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Cannabis and Immunity: What Science Says About Cannabinoids and Immune Systems

A 2020 research guide on using cannabis for natural immunity boosting benefits and what science has to say about cannabinoids CBD and THC for immune system support.

Could weed boost your immunity? It’s possible. Some science suggests THC and CBD positively impact immunity.

Some claim that cannabis calms a cytokine storm, for example, preventing your immune system from overreacting against itself. Some even believe that cannabis is more effective than traditional drugs, or that it’s an effective medication for various illnesses.

There’s a lot of information (and misinformation) about cannabinoids and immunity. Today, we’re exploring what science says about cannabis and your immune system. Extensive research has already been put into cannabis and nutritional supplements, but given the gravity of the COVID-19 coronavirus health threat – there is a necessary need to cover marijuana's THC and hemp's CBD and the whole cannabis plant's medicinal and therapeutic effects towards the body immune system's immunity.

While this cannabis use-related immune system guide is organized differently than the best CBD oils, drinks, gummies, and skincare rankings, there is much to be said, sorted and shown as marijuana and hemp make their way back into consumers medicine cabinets as a natural remedy and reemerging alternative. It's time to review what science says about cannabinoids and our immune system's function and whether or not cannabis can be a real immunity booster that individuals turn to based on medical research and scientific literature.

How the Immune System Works

You could write a textbook on how the immune system works. We’ll provide a short version.

First, your immune system recognizes a foreign invader in your body. Your immune system detects a flu virus in your bloodstream, for example, and realizes it needs to take action.

In response to the foreign invader, your immune system sends white blood cells to the area to engulf the target. These white blood cells (also known as leukocytes) are the key to your immune system. Good white blood cells help your body fight foreign invaders.

There are other factors for immune response, including proteins called cytokines and lymphocytes. These compounds target specific types of invaders. White blood cells called phagocytes, for example, target invading organisms, while neutrophils help fight bacteria. These and other compounds work together to help your body fight off foreign invaders.

During this immune response, your body creates antibodies. Lymphocytes respond to the foreign invader by creating antibodies.

Antibodies can recognize foreign invaders and target them, but they can’t fully destroy them without help. That’s why they join with T cells – also known as ‘killer cells’ – to remove invaders from the body.

How Cannabis Affects Immunity

Some believe that cannabis boosts immunity by supporting different aspects of your immune system. Cannabis may actually help your immune system by suppressing it, preventing your immune system from overreacting against your body.

Cannabis contains natural chemicals called cannabinoids. Two of the best known cannabinoids include THC and CBD. These and other chemicals could help your body fight invaders, supporting your immune system in different ways.

The chemicals in cannabis target your endocannabinoid system, which includes CB1 receptors (mostly found in the brain) and CB2 receptors (mostly found in your peripheral nervous system or immune cells).

Science suggests there’s a relationship between the endocannabinoid system and the immune system. But does that mean cannabis supports immunity? The answer is complicated.

The Endocannabinoid System and the Immune System

The endocannabinoid system consists of two types of receptors, including:

CB1 Receptors: Mostly located in the brain.

CB2 Receptors: Mostly located in the peripheral nervous system or immune cells.

Immune cells have approximately 10 to 100 times more gene expression of CB2 compared to CB1. When endocannabinoids activate these receptors, they may control various immune system functions – including cell signaling cascades and homeostasis of your immune system.

Science shows that endocannabinoids have a particularly noticeable effect on the lymph nodes and the gut, which have strong concentrations of immune cells.

Immune cells can even create their own cannabinoids. Yes, your body produces its own endogenous cannabinoids.

Immune cells create endogenous cannabinoids like 2-AG, which regulates your immune system.

These cannabinoids work differently from exogenous cannabinoids like THC and CBD, which come from outside the body.

Science suggests THC and CBD have immunosuppressive effects. That means they inhibit cell signaling that normally leads to pro-inflammatory immune system responses, also known as active immune responses.

Suppressing the immune system may seem like a bad thing – but not necessarily. In many cases, it’s in your body’s best interest to suppress its immune system.

The Value of Suppressing the Immune System

We’ve established that exogenous cannabinoids (like THC and CBD) seem to suppress the immune system, changing your body’s immune response. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Chronic diseases like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and psoriasis occur when the immune system is overactive. Your immune system is dysregulated, and your immune responses are heightened. This creates inflammation and pain.

If you have chronic inflammation, then it could be linked to an overactive or ineffective immune system. Your body recognizes the foreign invader, and your body knows it needs to kill that foreign invader, but the compounds your body is sending to that foreign invader are not working to remove it from your body.

Over time, this ineffective immune response leads to inflammation and pain. For many, this inflammation and pain doesn’t go away. It’s chronic.

