For thousands of years, cannabis has been consumed for nutritional and holistic healing purposes. Looking back to ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks and Chinese, cannabis was their “pharmacopoeia”, an essential essence of their medicinal choosings.
Fast forward to the 21st century, scientists are working to understand the molecular makeup of cannabis as well as how it interacts with the complex biological systems in our bodies. However, despite many exciting and ground-breaking discoveries, we still only know a relatively small amount about cannabis, let alone how it interacts with the immune system.
If you try your best to stay up-to-date with the latest and greatest on cannabidiol (CBD), then you’ve probably been wondering about how it works, if it works, and what it does to our bodies. Can it help boost our immune system? Is there research to prove this? Will I notice a difference in how I feel?
In today’s article, we’ll talk all things immunity, how CBD works within our system and interplays with the immune system, and the amazing benefits that it has on our body.
Don’t resist yet, we’re just getting immune to the research!
THE IMMUNE SYSTEM: A BRIEF OVERVIEW
Day in and day out, we’re constantly exposed to viruses and bacteria, germs, and infectious diseases - all in an attempt to run havoc on our daily lives. Without our inner body’s defense system to keep these invaders away, we’d last about 4 minutes…..
Luckily, we have an immune system, a whole team of protectors within our body to ensure we stay protected and secure from foreign entities. By definition, an immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs, functioning with extreme precision to keep us healthy.
Who’s the head honcho in the immune system, you ask? White blood cells, more formally known as leukocytes. These leukocytes seek out and rid the body of an foreign and unwanted visitors. White blood cells can be separated into two groups: 1) lymphocytes (T cells and B cells) that help the body to remember past attackers and destroy evil antigens or 2) phagocytes that neutralize and absorb foreign invaders.
Our immune system is like a private inner body guard - literally always checking and asking questions to things trying to enter/invade our bodies body - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Sounds like VIP service to me!
Our immune system plays an important part in detecting malfunctioning cells inside our bodies too. Through the process of cell death (apoptosis), our immune system ensures that these cells do not continue to grow and develop into tumors.
One of the most crucial elements of keeping a healthy immune system is by killing cells - this maintains a harmonious balance between cell growth and cell death. For instance, if there is too much cell death occurring, an autoimmune disease may result. On the other hand, if too little cell death is occurring, cancer may develop.
THE IMMUNE SYSTEM AND THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM
So I’m sure you’re wondering, “how can I achieve optimal immune function?”
Well, it requires a complicated balancing act that requires constant communication between our tissues, organs, and immune cells.
In the early 1990s, scientists were able to discover the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Scientists concluded that the ECS consists of two main protein-coupled receptors: 1) cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2) and 2) endogenous ligands (endocannabinoids). In addition, proteins within the ECS transport our endocannabinoids as well as enzymes that help break them down in the body.
The ECS can be considered a “homeostatic regulator” - continuously working at all times to maintain a state of balance. The ECS regulates a variety of physiological processes, including inflammation and immune function. Both CB1 and CB2 receptors can be found attached to immune cells, even though there are up to 100 times more CB2 receptors than CB1 receptors.
Endocannabinoids act directly upon these immune cells, through the CB2 receptor. Endocannabinoids are produced in an instant when in demand, traveling backwards across synapses and modulating cell activities.
Research suggests that cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) have an impact on our health by interacting with the ECS. But how? Researchers are working hard to answer this ever evolving question.
CANNABIS AND THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
When we discuss cannabis, we could be talking for up to 400 different molecules. Whoa.
The most commonly studied and talked about are THC and CBD, having 100+ cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids - with different combinations of these making up different cannabis strains.
THC has been the focus of the majority of research. CBD? Not so much (yet).
THC binds to the CB2 receptor, creating an anti-inflammatory effect. Thus, suggesting that THC may be an immunosuppressant.
Despite indirectly binding with cannabinoid receptors, CBD is also considered to be an immunosuppressant, inhibiting T cell function and reducing cytokine production.
A 2009 mice study analyzed the profile of immune modulation by CBD and its involvement in the deregulation of T cells.
Researchers concluded that cannabidiol suppressed T cell function, reduced cytokine production, and several immunological endpoints.
The cool part? This is only what we know so far. A whole new wave of research and evidence is on its way to pointing towards cannabinoids to have adaptive and immunomodulating effects, instead of just the suppression of immune activity.
5 BENEFITS OF CBD ON THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Boom. We’ve got to the really really good stuff you are dying to know. Now that you know how the immune system works and how CBD interacts with it, you want to know the cold, hard facts (I mean, benefits). Well, I’ve broken down the best of the best research-based evidence and provided 5 major benefits of cannabidiol on the immune system below.
Commence a boosted (and informed noggin) immune system!
1. REDUCES INFLAMMATION
A 2016 study published in Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, monitored the CB2 receptor and its role as an inflammation regular in mice.
Scientists discovered that the anti-inflammatory effects of CB2 decreased white blood cell adhesion, decreased atherosclerosis lesions, decreased inflammatory cytokines, and decreased the blood-brain barrier disruption.
Though this study was done on mice, the findings are eye-opening.
The CB2 receptor may be a potential target to treat inflammatory disease.
2. MAY SLOW DISEASE PROGRESSION
The cannabis plant has a reputation for helping ease pain, improve one’s appetite, and may even reduce anxiety. But, recent research has taken it one step further - cannabis may be able to help upregulate the immune system, potentially improving patients outcomes.
