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Cannabinoids and Inflammation: What Does the Current Research Say?

Cannabinoids and inflammation

Is inflammation a cause for concern? Perhaps not in the short run, but…

Whenever we get infected, injured, or in other words, whenever there is a problem inside or on the body, our immune system sends hordes of white blood cells to protect the area, remove any harmful pathogens, and kick-start the healing process.

If the infection heals quickly, we’re OK. However, if the inflammation persists for a long time, the consequences can be devastating. Not only does it cause our immune function to go down, but chronic inflammation also accelerates the aging process.

All of this can lead to serious, life-threatening disorders like atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.

There are many different ways to combat inflammation and some of them include over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin, various supplements, and even corticosteroids.

While many people report benefits, the truth is, many of these solutions come with significant side-effects. That especially holds true for corticosteroids.

Very often, these side-effects outweigh the benefits and when that happens, we need to try something new.

Luckily, the research suggests that cannabinoids are indeed a promising tool that we can use to target inflammation. Though the research is still in early stages, the data shows great promise.

Let’s take a closer look at what the studies say.

Cannabinoids and Inflammation – What Is the Connection?

Based on some recent studies, medical marijuana has anti-inflammation properties. While conventional drugs mostly work by blocking prostaglandins (active lipid compounds that are released in response to infection or injury), cannabis suppresses the pro-inflammatory proteins (chemokines and cytokines) directly.

The first study that showcased this revolutionary potential was a 2009 study titled “Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs”.

The study was published in the Future Science journal and it was funded by none other than the National Institute of Health. The conclusions of the study were clear and straightforward.

Cannabinoids can indeed serve as novel therapeutic solutions for both inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. Obviously, this is just the beginning, but the study gave us a good template for future research.

Let’s examine the conclusions in more detail.

How Do Cannabinoids Impact Inflammation?

The same study suggests that cannabinoids can upregulate (increase the number of cell receptors) the immune system.

Moreover, it can suppress the inflammatory response and alleviate the symptoms of multiple autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes type 1. Lastly, it can also help with certain types of cancer (where chronic inflammation is the main culprit).

Cannabis and the immune system

The study suggests that cannabinoids play a crucial role in the regulation of the immune system. Exogenous cannabinoids can effectively suppress T-cell-mediated immune response by inducing apoptosis (cell death).

At the same time, they can also suppress both cytokines and chemokines, which can drastically reduce long-term inflammation.

You can use different alternatives to boost your immune system, and this data suggests that cannabis can also help.

Cannabis and colitis

Based on these results, cannabinoids have an enormous potential in treating different diseases where inflammation of the GI tract is the main issue. Colitis is no exception.

The study has shown that they regulate the cellular pathways that lead to inflammation in the colon. Moreover, they do so by controlling tissue response to stress and suppressing the proinflammatory cytokines directly.

We need more studies, of course, but as it stands, these results are very encouraging.

Cannabinoids and rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is arguably one of the worst inflammatory diseases in the world. It affects 1% of the global population, and the symptoms are often unbearable.

Can cannabinoids provide any help here? We only have results on mice so far, but data shows there’s room for optimism.

CBD, in particular, has strong protective effects against collagen-induced arthritis and the authors have shown that daily use of CBD inhibits the inflammatory effects as well as the progression of the disease.

The study has also demonstrated that these mice had less proliferation in their lymph node cells.

We need studies in humans to assess whether these results will translate.

Cannabinoids and other inflammatory diseases

Murine data suggest that CBD, THC, and CBN can suppress and even prevent inflammatory damage associated with allergic asthma.

Moreover, we see that endogenous cannabinoids regulate airway responsiveness and they may become effective therapeutics for other lung conditions as well (like chronic bronchitis).

The study also suggests that CBN has protective effects on coronary artery endothelial cells while CBD can reverse the devastating effects of high glucose levels on the same cells.

CBD shows great potential in treating diabetes type 1 while all cannabinoids can alleviate neuropathic pain associated with the disease.

Cannabinoids and cancer

Cancer is a group of diseases and it is unlikely that we will have a “silver bullet” that will knock them all down anytime soon. Still, inflammation plays a big role in the evolution of cancer and the question is – can cannabinoids help us here?

The data shows that all cannabinoids (especially THC) can induce apoptosis in both human and murine T cells.

THC also cured 1/4 of all mice in the study on T-cell leukemia and we have a strong hypothesis that endocannabinoids may also serve as endogenous tumor growth inhibitors.

We need more studies in this area, especially human studies. Nonetheless, cannabinoids seem to interfere with many processes involved in cancer development and they have strong therapeutic potential.

Cannabinoids and liver disease

Any inflammation resulting from liver disease can have truly devastating effects on our body.

Cannabinoids appear to have a protective role here as well.

The study demonstrates that endocannabinoids and exogenous cannabinoids can inhibit the pathological effects of liver fibrosis, cirrhosis, and different types of hepatic injury. Moreover, they may also prevent liver injury altogether and even regulate liver fibrogenesis as a whole.

The data is still early and limited, but endocannabinoids show great promise in treating the harmful effects of liver inflammation.

What Do the Other Studies Say?

The 2009 study wasn’t the only study in this area. However, it was a solid foundation for all future research in general.

A 2018 paper titled “Cannabinoid Delivery Systems for Pain and Inflammation Treatment” builds upon the conclusions of the previous study. It also suggests the use of cannabinoids as regular therapeutic drugs to treat different conditions – from pain and inflammation to insomnia.

It also shows the advantages of using nano-technological solutions for extreme precision in the administration of these drugs.

Another study from 2018 sheds light on the use of terpenoids to combat inflammation. The main focus was put on the comparison between terpenoids and CBD and the conclusion was that they have the potential to diminish acute inflammation, though not as much as CBD.

More research is needed to determine whether we can use these terpenoids to treat chronic inflammation as well.

A paper from 2016 also examined the possibility of using different cannabinoids to treat fibrosis-related inflammation. It concluded that THC, CBD, CBN, and even CBC hold great promise in this area.

Canadian Medical Association Journal published a study that demonstrated the potential of different cannabinoids to reduce joint inflammation and pain.

CBD, THC, and nabilone managed to reduce both central and peripheral neuropathic pain associated with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. The effects were consistent both when cannabinoids were used in combination with one another and separately.

Which Cannabinoids Are the Most Effective?

Our own body’s natural cannabinoids, endocannabinoids, have the biggest therapeutic potential when it comes to inflammation. A review that we can find in the Journal Pharmacological Research suggests several different mechanisms for how endocannabinoids act in the human body.

As for cannabinoids from our favorite plant, CBD shows the greatest promise in this field, especially since it can increase the amount of anandamide, one of the endocannabinoids in our system.

All research up to now suggests that both CBD and THC should be seriously considered as future anti-inflammatory therapeutics.

Although weaker, CBN should also be considered as a solution for certain inflammatory conditions.

Future Prospects

As it becomes more and more obvious that cannabinoids have enormous anti-inflammatory properties, future research should focus on an in-depth understanding of how they work in practice.

At the same time, we need to assess whether some murine data that we have now can be translated to humans.

Lastly, we also need to determine whether we can apply cannabinoids to inflammatory conditions that we haven’t studied yet.

Such endeavors take time but we have solid data that we can use to fuel our optimism about the future.

About the author
Helena Miles

Experienced journalist with a decade-long experience of researching cannabis. She has been featured in many prominent outlets, such as The Growth Op, National Post and The Province.

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