That’s why some suggest that THC and CBD can help. They reduce your body’s immune response, preventing it from overreacting against invaders. THC and CBD could relieve pain and discomfort caused by immune dysfunction.

CBD Reduces Inflammation

CBD is prized for its ability to reduce inflammation. Science agrees, and CBD has shown some evidence of reducing inflammation when applied topically.

Inflammation sounds like a bad word, but it’s simply your body’s immune response. Your body sends white blood cells and other compounds to a location on your body, and this produces inflammation.

Toxins can also increase body inflammation, and inflammation seems to be a biomarker of disease. Inflammation may increase your risk of disease or illness, and many common diseases seem linked to inflammation.

This 2016 study showed that CBD applied transdermally (through your skin) significantly reduced arthritis by reducing certain cells related to the inflammatory immune response.

Researchers concluded that topical CBD application “has therapeutic potential for relief of arthritis pain-related behaviors and inflammation without evidence side-effects”, praising CBD gel for reducing joint swelling, improving limb posture scores, and boosting other metrics of arthritis.

CBD is prized for its ability to reduce arthritis pain, but increasing research shows other compounds in cannabis may have similar effects. Some cannabinoids suppress cytokines, for example, which appear to play a crucial role in inflammation.

Cannabinoids May Suppress Cytokine Activity

Cytokines are a class of small proteins that play a crucial role in your immune system. Your body secretes cytokines, then sends cytokines to the source of infection.

That all sounds good – but cytokine activity isn’t always good in a problematic immune system. If your immune system is dysfunctional, then cytokines can do more harm than good.

The Spanish Flu of 1919 was unique because it killed young, healthy people with strong immune systems. Researchers found that the influenza virus triggered a ‘cytokine storm’: it forces the immune system to overreact, sending too many cytokines to the source of the infection. These cells got confused and attacked everything – including crucial body functions. People with the strongest immune systems died in hours because of this cytokine storm.

There’s some evidence that COVID-19 reacts in a similar way. Some COVID-19 fatalities are linked to an overreacting immune system.

Tumor-necrosis-factor alpha (TNF-α) is one type of cytokine. Overexpression of TNF-α is linked with diseases like IBD and Crohn’s Disease. There’s also some evidence that TNF-α is linked with cancers, anxiety, and depression.

We already know CBD can help with pain and inflammation related to IBD. However, certain studies have also found that CBD can lower TNF-α levels in mice. This suggests that CBD could manage your body’s cytokine response, although more research is necessary.

Interleukins are another common type of cytokine. Interleukins affect your body’s immune response. Research shows interleukins are impacted by endogenous cannabinoids (produced by your body) and exogenous cannabinoids (like CBD and THC taken orally).

Some research suggests that cannabis affects interleukins, changing the way these cytokines respond. Other research, however, shows mixed results.

This 2019 study found that CBD alone did not inhibit a specific type of interleukin (IL-8), although a full spectrum version of cannabis sativa did inhibit IL-8.

Based on these results, it’s possible there’s an ‘entourage effect’, with other cannabinoids also impacting your body’s immune response. CBD may not work on its own, but CBD combined with the other hundreds of chemicals in the cannabis plant could play a role in immune response.

Cannabis Could Target the NF-κB Immune System Protein

As reported by Hanna Webster at Ganjapreneur, cannabis seems to target other immune system proteins, including one called NF-κB. This protein is involved in immune regulation. It lays dormant in unstimulated cells, then is activated by signals coming from outside the cell.

NF-κB is in charge of cell proliferation, cell survival responses, and other immune system responses. When NF-κB is activated, it causes an immune response. Inhibiting this pathway can decrease chronic inflammation from excessive cell signaling.

Studies have found that cannabis sativa extract and CBD alone could impact the immune system. This 2019 study, for example, found that both cannabis sativa extract and CBD alone inhibited the NF-κB pathway, mostly through TNF-α, which can activate the NF-κB pathway. These compounds also affected genes associated with skin inflammation, which could make the compounds valuable for conditions like psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis.

That study also revealed another complication of the immune system: all elements of your immune system seem interconnected. When cannabis impacts one aspect of your immune system – like one type of cytokine – it can also indirectly impact many other parts of your immune response.

Cannabis Could Lead to Cell Death (Apoptosis)

When cells die, it’s called apoptosis. THC has been linked to apoptosis in multiple cell types.

Cell death may sound bad – but it can actually be a good thing. Apoptosis is a natural body function. It clears away damaged cells, forcing your body to make new ones. New, healthy cells may be more effective. Older, damaged cells may be more prone to disease.

Studies have shown that CBD causes apoptosis in a variety of cell types. Scientists believe this effect is linked with the activation of CB2 receptors. When CB2 receptors are blocked, it prevents natural apoptosis. By activating CB2 receptors, cannabis may facilitate your body’s natural cell death process.