A 2017 HIV study discovered that infection-fighting immune counts were higher in patients who were using cannabis, suggesting that their immune systems had been “boosted” by the plant.
3. IT IS AN IMMUNOSUPPRESSANT
As mentioned above, CB2 receptor may provide a novel therapeutic modality against autoimmune diseases as well as inflammation.
Cannabinoids and their immunosuppressive effects have been studied in many disease models such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and allergic asthma. These studies have shown that cannabinoids exert their immunosuppressive properties in numerous ways:
commencement of cell death
stopping cell production
inhibiting cytokine and chemokine production
inducing regulatory T cells
4. SUPPRESSES CYTOKINE PRODUCTION
Speaking of cytokines, studies are showing promise for this suppression. Cytokines are small proteins that are involved in cell signaling (in layman's terms).
You can think of cytokines as mail (wo)men. They help pick up, process, and send off your mail, similar to what cytokines do in our bodies.
Most of the time, pro-inflammatory cytokines flee to different parts of the body, creating inflammation.
CBD has been shown to decrease cytokine production.
5. CBD AND CANCER
With the immune system unarmed and vulnerable, cancer cells can grow uncontrollably. The only approved anticancer weapon we have so far are treatments like chemotherapy.
It’s not surprising that so much excitement lies around cannabis, THC and CBD in particular.
A 2006 pilot study assessed the effects of THC on patients with cancer. This investigation paved the way for cannabinoids, possessing cancer-killing effects beyond apoptosis.
More recently, a 2019 lung cancer case report took scientists by storm. Though this study was only an n of 1, the patient’s self-administration of cannabidiol significantly reduced the size of the lung mass in just 3 months (November 2017 - January 2018).
The data presented here may indicate that CBD may have an effect on cancer cells.
However, there is still much uncertainty in regards to the relationship between cannabinoids, the immune system, and cancer. More research is needed to be done on larger sample sizes, conditions, and strains of cannabis.
HOW TO BOOST YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM WITH CBD
Now that you’ve absorbed all that juicy and boosting information, you’re ready to implement CBD into your life. But I’m healthy, do I need it to maintain my health?
A) INCORPORATE CBD INTO YOUR DAILY ROUTINE
Whether you’re new to cannabidiol altogether or try and use it a couple times a week when you remember to, bringing it into your daily life may be the natural option you’re looking for.
Available in a wide array of options (drops, capsules, creams, salves, edibles, etc.), you’re bound to find the type that suits your personal needs best.
The totally free, endorphin promoting, movement option to make you feel better, physically and mentally = exercise.
Keeping up with your exercise regime is just one of the pillars of healthy living. Not only does exercise improve your heart health, lower your blood pressure, and help control your body weight, but it also protects against various diseases.
C) STRESS LESS, MEDITATE MORE
A systematic review of randomized controlled trials published in 2016, discussed the importance of meditation and its effects on the immune system.
Meditation has been suggested to improve immune cell aging, antibody response, and immune cell count.
THE IMMUNE SYSTEM AND CBD: FINAL THOUGHTS
Our own personal bodyguard, reporting for duty, 7 days a week, 24/7, our good ‘ol immune system. Fighting off foreign invaders everyday tirelessly. Keeping our immune system strong and protected is so important when wanting to stay healthy and disease-free.
The research done so far on cannabidiol and immunosuppressives holds promise for protecting and boosting our internal protective system. Whether you are wanting to reduce inflammation or wanting a preventive immunosuppressive option, cannabidiol may be the 100% natural option you didn’t know was possible for boosting your immune system.
Until next time, as always, continue to be well and stay healthy!
*DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is for educational purposes only. It does not exploit or provide medical advice of any kind. Therefore, any reliance you place on the information below is strictly at your own risk. Please check with your medical provider before starting or changing a CBD routine.
Kirsten Thornhill was born and raised in a small farm town in Northern California. Kirsten graduated with a Master of Science degree in exercise physiology from Point Loma Nazarene University. She is very passionate about human physiology and the metabolic and nutritional adaptations that occur during exercise in active individuals and athletes. Kirsten has specialized in teaching clinical and practical exercise and rehabilitation applications. She enjoys educating and informing people on the importance of lifetime movement, holistic and lifestyle medicine, and health research and development. Her passion for alternative medicine enables her to strive when promoting health and education.
Kaplan BLF, Springs AEB, Kaminski NE. The profile of immune modulation by cannabidiol (CBD) involves deregulation of nuclear factor of activated T cells (NFAT). Biochem Pharmacol. 2008.
Keen L, Abbate A, et al. Confirmed marijuana use and lymphocyte count in black people living with HIV. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2017.
Molina PE, Winsauer P, Zhang P, et al. Cannabinoid administration attenuates the progression of simian immunodeficiency virus. AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses. 2011.
Rieder SA, Chauhan A, Singh U, et al. Cannabinoid-induced apoptosis in immune cells as a pathway to immunosuppression. Immunobiology. 2010.
Sule-Suso J, Watson NA, Pittius DGV, et al. Striking lung cancer response to self-administration of cannabidiol: A case report and literature review. SAGE Open Med Case Rep. 2019.
Turcotte C, Blanchet M, Laviolette M, et al. The CB2 receptor and its role as a regulator of inflammation.
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