We’ve only just begun: The NIH hands out nine research grants to see if CBD relieves pain & inflammation – and notice the terpene fine print

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Yesterday’s roll out by the National Institutes of Health of $3 million on 9 research grants “to investigate the pain-relieving properties of cannabinoids and terpenes” was expected (the issue was who would receive the grants). A second roll out of grants will follow, and this is on top of the research already in progress: In fiscal year 2017, the NIH supported 330 projects on cannabinoid research totaling almost $140 million, of which 26 projects ($15 million) focused on cannabidiol (CBD).

The NIH is responding to pressure from scientists: For example, in 2017 the highly regarded National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, issued a report concluding that a lack of cannabis research poses a public health risk. And to pressure from the public: “There are so many beneficial effects that patients report. We need to know the science behind it,” says Aditi Das, a researcher at the Univ. of Illinois.

The focus on chronic pain & inflammation – the number 1 reason people resort to cannabinoids – isn’t just because they’ve “accompanied human life for ages,” but also because the current approaches not only fail, they can also hurt you, says Helene Langevin, MD, of the NIH:

The treatment of chronic pain has relied heavily on opioids, despite their potential for addiction and overdose and the fact that they often don’t work well when used on a long-term basis. There’s an urgent need for more effective and safer options.

But notice something: The NIH is trying to meet that urgent need by looking at the pain-relieving effects of cannabinoids – and something called terpenes, a compound that’s also found in the cannabis plant. In fact, when you smell cannabis it’s terpenes that you smell – they give the plant its aroma. And they too are thought to have medicinal properties such as being anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, antifungal, and antibacterial, as well as having appetite effects.

And here’s the thing: The cannabis plant contains more than 110 cannabinoids and 120 terpenes – that work together synergistically, where 1 + 1 > 2, something the press calls the “entourage effect.” The idea is that cannabinoids such as CBD and the terpenes do their best job as a unit, not as a single compound.

Which leaves us with a rather obvious but vital question: Just how many ways are there to combine the hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes, at what concentrations, using which route of administration, and for which conditions?

The answer is we don’t know yet. In some ways it feels like we’ve only just begun to tackle the inflammation and pain that has “accompanied human life for ages.”

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