The body of evidence that cannabinoids may help people with an Autoimmune disease is growing. Recent studies show that THC and CBD cannabinoids can reduce inflammation, prevent the spread of pathogens, and boost the immune system.
A staggering 50 million Americans have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Celiac, Multiple Sclerosis, Type-1 Diabetes and more. In fact, it’s estimated that there are between 80 and 100 different types.
An autoimmune disease is a condition where the immune system launches an attack on the body. Instead of targeting bacteria and viruses (pathogens), the immune system thinks healthy cells are foreign invaders… and goes to war.
Nobody is exactly sure what causes this to happen, but inflammation is a common characteristic of autoimmune disease. Other symptoms include redness, heat, pain, swelling, and dysfunction.
Autoimmune diseases can be incredibly painful and debilitating. Most treatment options come with a manuscript of horrible side effects.
For years, thousands of people with autoimmune diseases have quietly promoted cannabis as a safe, effective treatment option in dealing with the pain that comes with autoimmune diseases. But today, with our ability to isolate certain cannabinoids and terpenes, pain reduction is just the tip of the iceberg.
In recent years, scientists have been seeking to understand how cannabis works to alleviate autoimmune diseases symptoms.
What we understand today is that cannabis doesn’t just treat symptoms, it can directly engage with the immune cells through the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The ECS is a group of specialized receptors that help modulate bodily functions like appetite, sleep, anxiety, digestion, and cognition. The ECS is also closely tied to both the nervous system and immune system.
Research has shown that the ECS plays an important role in regulating the immune system. There are two main receptor sites in the ECS, CB1, and CB2.
The CB1 receptors are more abundant in the brain, but they are also found in immune cells. CB2 receptors are primarily located in immune cells. The cannabinoids in marijuana act sort of like a key at receptor sites. They unlock and open the door to allow for communication between the immune system and the rest of the body.
Endocannabinoid levels rise when there is a pathogen threat. When you have a bacterial infection or virus the ECS mobilizes the immune system to fight the threat. But in the case of autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakes healthy tissue for a pathogen and goes to battle against the good guys.
Cannabinoids act as negative modulators, meaning that they help the immune system turn off or slow down when needed. They act as a suppressant, calming the immune system.
In those without an autoimmune disease, this may have a negative effect, since illnesses are more likely when an immune system is suppressed. But with autoimmune diseases, the immune system is constantly in overdrive. It needs to rest. Cannabis has been shown to reset and balance the immune system so that the body can return to homeostasis.
The other big factor to consider is inflammation, a foundational characteristic of autoimmune disease. Inflammation can be generated by injury, toxins, bacteria and other causes.
Anytime you get sick, sprain your ankle, have an allergic reaction, get a cut or scrape… your body triggers a series of chemical reactions that produce inflammation at the site to help you heal. Blood vessels leak fluid which creates swelling to protect the damaged area. The swelling also prevents the pathogen from spreading and acts as an immune system catalyst. This triggers more immune cells to rush to the inflamed area.
If you suffer from chronic inflammation you know how difficult it is for your body to function normally. You experience muscle aches, joint stiffness, and even dysfunction. It may be too painful to even move. That’s because your immune system mistakenly and repeatedly attacks the same areas over and over. The inflammation never subsides. For instance:
- Rheumatoid arthritis ceaselessly attacks the cartilage in joints
- Lupus affects several organs, including kidneys, skin, joints, and brain
- Type 1 diabetes continually attacks insulin-producing glands in the pancreas
- Multiple sclerosis tries to destroy the myelin which surrounds neurons
- Hashimoto’s diseases attack the thyroid gland
- Crohn’s disease is an unremitting assault the bowels
Several studies have shown that cannabinoids THC and CBD can both reduce inflammation. But no one has really understood how cannabis can calm the immune response and act as an anti-inflammatory. That’s changing.
Research from scientists at the University of South Carolina shows that cannabis can reduce inflammation related to autoimmune disease. The study, published in The Journal of Biochemistry Research found that THC actually affected the participants DNA through something called epigenomes. Epigenomes are like light switches, they turn genes on and off.
The study showed that THC influenced a group of proteins called histones, which triggered certain inflammation producing genes to slow down or turn off.
In another study published in the online journal Future Medicinal Chemistry researchers found that THC can stimulate immune system cell apoptosis. Apoptosis is when a cell dies. This is a natural function in the body to maintain balance and homeostasis, but in people with an autoimmune disease immune cells stay active and continue fighting healthy cells instead of dying off naturally.
Additional research shows that THC may help with chronic inflammation by suppressing a type of protein cell called IL-6, which is linked to a reduction in tissue and joint damage.
Other cannabinoids like CBD have been shown to slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and increase anti-inflammatory proteins in those with multiple sclerosis.
More research is needed, particularly human studies, to learn more about how cannabinoids can regulate and balance the immune system. These studies and more seem to indicate that cannabis may provide an exciting new treatment option for the over 50 million Americans suffering from an autoimmune disease.
Source: Herb.com, Autoimmune Diseases: How Does Cannabis Help? Anna Wilcox, October 4, 2016
- Yang, V. L. Hegde, R. Rao, J. Zhang, P. S. Nagarkatti, M. Nagarkatti. Histone modifications are associated with Delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol-mediated alterations in antigen-specific T cell responses. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 2014; DOI: 10.1074/jbc.M113.545210