Can Cannabis Help Heal an Autoimmune Disease?

bymzimmerman3 minutes

A University of South Carolina study revealed novel pathways through which tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) could potentially help suppress immune function. The study, which was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, showed that the suppression of immune response by THC could be a useful treatment for autoimmune diseases.

What Is an Autoimmune Disease?

To date, more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases—from arthritis and celiac disease to fibromyalgia and inflammatory bowel disease—have been identified, with roughly two million Canadians suffering from an autoimmune disorder. Women tend to experience autoimmune disease at a higher rate than men do.

If an individual is afflicted with this condition, their immune system mistakenly attacks their body. This is because the immune system has trouble determining the difference between foreign agents and the body's own cells. Inflammation often results. Autoimmune disorders can not only damage or destroy organs, they can also prove to be fatal for some. Many theories abound as to what causes these conditions, ranging from genetic to environmental factors.

How Can Cannabis Help?

The University of South Carolina study, which was conducted on mice, found that THC is able to act as an epigenome, an outside molecule that has the ability to change DNA function as well as affect DNA expression in the immune system. THC was able to change the critical histones and suppress inflammation in the immune system of the rodents used in the study.

Researchers injected THC directly into 609 microRNAs—which regulate the expression of genes—and was able to substantially alter 13 microRNAs in mice. This change in the 13 microRNAs specifically affected genes related to the immune system. Based on these results, researchers concluded that THC has the potential to ease the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

As well, it was found that THC could suppress inflammation by activating the CB2 cannabinoid receptors, which are distributed predominantly in cells and tissues of the immune system. Though clinical trials on humans have yet to be conducted, this study opens up new avenues to investigate as possible treatment options for autoimmune diseases.

Though this study only looked at THC, cannabidiol (CBD) is also known to help regulate the immune system including the body's inflammatory response. CBD helps the body recognize the difference between normal internal bodily functions and foreign entities-meaning, it can act as an immunosuppressive, which would be helpful for folks suffering from autoimmune disease.

Cannabis has already shown promise in helping ease the symptoms of specific autoimmune diseases such as:

Rheumatoid Arthritis

A Hebrew University study showed that lab mice experienced a 50% increase in joint health when treated with CBD. Another study, published in the journal Rheumatology showed that CB2 receptors are found in exceptionally large amounts in the joint tissue of arthritis patients. Cannabis can be used to help reduce inflammation along with pain, by stimulating CB2 receptors found in the joints.

Celiac Disease

Cannabis may also work to help people who have celiac disease, which is a severe gluten allergy that causes an autoimmune response. One in 100 people worldwide are believed to have celiac disease, though it often goes undiagnosed. CBD can work on CB2 receptors in the gut, helping fight against attacks by the body on the digestive system when gluten is consumed.


A survey published by California-based Care By Design showed that 100% of fibromyalgia patients reported a reduction of pain when using CBD-rich cannabis for at least 30 days. Meanwhile, a University of Heidelberg study showed that when fibromyalgia patients were given varying doses of THC, and no other pain medication, they all experienced a significant decrease in pain.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Cannabis promotes healthy gut activity and has been historically used to relieve digestive problems. CBD can help reduce inflammation throughout the digestive system, while THC may also prove helpful for patients with various inflammatory bowel diseases. A 2011 study from the Institute of Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that 21 of 30 Crohn's disease patients found a significant improvement in their symptoms with the use of medical cannabis.

Photo credit: Alex Boyd