How cannabis affects the immune system

Cannabis shows potential in treating life-threatening autoimmune conditions but could pose risks.

How Cannabis Regulates Immune Responses

Cannabis interacts directly with a system in our body, called the endocannabinoid system, that helps regulate our immune responses and we know that it can be helpful in treating auto-immune diseases. It is not necessarily as helpful when it comes to fending off viruses and other pathogens, however.

What cannabis does to the body

Chemicals in the cannabis plant like THC and CBD, called, cannabinoids, interact directly with the body’s endocannabinoid system. These chemicals mimic natural chemicals the body produces, all of which can trigger a wide variety of effects on functions like sleep, hunger, pain, immunomodulatory effects and mood.

Part of the endocannabinoid system’s role is to maintain homeostasis or balance of the immune system. While the literature contains some contradictions on how exactly that works, it is generally considered a “gate-keeper” of the immune system — preventing it from causing overwhelming inflammatory responses.

Suppressing the immune system and the effects of cannabinoids for inflammation may make cannabinoids helpful in conditions where immune responses turn against the patient’s own body. Indeed, many autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes, have already been tied to dysregulation in the endocannabinoid system, making CBD oil for autoimmune diseases of particular interest.

Still, in cases of infection from pathogens, researchers warn that these immunosuppressive and immunomodulatory effects could be problematic suppressing the body’s natural and needed immune responses via the endocannabinoid system.

Research on cannabis for immune health

Beyond treating autoimmune conditions, immunomodulatory effects can in some other situations be desirable when dealing with certain infections. When under attack from an infection our bodies sometimes go into sepsis — producing a systemic inflammatory response that can lead to death. Using cannabinoids for inflammation and reducing this response could be live-saving.

Research on animals shows that stimulating endocannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system with cannabinoids like those in cannabis can reduce infection-related inflammation, in some cases also reducing the overall death rate. Some studies also showed the immunomodulatory effects of cannabis improved recovery for infections like malaria.

In other animal experiments, reducing stimulation of these same receptors led to increased survival from infection. And in some experiments stimulating these receptors decreased immune response against infections like candida, legionella pneumophila, and influenza.

These animal studies present a somewhat conflicted picture, and human studies have been extremely limited.

Potential benefits and harms

Interestingly, in spite of the data from animal studies, early double-blind, placebo-controlled human studies found no immunological alterations observed with THC use. Later though, some immunosuppressive effects and immunomodulatory effects were found in the human research. Notably though, in the same study, this effect reversed in two patients who had long term exposure to cannabis. So it’s possible that the long term effects of cannabis and cannabinoids for inflammation may differ from acute use when it comes to immune response.

Still, while researchers have found immune differences in humans from cannabis use, they haven’t confirmed that these alterations make CBD oil for autoimmune disease or cannabis users more susceptible to infection

So, while in some ways cannabinoids show promise for treating viral infections (such as reducing sepsis), they can also pose risks like suppressing needed immune responses.

Researchers report that cannabinoids do have potential as treatments for infectious disease but say we need much more research to learn exactly how to use them in a way that ensures they are helping and not hurting our chances against an infection. While cannabinoids for inflammation and CBD oil for autoimmune diseases might show promise, further research is required. Until more research is done, we really can’t say for sure.

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This article was originally published on The Cannigma, and shared here with permission.