There are over 100 different types of arthritis that target bone joints. Osteoarthritis is the most common, affecting 27 million people in the U.S. who experience limited range of motion, swelling, stiffness, and chronic pain.1 It’s easy to take our joints for granted, but when the protective, slippery cartilage wears down, bone-on-bone contact can be intensely painful. It can affect all aspects of everyday life—simply moving in the night can wake you with pain.
Osteoarthritis can damage nerves, inflame the joint, and cause physical damage and bone spurs, which are bony projections on the edges of bones. The spurs can break off from the bone and float into the synovial fluid that lubricates the joint, acting like shrapnel.
The chronic pain caused by osteoarthritis is difficult to treat. The first medication recommended by most professional medical organizations is acetaminophen, but some 50% of osteoarthritis patients don’t respond to it. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and the selective serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SSNRI) duloxetine are often tried next—but again, not all patients respond.2 And let’s just not talk about opioids, which are addictive and have their own set of serious problems.
Considering 63% of osteoarthritis patients are unsatisfied with their current pain medication regimen,3 some are turning to medical cannabis for baseline pain management or to relieve the acute pains that “break through” their current medications. Cannabis might seem like a new alternative treatment, but cannabinoids are not. We have been treating chronic pain with cannabinoids for over 130 years. We just didn’t know it.
The story goes like this. Acetaminophen was first prescribed in 1887. Its widespread usage initially was put on hold by a competitor, which ended up causing kidney failure and cancer. Acetaminophen was mass produced in the 1950s and, despite safety concerns, became widely accepted as an over-the-counter medication by the 1970s.4 It may surprise you, but until recently, no one knew how acetaminophen worked.
Then in 1991, a scientist in Israel, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, discovered the first two endocannabinoids, AEA and 2-AG. It took almost two decades until we connected the dots and realized how acetaminophen truly works, and it’s an indirect action. When our bodies metabolize acetaminophen, it ends up amplifying our levels of the AEA and 2-AG. Those elevated endocannabinoids cause an ECS response, which is what is truly responsible for relieving pain and reducing inflammation.4
In fact, the synovial membrane that surrounds our joints have plenty of endocannabinoid receptors that are involved with both inflammation and the nervous system’s “pain pathway.” In osteoarthritis patients, the synovial fluid filling the joint contains both AEA and 2-AG, which are activating the ECS and are not found in the joints of healthy people.3 This alteration of ECS activity might be caused by the osteoarthritis, or it might be caused by acetaminophen use, which is common among osteoarthritis patients.
63% of osteoarthritis patients are unsatisfied with their current pain medication regimen.
So, what’s the big problem with using acetaminophen to activate the ECS? Osteoarthritis patients are treated with the maximum recommended dose, 4 grams per day.2 Acetaminophen, which is available over-the-counter, is also the most common cause of poisoning in the United States. A single dose of 4–10 grams can damage the liver, and acetaminophen is the leading cause of acute liver failure.5 Osteoarthritis patients who take acetaminophen have to be careful not to consume over-the-counter cold medicines or alcohol, for example, for fear of accidental liver damage,2 and many are still not satisfied with their pain management.2 So, if it were you, how would you feel about trying medical cannabis?
Over 80% of clinical studies have reported significant pain relief using cannabinoids. In two studies of patients with chronic and diabetic nerve pain, increasing concentrations of THC in cannabis provided progressively better pain relief, improved sleep quality, and caused only mild to moderate side effects.3 But studies that specifically focus on arthritis are few and far between. One such study from 2006, treated patients with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, with Sativex, a pharmaceutical grade extract from whole cannabis plants that contains a 1:1 ratio of THC and CBD. Sativex significantly improved movement pain, pain at rest, and sleep quality in these patients,6 but Sativex remains an investigational product in the U.S. and doesn’t have FDA approval.
Despite not fully understanding its mechanism of action, acetaminophen has been well-studied for treating chronic arthritic pain, and it has been helping relieve pain and inflammation via the ECS for decades. Acetaminophen has also been responsible for many poisonings, liver failures, and liver transplants.5 We should question why it remains approved for over-the-counter use by the FDA. Meanwhile, U.S. regulations surrounding medical cannabis are so constrained that researchers are all but prohibited from studying real-world cultivars, each with a unique blend of cannabinoids and terpenes. For more on this, see the Research Corner on page 14.
Perhaps if cannabis plants produced pills instead of flowers, history would be different, and I would be able to recommend specific cannabis cultivars for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and the like. But instead, I can recommend only this: talk to your doctor, and if you want to try CBD or medical cannabis for arthritis pain or breakthrough pain, remember that more is not always better. Try different doses, perhaps topical ointments too, and certainly different cultivars if you plan to use cannabis. You may find some cultivars provide better pain relief, or you prefer different cognitive effects.