THC has been used to treat tumor suppression in cancer patients, and some researchers believe this is linked to cell death. By facilitating your body’s natural cell death processes, THC could help your body fight cancer and other invaders.

Don’t get too excited about these anti-cancer benefits: researchers have found that certain cells, including breast cancer cells, are not impacted by cannabinoid-induced apoptosis. More research needs to be done to understand this connection.

Cannabis and the COVID-19 Coronavirus

Could cannabis treat or prevent the COVID-19 coronavirus? There’s no evidence supporting that claim.

In fact, evidence suggests that cannabis has immuno-suppressive effects, which means it weakens the immune system. This can be helpful for certain conditions – say, if you have an overactive immune system. For conditions like the cold or flu virus, however, a weakened immune system is not a good thing.

Cannabis may suppress your immune system, inhibiting certain cytokines. Cytokines are the proteins that help your immune system do its job. By inhibiting these cytokines, cannabis could make your body more susceptible to cold or flu symptoms.

Despite the lack of evidence, you can find plenty of anecdotal evidence online proclaiming that CBD has antiviral applications and that it can reduce the risk of coronavirus, among other benefits.

Some argue that suppressing the immune system prevents the infamous cytokine storm, for example, where your immune system overreacts to the virus. There’s some evidence that COVID-19 fatalities are linked to an overreacting immune system, although this effect was more prominent in the 1919 Spanish Flu than in the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Overall, there’s no scientific evidence analyzing how cannabis reacts to COVID-19 or the coronavirus. However, there’s some evidence showing that CBD could treat viral infections.

CBD and Viral Infections

There’s some small evidence that CBD has antiviral benefits. Because of these small studies, some suggest using CBD to treat the COVID-19 coronavirus. Let’s take a closer look at this connection.

Researchers recently published an in vitro study showing that CBD had a direct antiviral effect against the Hepatitis C virus. Researchers inserted CBD into a test tube with the Hep C virus, then found it killed the virus.

In another study, researchers found that CBD reduced neuro-inflammation (inflammation in the brain) in a virus-induced animal model of multiple sclerosis. However, researchers believed these effects weren’t technically antiviral: instead, they were linked to the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD.

You can also find anecdotal evidence online of people using CBD to treat viral infections, including herpes and shingles.

A group of British and Italian researchers acknowledged these anecdotal reports in this study, where they concluded that evidence was “plausible on the basis of the anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties of CBD”. However, researchers did not suggest CBD had an intrinsic antiviral effect.

CBD Could Help Your Immune System Handle Skin Grafts and Organ Transplants

Researchers in Israel are studying whether CBD could treat graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a potentially fatal condition with a mortality rate over 80%.

GVHD occurs when your immune system rejects an organ or bone marrow transplant. Your immune system recognizes the transplant as a foreign invader, then attacks the transplant, triggering a deadly chain reaction in the body.

Results are encouraging so far: researchers have found that CBD could suppress the body’s immune response to GVHD, which could increase the chances of a successful organ or bone marrow transplant.

Both COVID-19 fatalities and GVHD are triggered by extreme immune overresponses. However, GVHD is not triggered by a virus. It’s possible CBD could suppress the immune system to prevent GVHD but have no impact on COVID-19.

Final Word: How Your Cannabis Usage Affects Immunity

What does all of this research mean about your cannabis usage and immunity?

First, it appears cannabinoids are immuno-suppressive. They suppress the immune system. Natural cannabis chemicals like THC and CBD significantly reduced cytokine expression.

Because cannabis suppresses the immune system, it could support some conditions but not others.

Weakening the immune system could help control your body’s response to inflammation and pain, for example, which could be caused by an overactive immune system. In some conditions, your immune system does more harm than good. It’s overreacting, and that mean it’s less effective.

Suppressing the immune system isn’t always a good thing, however.

Cannabis could have negative effects on conditions like HIV, for example, or any other condition where the patient has a weakened immune system. Cannabis may also be problematic for conditions where cells are not affected by cannabinoid-induced apoptosis (like the breast cancer cells mentioned above).

There’s some evidence that cannabinoids reduce inflammation. We know that CBD seems to reduce inflammation when applied trans-dermally, for example.

There’s also evidence that cannabinoids have a transient effect on the immune system, which means they help treat acute or chronic inflammation without affecting the immune system’s long-term ability to defend itself. In other words, it could give your immune system a boost when needed without impairing its ability to do its job.

Overall, ordinary cannabis usage should not weaken your immune system on its own. However, if you are already sick, it’s possible that excessive cannabis usage could make the condition worse. Suppressing your immune system can reduce your body’s ability to fight the flu or cold virus, for example.

As more research gets released, we’re learning more about how cannabis affects the immune system in both positive and negative ways.



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