Linking the Known with the New

Plants have been used in medicine for thousands of years. Often, we knew that plants were effective, but we didn’t know why. Take for example white willow bark. For thousands of years this plant had been used in medicine to reduce pain and inflammation. A drug had even been synthesized from white willow bark called aspirin. It was miraculous, but we didn’t know how it worked until science discovered the inflammatory enzymes called cyclooxygenase and the specific enzyme designated COX-2. Now, we know that acetylsalicylic acid from white willow bark may be used to temporarily reduce the COX-2 enzyme associated with pain and inflammation. Thus, linking “the known” (white willow bark is good for pain and inflammation) with “the new” (acetylsalicylic acid blocks the COX-2 enzyme) leads us to the discovery of the miracle drug aspirin.

A similar pathway led to the discovery of our endorphin system. Plants from the poppy species were used to numb extreme pain and slow down a racing heart. Later, these plants were refined to create opium and morphine. These substances were traced to specific receptors in the brain, later called endorphin receptors. This knowledge of how these substances work inside the human body opened the way for discovering why we are happy when we exercise, why relaxation training improves heart function and why people in love experience less suffering with physical pain. Thus, linking “the known” (poppies, deep relaxation, exercise and love reduce physical pain and make us happy) with “the new” (opioids numb extreme pain) leads us to the discovery of the miracle drug morphine.

A third pathway of discovery helped us find the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The endocannabinoid system was first postulated in 1973 when researchers at Johns Hopkins University began to apply the scientific method of inquiry to the Cannabis plant species. But is wasn’t until 1990 at a meeting of the National Institutes of Health that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) receptors were explained. Now, Cannabis plant species have used in human nutrition and health for thousands of years. What awaited these scientists were ‘new’ discoveries from a well ‘known’ family of plants.


The discovery of the ECS system has opened the door to understanding how the foods and spices we eat impact our immune system. It also helps us peek into the way our infinite range of emotions impact our immune system, heart, bones, intestines and other organs. Further, it shines the light on the foolishness of restricting healthy foods such as hemp proteins, fats and fibers from our diet because of contravening economic policies. To be healthy in mind, body, community and species we must nourish the endocannabinoid system.

Author: Brazos Minshew, Msc, ND