in the 1990s the effects of these substances were found to be due to specific cellular receptors, and in turn it was discovered that we produce our own natural cannabinoids called endocannabinoids. In addition to these and the plant-based versions (phytocannabinoids), we now have synthetic analogues of both.1

With the demonstrated anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, serious medical research is ongoing to establish the effects of cannabinoids in many diseases including neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease (PD), Huntington’s disease (HD), and multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as anorexia, irritable bowel syndrome, and several cancers.1 Some cannabinoid medications have already been approved for the treatment of nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy; anorexia; cancer-related pain, and spasticity and pain associated with MS.1

Over the last few years, coincident with these developments in medicine, non-psychotropic cannabinoids – called cannabidiol (CBD) – extracted from the hemp plant (a species in the same family as cannabis) have appeared in the health and wellness market. To make the most of the antioxidant and pain-relieving properties of CBD,4 it is included in a rapidly-growing range of over-the-counter products from highstreet pharmacies (usually for over 18s only) such as food supplements in various formulations (e.g., capsules, sprays and drops); massage gels and rubs; and lip balms.5

The cannabinoid system appears to be involved in a wide range of physiological processes, and we are only just starting to discover the potential medical and health benefits of cannabinoids. With continued research in this area, the future certainly looks intriguing!



  1. Fraguas-Sánchez AI, Torres-Suárez AI. Medical Use of Cannabinoids. Drugs 2018; 78(16): 1665–1703.
  2. Touw M. The religious and medicinal uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet. J Psychoactive Drugs 1981; 13(1): 23–34.
  3. Kalant H. Medicinal use of cannabis: history and current status. Pain Res Manag 2001; 6(2): 80–91.
  4. Pellati F, Borgonetti V, Brighenti V, Biagi M, Benvenuti S, Corsi L. Cannabis sativa L. and Nonpsychoactive Cannabinoids: Their Chemistry and Role against Oxidative Stress, Inflammation, and Cancer. Biomed Res Int 2018 Dec 4; 2018: 1691428.
  5. Available at: