It’s flu season. Everywhere you look, people are sneezing into the crooks of their elbows or even worse, their hands. It’s an epidemic—and even if you boost your intake of vitamin C, it’s hard to avoid a sniffle or cough. So here’s the big question: Can cannabis help support the immune system?
Cannabis & the Endocannabinoid System
First, let’s take a look at how cannabis interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a network of cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body that connects with the cannabinoids in cannabis.
Found in organs and glands, immune cells and connective tissue, cannabinoid receptors play a huge role in how our bodies function. One of these cannabinoid receptors, namely the CB2 receptor, is associated with the immune system and its functions.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are two of the most recognized cannabinoids in cannabis. These and other cannabinoids interact with ECS receptors in the body to help with many processes like:
Inflammation is a clear indication that the immune system has been compromised, whether through bacterial infections, autoimmune diseases or other conditions. When cannabinoids interact with the body’s ECS receptors, they can reduce inflammation while balancing the body’s regular vital functions. As anti-inflammatory agents, cannabinoids can promote resistance to viruses and infections.
Some Cannabis Can Actually Suppress the Immune System
However, earlier studies on animals showed that THC caused greater severity of infection and led to a faster onset of symptoms. This is because cannabis can dampen the immune system through strong immunosuppressive properties. Some cannabis strains may decrease resistance to infectious agents instead of strengthening the immune system.
Basically, immunosuppressive cannabinoids may not support the immune system in healthy people. But on the other hand, cannabinoids can support the immune system in folks with overactive immune systems that oftentimes lead to autoimmune diseases.
Marijuana & Autoimmune Diseases
You may only think about the immune system in terms of catching a cold during the winter. But problems with the immune system can also present in chronic diseases, too. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system is either overactive or abnormally inactive, leading to inflammation pain, fatigue and more.
In cases of immune over-activity, the body attacks and breaks down its own molecules. The body and immune system are then vulnerable to infections and diseases. Common autoimmune diseases include:
Cannabis is an immunosuppressant, while the ECS also plays a role in immunoregulation. Together, cannabis and the body’s ECS interact to lower an over-active immune system and can cause apoptosis. Apoptosis is just another word for cell death, and in the case of autoimmune diseases, apoptosis helps clear dead cells and leads to shrinkage of harmful cells.
Multiple sclerosis is one such autoimmune disorder where cannabis, and specifically THC, lowers pain levels while promoting neuroprotective and immunosuppressive properties.
CBD is similarly effective against rheumatoid arthritis, because it has anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Certain types of cancer are marked by the presence of inflamed cells in tumour tissue. Cannabis induces apoptosis of harmful cells and reduces inflammation in painful areas.
If you’re suffering from an over-active immune system that leads to inflammatory diseases, allergies and autoimmune disorders such as diabetes and arthritis, cannabis may indeed help decrease symptoms by suppressing the immune system.
For those not suffering from an autoimmune disease, more research is required to understand the exact interaction between cannabinoids and the body’s CB2 receptor. Although there’s a clear link between cannabinoids and the immune system, sometimes it appears to boost the immune system while sometimes it suppresses it.
So if you’re thinking of taking cannabis to support your immune system, take it slow and keep a journal so you know where you may need to change your cannabis regimen to help you feel better.
Photo credit: Daniel Spase