Using cannabis for health management is nothing new; many different civilizations have been taking advantage of its benefits for centuries. However it hasn’t been until recently that humans have started investigating the “how and why” behind its powerful properties in order to get a better understanding of the way it interacts with the body and is able to provide relief for certain systems while boosting the efficiency of others. One of the major systems being investigated is the immune system, one that plays a part in so many other systems of the human body and is so important to a person’s general health.
What is the Immune System
Every day humans are exposed to a variety of infectious diseases, bacteria, and viruses just by going about a normal day of activities. These diseases and antigens are considered attackers and are trying to infiltrate the body and run wild within the systems, causing debilitating illness and interrupting our daily lives. Our immune system is the first line of defense against these attacks and without it, humans would, to put it bluntly, struggle to survive.
The immune system is made up of a number of cells, tissues, and organs that all work together in a complex system meant to keep us healthy. Some of the most important parts of the immune system are the white blood cells, otherwise known as leukocytes. These blood cells are the front line defenders, seeking out and destroying any destructive invaders that happen to find their way into our bodies. Leukocytes are made up of two types of white blood cells:
- Lymphocytes are also known as B cells or T cells and are responsible for destroying any malicious antigens that enter the body. These cells also help the body remember previous attackers in order to more quickly wipe them out and and bring all systems back to normal.
- Phagocytes work to absorb and then neutralize any foreign intruders after they have been destroyed by the lymphocytes.
The immune system also plays an important part in detecting cells within the body that may be malfunctioning. Malfunctioning cells may be caused by dangerous issues like cancer, so once these cells have been identified, the immune system uses a process called apoptosis to kill the malfunctioning cells, which in turn stops the growth of tumors or other unhealthy growths.
With the complexity of the immune system and its overall importance to human health and longevity, it’s important that scientists understand all the ways it affects the other systems in the body and how they affect it. Within the last few decades, researchers have discovered a system that plays an important role in combination with the immune system called the endocannabinoid system.
The Endocannabinoid System
In the early 1990s researchers running studies on THC discovered part of the human body which they later named the endocannabinoid system, or ECS. Researchers have been studying the ECS for decades, however it is still a relatively new system and there is much that remains unknown. However, using genetic and pharmacological methods, researchers have concluded that the ECS is a vital part of human biology and essential to health and over well-being as a powerful regulator of various systems within the body, including the immune system.
How it Works
In simple terms, the endocannabinoid system maintains homeostasis within the body. If one or more systems experience any disruption, the ECS will step in and work to correct the imbalance and bring back equilibrium. Human bodies are complex with changes happening all the time. Conditions need to be kept stable in order for cells to maintain optimal performance, and that is the job of the endocannabinoid system.
There are three main components on the ECS that can be found in almost every major system of the body and are responsible for homeostasis when called upon after a disruptive element is introduced to the environment.
- Endocannabinoids are small molecules that bind to receptors and active them. These molecules are also very similar to the cannabinoid compounds produced by cannabis plants. These compounds are made up of fat-like molecules within cell membranes and the body is able to produce them on demand. Because the body can synthesize them immediately, these endocannabinoids are made and used exactly when they are needed, rather than stored away for later like other molecules in the body.
- Cannabinoid receptors are found on the surface of cells and monitor conditions outside the cell, transmitting any information about changes happening in the environment. If a big enough change is reported, the ECS will receive the message communicated by the receptors and initiate the proper response to balance the system and maintain homeostasis. Endocannabinoids are able to bind to either of the two main receptors, but the result will depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to.
- Metabolic enzymes are used to destroy endocannabinoids within the ECS systems once they have been used to reestablish homeostasis within the body. This helps ensure no overcorrection will be able to occur after the need for the endocannabinoid has ended.
Cannabis and the Immune System
The cannabis plant produces chemical compounds called cannabinoids. These compounds trigger chemical reactions inside the human body by attaching themselves to receptors in the brain and other systems via the endocannabinoid system, resulting in a variety of effects felt by the user. Cannabis is best known for producing the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), however cannabis also produces more than one hundred other cannabinoids, albeit in much smaller quantities. Cannabinoids have therapeutic properties either when taken individually or combined together.
Much of the research on cannabinoids and the immune system has been focused on THC and CBD, however researchers are actively looking into some of the other cannabinoids as well. Studies have shown that THC, for example, is able to bind to a specific receptor in the ECS, activating it and its anti-inflammatory effect. This research would suggest that THC can act as an immunosuppressant, which would be a promising result for autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s and multiple sclerosis .
Even CBD has been shown to work effectively as an immunosuppressant, actively reducing cytokine production and inhibiting T cell function . However, this is all conclusive evidence from only early research. Scientists have continued to look into the benefits of cannabis for autoimmune diseases and some anecdotal evidence even suggests cannabinoids can be adaptive to the immune system, rather than just providing only one response. However, there have been more specific studies on some of the most debilitating immune disorders, so let’s take a closer look at those now.
Many HIV patients currently use cannabis to help treat their anxiety, appetite, and pain, however recent research also suggests it may be beneficial in its ability to upregulate the immune system, providing the potential to improve the outcome for HIV patients. One study concluded that SIV (the simian version of HIV) infected monkeys who were given THC over 28 days saw what appeared to be a protective effect, lengthening their lives and reducing the overall viral load .
A later study took the test a bit further, giving the monkeys THC treatment for seventeen months instead of just one month. The results showed an increase in T cells and an overall reduction in viral load. They also found that the monkeys had reduced intestinal damage that is commonly caused by the virus .
With these positive results, researchers were able to replicate the test in humans. In the latest study, 95 HIV patients who were chronic cannabis users had their white blood cell counts compared to those who were not chronic cannabis users. The results showed that both types of infection-fighting blood cells were higher in those patients who used cannabis .
Cancer affects most of us at some point in our lives. Whether we face it ourselves or in someone we love, there is no escaping our contact with it. Currently, the only way to treat destructive cancer cells is by using treatments like chemotherapy which destroy not only the bad cancer cells, but also the healthy cells in the same area. This obviously has many terrible side effects. Recent research on the cannabis plant, however, suggests that it may have some antitumor properties, possibly opening it up as an option for treating certain types of cancer. One study investigated the cancer-killing effects of cannabinoids, however no concrete conclusion has been reached. Much of this has to do with the limitations of the research and the way mice react to treatment versus how a human might. However in this study with mice, it was shown that cannabinoids helped reduce brain tumors without suppressing the immune system in a noticeable way .
Just as the immune system is large and complex, so is the research looking for ways cannabis can help and interact with that system. Studies are almost constantly in process, but it will take time for their results to be combined and reviewed in a way that leads to strong evidence about the potential of cannabinoids for treating immune disorders. If you are suffering from an immune disorder, talk to your doctor before adding any cannabinoids to your treatment plan. They have the potential to help, but your doctor will always know best when it comes to your medical needs.