America’s Opioid Crisis and Why CBD May be One Way to Turn the Tide
Before COVID-19, there was another epidemic of even greater proportions claiming the lives of both young and old throughout the United States. We’re talking about the opioid epidemic, which is so far- reaching in the demographics of lives it has touched, that it is consistently referred to as a public health emergency or a national emergency.
In fact, the opioid crisis, which claims over 64,000 people each year, has been mentioned as a national public health emergency for years but the fight got real teeth when the Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities (SUPPORT) Act was passed on October 24, 2018. Unlike the COVID-19 epidemic, the opioid crisis is a much older tale of lack of education on the dangers of drugs and addiction, a national culture of treating drug addiction as a crime, liberal prescription practices as a go-to pain killer, and corporate greed.
The key to understanding the opioid crisis, and what to do about it, is knowing where it all began, exploring the nature of opioid addiction, and discovering what role hemp-derived CBD oil may play as an alternative option to standard pharmaceuticals for managing pain.
What are Opioids
Opioids are a class of drugs that include illegal drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl and legally prescribed pain relievers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and several others.
Some opioids like morphine are derived from naturally occurring sources like poppy plants, while synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and can lead to terrible outcomes when abused, including cessation of breathing and death.
According to U.S. government statistics, an estimated 1.9 million Americans have a prescription opioid use disorder, while another 586,000 have a heroin use disorder. Despite these grim statistics, some opioids are widely used as anesthetic agents for people who have headaches, recovering from certain surgical procedures, or from other ailments causing severe pain. According to a recent study, over 80 percent of patients receive opioids after low-risk surgery, and over 80 percent of these prescriptions involve oxycodone or hydrocodone.
Historical Use and Trade
Opiates have been used by civilizations for nearly five millennia to manage pain and for a wide variety of illnesses. Opium poppies were cultivated by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia as early as 3400 B.C. and were known to Arabs, Greeks and Romans, who used them as sedatives.
Ironically, the same type of trade imbalances between the U.S. and China that we see today also drove trade in opiates between Britain, Europe and China during the 18th and 19th centuries. Trade disputes became so heated that they later resulted in two Opium Wars between China and the West.
In 1806, morphine was isolated from opium and used extensively to treat pain, anxiety and was even added to cough suppressants. During the U.S. Civil War, morphine was used as a pain killer before and after surgeries that were conducted right on the battlefield.
Today, despite being heavily regulated, opiates are both over-prescribed for pain management and abused by people able to acquire illegal synthetic variants, such as fentanyl, which is produced primarily manufactured in China and smuggled into the U.S. via Mexico. The dangers of the opioid crisis are glaring when you consider that between 1999-2018, almost 450,000 people died from overdoses of both prescribed and illicit opioids.
Fortunately, there are some studies looking into whether cannabinoid CBD, which is thought to be safe and non-addictive, could be useful in reducing opioid cravings and anxiety ― two factors contributing to relapse. But before looking for new solutions, it’s important to look at the different mechanisms as to how opioids and CBD work in the body.
Opioid Effects on the Body vs ECS and CBD
Opioids attach to proteins called opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, digestive tract and other parts of the body. Once attached to the receptors, opioids block pain messages being sent from various parts of the body through the spinal cord and ultimately to the brain.
Opioids are considered to be very effective at relieving pain, however, they have side effects and can be very addictive. Some side effects can be life-threatening as well. The risk of addiction is especially high if opioids are used to manage chronic pain for extended periods of time. One recent study determined that over 60 percent of people receiving opioids to manage post-surgical pain for 90 days remain on opioids years later.
Side effects of opioids include:
- Shallow breathing
- Slowed heart rate
- Loss of consciousness
Hemp-derived CBD oil has no side effects, comes from organic sources and has been found to be useful for reducing seizures, anxiety, and inflammation among other purposes. But perhaps the most important discoveries related to CBD beyond potentially reducing anxiety, etc. are:
- The discovery of cannabinoids found in the hemp plant are also produced naturally within your body.
- The discovery of the human endocannabinoid system (ECS) and its role in regulating inflammation, sleep, mood and pain sensation, among other benefits.
The ECS has three main components ― endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes ― that work synergistically to maintain balance and wellness in the human body. Endocannabinoids anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) are produced by your body, while cannabinoids are produced naturally by the hemp plant and can also be produced synthetically.
Researchers have found two main endocannabinoid receptors to be responsible for signaling your ECS to take some sort of action to maintain balance in your body:
- CB1 receptors found mainly in the central nervous system
- CB2 receptors found mainly in the peripheral nervous system and immune cells
These receptors will bind to endocannabinoids depending on what is causing imbalance in the body. For example, CB1 receptors may bind with certain endocannabinoids in order to relieve pain or anxiety. Others may bind with CB2 receptors to signal that your body is experiencing inflammation ― a natural reaction to tissue injury and a warning to take action to mitigate the eventual onset of pain.
The mechanisms as to how your ECS works to alleviate feelings of anxiety has prompted researchers to investigate its potential as a tool in the fight against the opioid crisis. One recent study tested whether cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating compound found in the hemp plant, could reduce drug craving and anxiety in recently abstinent individuals with heroin use disorder.
The study compared individuals who received placebos to those receiving a dose of CBD. According to the study, those who received CBD showed a reduction in craving for heroin as well as reduced anxiety, which lasted for about a week after taking CBD.
Naturally Occurring Opioids
One reason why the current opioid crisis is so severe has to do with how long people have known about its properties to alleviate pain and produce euphoric effects, which has historically led to misuse and abuse. The ancient Sumerians called the opium poppy “Hul Gil” (the “Joy Plant”).
In fact, six opium alkaloids are known to occur naturally: morphine, narcotine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine and narceine. Endogenous neural peptides, such as endorphins and enkephalins can also be considered natural opioids.
In the next segment, we’ll look at the monetary cost to Americans due to the opioid crises as well as what role hemp-derived CBD may play in stemming the tide of the tragic consequences of opioid abuse.