Cannabis is famous for providing consumers with a happy, trippy good time. Yet, when it comes to the immune system, the herb is all business. Not only is the plant effective at relieving some of the pain and uncomfortable symptoms of autoimmune disease, but it is showing a lot of potential as a powerful immunomodulator. Perhaps the most important question here is, when it comes to cannabis and autoimmune diseases, does the herb actually work?
What is an autoimmune disease?
An autoimmune disease arises when a hyperactive immune system mistakes your own cells for a foreign invader. If your immune system is healthy, it seeks out and defends your body against pathogens.
Each time they encounter one of these pathogens, the immune system creates a special protein called an antibody in response.
These antibodies help the body take down very specific threats. In autoimmune disease, your body develops and produces these antibodies in response to very specific organ tissues.
These antibodies act as signals to let the immune system know that these are tissues to be targeted. Once something is flagged with an antibody, special cells called T-Cells do the dirty work and destroy whatever has been marked.
These antibodies can be made in response to all sorts of things. In some autoimmune diseases, antibodies against neurons in the brain are abundant. In others, you may find antibodies against specific types of cell receptors or enzymes.
Some of the most common autoimmune diseases include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (immune system attacks the cartilage in joints)
- Systemic lupus (affects a wide variety of organs, including kidneys, skin, joints, and brain)
- Celiac disease (immune system begins to kill off tissue in the small intestine in response to gluten)
- Psoriasis (immune dysfunction in the skin)
- Hashimoto’s disease (immune system attacks the thyroid gland)
- Type 1 diabetes (immune system attacks insulin-producing glands in the pancreas)
- Multiple sclerosis (immune system attacks the myelin which surrounds neurons)
Unfortunately, there are no cures for autoimmune diseases.
How does cannabis engage the immune system?
When most people think of cannabis, the psychoactivity of the herb is one of the first things brought to mind. However, the plant’s effect on the immune system is a major reason the herb has so much therapeutic potential.
It’s a misconception to think that cannabis simply provides a distraction from a serious illness. Compounds in the herb directly engage with immune cells, creating real and valuable changes in the body.
This gives the herb the potential to fight cancer, ease neurological disorders, combat autoimmune diseases, and calm swelling.
But, what makes this possible? It’s all thanks to the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The endocannabinoid system and immune function
Cannabis compounds like psychoactive THC connect with special sites on cells called cannabinoid receptors.
These receptors provide a way for your cells to receive messages and respond to the communication. In this case, messages come in the form of endocannabinoids.
Endocannabinoids are the human version of THC. When you consume cannabis, active chemicals in the plant replace endocannabinoids at these receptor sites. Turns out, these receptors and chemicals help the immune system communicate with the rest of the body.
Thus far, scientists have found two primary types of cannabinoid receptors, cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2). CB1 receptors are most abundant in the brain, but they are also found on immune cells. CB2 receptors are most abundant in immune cells.
The presence of these receptor sites is a good indication that the ECS plays an important role in immune regulation. Research has discovered that endocannabinoids are immunomodulators.
Endocannabinoid levels rise when there is a pathogen threat. They also have been described as negative modulators of the immune system. Simply stated, this means that the compounds help the immune system “turn off”.
Cannabis can suppress a hyperactive immune system
When plant cannabinoids engage these sites in autoimmune cells, they have a suppressant effect on the immune system. This suppression raises some concerns for medical professionals, as having a repressed immune system can create vulnerability to illness and certain types of cancers.
However, these immunosuppressant effects can be extremely therapeutic in autoimmune disease. After acknowledging the potentially deleterious impacts of reduced immune function, Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti from the University of South Carolina explains,
[…] Further research of these compounds could provide opportunities to treat a large number of clinical disorders where suppressing the immune response is actually beneficial.
Why is inflammation a problem?
If your immune system is hyperactive, chances are you’re experiencing quite a lot of inflammation. Inflammation happens when something causes damage to tissue. This could be a direct injury, bacteria, toxins and a variety of other causes.