Some cultivars might be more appropriate for working in the morning; others might be better for sleep quality. Arthritis pain can stem from many sources—inflamed joints, damaged bones, and nerves—so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone with arthritis used multiple cultivars of cannabis, ointments, and other medications to ease their pain as effectively as possible.
1. Madden, K., George, A., van der Hoek, N., Borim, F., Mammen, G., and Bhandari, M. “Cannabis for pain in orthopedics: a systematic review focusing on study methodology.” Canadian Journal of Surgery 62, no. 6 (2019): 001018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31545565.
2. Brown, J. and Boulay, L. “Clinical experience with duloxetine in the management of chronic musculoskeletal pain. A focus on osteoarthritis of the knee.” Therapeutic Advances in Musculoskeletal Disease 5, no. 6 (2013): 291-304. https://doi.org/10.1177/1759720X13508508.
3. O’Brien, M. and McDougall, J. “Cannabis and joints: scientific evidence for the alleviation of osteoarthritis pain by cannabinoids.” Current Opinion in Pharmacology 40 (2018): 104-109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.coph.2018.03.012.
4. Bertolini, A., Ferrari, A., Ottani, A., Guerzoni, S., Tacchi, R., and Leone, S. “Paracetamol: new vistas of an old drug.” CNS Drug Reviews 12, no. 3-4 (2006): 250-275. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-3458.2006.00250.x.
5. Dimitropoulos, E. and Ambizas, E. “Acetaminophen toxicity: what pharmacists need to know.” U.S. Pharmacist 39, no. 3 (2014): HS2-HS8. https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/acetaminophen-toxicity-what-pharmacists-need-to-know
6. Blake, D., Robson, P., Ho, M., Jubb, R., and McCabe, C. “Preliminary assessment of the efficacy, tolerability and safety of a cannabis-based medicine (Sativex) in the treatment of pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis.” Rheumatology 45, no. 1 (2006): 50-52. https://doi.org/10.1093/rheumatology/kei183.
Turmeric is a root vegetable commonly used as a spice in various Indian and other cultures’ dishes. Turmeric is in the zingiberaceae family, as is ginger. The turmeric plant is native to the southeastern region of Asia and commonly harvested in places like India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, and Taiwan. It is responsible for curry’s signature orange color, and its vibrant pigment will give essentially any meal an orange hue.
Turmeric contains a substance called curcumin, and curcumin has been shown through research to offer anti-inflammatory and other therapeutic benefits. The scientific name for the turmeric plant is Curcuma Longa, and likely where the name curcumin comes from. When people are talking about the health benefits of turmeric, they are referencing curcumin so you may hear the two names used interchangeably. Curcumin is part of a group called curcuminoids, with curcumin being the most active and the most beneficial for health. Flavonoids are another substance found in various plants and give these plants their color. Curcumin is a flavonoid and is responsible for providing that bright orange color to turmeric. In addition to providing aesthetic value, flavonoids are also strong antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.
The Journal of Biological Chemistry published a study done by Sanjaya Singh and Bharat B. Aggarwal of the Cytokine Research Laboratory at the world-renowned cancer hospital, M.D. Anderson. The study found that curcumin suppressed NF-κB, a protein complex responsible for controlling inflammatory responses. In other words, turmeric shuts off the body’s inflammatory response. Anti-inflammatories can be beneficial for many different ailments, including chronic pain and digestive disorders. A lot of CBD companies even put curcumin in their products because of its benefits. It is believed to be a synergistic pair with complementary therapeutic properties. The thought is that the two plant medicines are powerful on their own; as a combination, they can deliver even more anti-inflammatory and medicinal benefits.
Many people simply add turmeric to their dishes as a way to easily incorporate it into their daily routine. It is pretty mild in flavor and can be added to many dishes without changing the overall taste too drastically. Some say that turmeric isn’t strong enough on its own to receive the anti-inflammatory properties that curcumin provides, and therefore recommend a curcumin supplement. Research varies on that, so in the end it is just up to personal preference and your doctor’s approval. Curcumin supplements come most available in capsules. Pregnant women can safely use turmeric as an addition to their food, but should avoid taking high-dosage supplements. Those who are interested in supplementing with curcumin products should talk with their doctor first.