In response to the trauma, cells start to secrete a variety of compounds which trigger blood vessels to leak fluid into the damaged area. This swelling keeps the foreign invader or toxin from spreading to other areas of the body. They also act as immune signals, triggering immune cells to rush to the area.
The problem with chronic inflammation is that it prevents your body from functioning normally. When your joint is inflamed, it becomes stiff and difficult to move.
When inflammation happens in an organ or another part of your body, it simply cannot work very well. It can also cause serious damage over time. Losing the functionality of any body part is disastrous to long-term health, can contribute to a cascade of other symptoms, and can even cost you your life.
In autoimmune disease, your immune system continues to target and attack the same areas repeatedly. It’s like you have an infection that will never heal. In order to regain and maintain function in whatever tissue is being attacked, you need to calm the immune response and cut down inflammation.
Cannabis and inflammation
Research from 2014 made the groundbreaking discovery that cannabis can make changes to specific molecules called histones. Histones help control gene expression. The research found that THC can cause changes to histones in a way that suppresses inflammation.
Further, studies have shown that cannabinoids downregulate certain inflammatory proteins called cytokines. In 2008, researchers used animal models to test the effects ofnonpsychoactive CBD on type 1 diabetes.
They found that CBD treatment caused levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines to decrease, while levels of anti-inflammatory proteins increased.
The immune imbalance was tentatively corrected by CBD.
Cannabis is such a powerful anti-inflammatory that it has been shown to aid in remission of Crohn’s Disease. Crohn’s is a bowel disease in which inflammation in the gut runs rampant.
In a 2014 placebo-controlled trial, researchers treated 21 Crohn’s patients with either cannabis or a placebo. 11 patients were given cannabis. Out of the 11, five patients were in full remission by the end of the trial. 10 of the 11 patients showed improvements in their Crohn’s symptoms, compared to only 4 of 10 placebo controls.
Specific autoimmune conditions
We still have a lot to learn about cannabis and autoimmune disease. We do know is that active compounds in the herb can modulate immune function and reduce inflammatory response.
Autoimmune diseases and the endocannabinoid connection is a complicated topic, but here’s are a few brief summaries on the herb’s impact on three common conditions.
1. Type 1 diabetes
Cannabis seems to help those with type 1 diabetes in an interesting way. As mentioned earlier, the herb can calm inflammatory proteins in the pancreas.
Yet, back in 2001 researchers put THC to the test in rodents with autoimmune diabetes. After treatment, the researchers found that the mice had lower incidences of hypoglycemia.
The rodents also had a significant decrease in the loss of insulin. Additional studies show that cannabis treatment may help manage some of the symptoms of diabetes, including neuropathy and retinopathy.
2. Rheumatoid arthritis
In 2013, researchers discovered something interesting about Rheumatoid arthritis. Cells taken from RA patients had more CB2 receptors in their immune cells.
In a sense, the increased number of receptor sites is a sign that the cells are calling out for more endocannabinoids.
For some reason, the cells need an increased amount of endocannabinoid stimulation to function properly.
Earlier research from 2003 found tested the effects of CBD on rodents with laboratory-induced arthritis. After injecting an inflammatory compound, they treated the creatures with CBD. The cannabinoid decreased inflammation in a dose-dependent fashion. The inflammatory markers continued to decrease with consecutive treatment.
3. Crohn’s Disease
Though CB2 receptors are most commonly associated with the immune system, a research review has cited evidence that Crohn’s (CD) patients have increased expression of CB1 receptors in both the brain and the gut. High levels of endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG have also been found in the intestines of those with CD.
Similarly to arthritis, the overexpression of these receptors is a sign that the cells are calling out for more cannabinoids. This is a good sign that cannabinoid therapies hold therapeutic promise for the disease. The review also explained that cannabinoid treatment has been shown to reduce inflammation in the gut.
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