M.D. Anderson Cancer Center did another study in 2007 exploring curcumin for cancer treatment. The study found that curcumin inhibits ovarian cancer growth and angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels). It does this by targeting and manipulating the NF-κB pathway, the same protein complex responsible for controlling inflammatory response. According to a report published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The nuclear factor NF-κB pathway has long been considered a prototypical proinflammatory signaling pathway, largely based on the role of NF-κB in the expression of proinflammatory genes including cytokines, chemokines, and adhesion molecules.”
The trend with curcumin seems to be it’s ability to control inflammatory responses in the body. It does this by multiple pathways, but a commonly researched one is the NF-κB protein complex. Because this pathway is able to be manipulated by curcumin to encourage anti-inflammatory expressions, its potential for successfully treating various ailments is there.
Psilocybin + Magic Mushrooms
When many think of plant medicine, specifically those plants with psychoactive effects, they think of “magic mushrooms,” or fungi containing psilocybin and psilocin that can cause hallucinations depending on the dosage consumed. In many states, there are active efforts to decriminalize these otherwise scheduled substances, lowering penalties for their use and possession. But what value do psilocybin-containing mushrooms offer? New research suggests a range of therapeutic and psychological value ranging from the treatment of substance abuse to anxiety and depression management.
What are Magic Mushrooms?
Magic Mushroom use dates back to 10,000 BCE and references continue throughout the era. Their modern popularity began when the term “magic mushroom” was coined by two etnomycologists who learned of a Harvard study on local doctors in Mexico using these substances, noting the substance’s ability to affect the nervous system. These findings were eventually published in Life magazine in 1957, and the term became the universal reference for psychoactive fungi and truffles, specifically those containing high concentrations of psilocybin and psilocin.
Psilocybin & Psilocin: The “Magic” in Magic Mushrooms
Psilocybin and psilocin are part of a family of psychedelic compounds found in magic mushrooms. Psilocin is pharmacologically active, and psilocybin is converted into psilocin when consumed or activated. Similar in structure to serotonin, there are more than 50 species of mushrooms and a variety of truffles that produce both the precursor, psilocybin, and the psychoactive compound, psilocin. Unlike LSD, magic mushrooms do not affect dopamine receptors, solely targeting serotonin sites.
How are Magic Mushrooms used?
Magic mushrooms are often used for recreational, therapeutic and medicinal reasons. “Effects range from mild feelings of relaxation, giddiness, euphoria, visual enhancement (seeing colors brighter), visual disturbances (moving surfaces, waves), to delusions, altered perception of real events, images and faces, or real hallucinations.” Recreationally, this is often known as “tripping.” As an alternative health option, these fungi are being used for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and trauma, as well as psychological disorders such as substance abuse disorders, and science is beginning to back the potential for these applications.
Research on Mushrooms
Evaluations of currently available scientific studies suggest a growing number of therapeutic benefits and treatment options. “In the past few years, a growing number of studies using human volunteers have begun to explore the possible therapeutic benefits of drugs such as psilocybin…looking at psilocybin and other hallucinogens to treat a number of otherwise intractable psychiatric disorders, including chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug or alcohol dependency.”
Magic mushrooms have been respected as a “safe & natural healing sacrament for millennia throughout Mexico, Central America and the world,” and are known to be beneficial for depression, recidivism (the tendency to repeat past transgressions), and encourages openness, creativity, as well as personal and spiritual growth. UCLA and NYC have done studies on the applications of magic mushrooms in the treatment of end-of-life anxiety and other studies have backed up the use of psilocybin and psilocin in the treatment of substance use disorders, depression (especially in cases of terminal conditions like cancer as well as treatment-resistant depression), and reducing depression and anxiety overall.
Best way for people to consume?
When it comes to the consumption of mushrooms, advice on dosage is about as specific as it was with cannabis under prohibition. Consumers must purchase on the black market and are subject to whatever may be available.
“Recreational doses range from 1–5 grams of dry mushrooms depending on the species and individual strength of the specimens… After ingestion, the psilocybin is enzymatically converted to psilocin. Absorbed from the gastro-intestinal tract, hallucinogenic effects usually occur within 30 minutes of ingestion with a duration of effect of 4–6 hours.”
My recommendation as someone who has used magic mushrooms both for recreational and therapeutic purposes, is to grind the mushrooms into a fine powder and either encapsulate them in small increments and/or combine with lemon juice. Capsules will allow you to titrate your dosage as needed with a recognizable increment, while lemon juice will expedite onset time.
The Legality of Magic Mushrooms
In the United States, psilocybin is a Schedule I controlled substance, with no accepted medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. In contrast, the Drug Policy Alliance states that “Physically, psilocybin mushrooms are considered to be one of the least toxic drugs known.” With that being said, local efforts such as Decriminalize Nature – Oakland and Decriminalize Denver have pushed for and successfully passed initiatives and legislation to reduce penalties and make enforcement a low priority, as was done in the early days of cannabis activism. This has spurred multiple local and international efforts to “Decriminalize Nature,” efforts that we learn more about in this month’s feature.
Ginkgo biloba is an ancient tree; its roots originate in China. The ginkgo biloba tree is also sometimes known as the maidenhair tree or the Japanese silver apricot, and it produces a foul-smelling fruit commonly harvested for its seeds known as “ginkgo nuts”. Ginkgo nuts are popularly used in Asian cuisine.
The ginkgo biloba tree’s fan-shaped leaves are used to make ginkgo biloba extract, a supplement traditionally used in Chinese medicine, but has since garnered the attention of cultures worldwide. The supplement comes in liquid extracts, capsules, and tablets. The leaves can also be dried to make tea. The type of ginkgo biloba extract supplement someone takes is all a matter of personal preference, and depends on the user’s already existing regimen. If you do not already drink tea, a ginkgo biloba tea may not implement easily into your lifestyle, thus a greater chance for inconsistency or erratic results. But if you take vitamins or other supplements regularly, after a doctor’s approval you can easily incorporate an additional capsule or tablet into your daily routine.
The 16th-century Compendium of Materia Medica or Ben Cao Gang Mu is revered as the most comprehensive text ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine. This text reveals that ginkgo biloba seeds were used as a topical extract for antimicrobial purposes on the skin. Traditional Chinese Medicine also uses the leaves for tea and attributes it to soothing coughs and activating blood circulation, as well as other benefits like respiratory and digestive ailments.
A common use for ginkgo biloba is to preserve memory and prevent cognitive decline. Dr. Hiroko Dodge of Oregon State University at Corvallis and his research team followed 118 people for three years aged 85 years and older, in good health, and showing no signs of dementia or memory loss at the beginning of the study. Half took ginkgo biloba and half took a placebo over three years. The patients taking it regularly had a 70% lower risk of developing dementia. According to the study, the other variables included considered “basic demographic variables including age, sex, years of education, and living arrangement (living alone vs living with someone).”
The National Center for Biotechnology and Information published a study exploring ginkgo as a potential remedy for anxiety and, “The authors reported a significant improvement in psychopathological symptoms. Response rates were 44% in the high-dose group, 31% in the low-dose group, and 22% with placebo. Additionally, the percentages of clinically significant responses were 81%, 67%, and 38% for the high-dose, the low-dose, and the placebo groups, respectively.”2
A 2008 study reinforced the idea behind Traditional Chinese Medicine that ginkgo biloba improves blood circulation. The study shows ginkgo biloba extract to improve coronary artery circulation in patients with coronary artery disease. The study notes, “GBE (ginkgo biloba extract) treatment demonstrated a significant improvement in maximal diastolic peak velocity (MDPV), maximal systolic peak velocity (MSPV) and diastolic time velocity integral (DTVI) compared with controls.”3 In other words, ginkgo biloba extract is a great contender as a treatment to improve blood flow.
Like cannabis and other medicinal plants, ginkgo has terpenes and flavonoids. Both of these compounds have therapeutic properties, and can provide anti-inflammatory benefits as well as being packed with antioxidants. Anti-inflammatory effects can serve many different ailments, especially relieving pain of various kinds. Antioxidants are thought to protect our bodies from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can cause harm to the body. Terpenes are also responsible for giving plants their unique and flavorful smell. Flavonoids are the compounds that give plants their vibrant and diverse colors, and are the largest group of phytonutrients. There are approximately 6,00 different types of flavonoids.
A few years back, the National Toxicology Program released a detailed report on ginkgo biloba extract. It dissects the toxicity and carcinogenic properties of ginkgo biloba using rodent test subjects. The report made its rounds as proof that ginkgo biloba causes cancer, because the rodents developed cancer at high-rates over two year periods. Per the American Botanical Council, “Adjusted for bodyweight, dosage levels given to the animals were up to 55 to 108 times higher than levels of ginkgo normally ingested by human beings taking ginkgo supplements.” Many people have been using this report to warn against the supplement, but Bill J. Gurley, Ph.D., a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Arkansas School for Medical Sciences, Little Rock said, “Almost anything will create cancer in rats and mice when it’s fed to them at high doses for two years.” The American Botanical Council also claims the ginkgo biloba extract used in the rodent experiment was of lesser quality, and not meeting European standards.
Though this seemingly negative research on ginkgo can be explained, it is still important to discuss any kind of supplement addition with your doctor, especially if you are on other supplements or pharmaceutical prescriptions.