Grasping the complex interaction between the immune system and cannabis might be complicated at first, but the whole topic becomes much clearer once you become familiar with several important facts.
In order to fully understand how cannabis affects the immune system, we first need to get acquainted with the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS)
The first thing you should know about the endocannabinoid system is that it’s home to a vast network of cells that have cannabinoid receptors on them.
There are many different types of cells that have these receptors, and they are scattered all across the body and brain.
They are located in practically every system of the body, including the central nervous, immune, circulatory, digestive, reproductive, respiratory, endocrine, lymphatic and muscular system.
Besides the cells that express cannabinoid receptors, the ECS also includes internal compounds that influence these receptors.
They are called endocannabinoids, and they’re structurally very similar to cannabinoids found in cannabis.
Both the endocannabinoids and cannabinoids from cannabis trigger specific responses from each cell that they influence. That response depends on several important factors.
In order to comprehend how a single cell in our body reacts to these molecules, we first need to understand the purpose of this system.
The sole function of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain balance within the numerous different systems that make up an organism.
Besides humans, all vertebrates have this system, alongside many other non-vertebrate life forms.
The endocannabinoid system is very adaptive, which means it can “sense” or “perceive” when something is wrong within a single cell (or a group of cells), and upon sensing an error, both endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors get created on demand so the ECS could have a way to intervene on a cellular level.
Unfortunately, numerous genetic abnormalities and degenerations, and various negative outside stimuli like bad diet, pollutants, lack of exercise incapacitate the endocannabinoid system, unabling it to function properly.
Cannabinoids from cannabis rejuvenate the ECS, paving the way for more receptors and more endocannabinoids to be synthesized.
One of the ways cannabinoids influence the ECS is by stimulating a specific response from the immune system.
This is called immuno-cannabinoid modulation, and it entails that once stimulated by cannabinoids, the immune cells that have cannabinoid receptors change the way they behave and regulate how our immune system performs as a whole.
Cannabinoids can suppress the immune system
Cannabinoids are able to suppress the immune system, and they achieve this by decreasing overall inflammation. (1)
Inflammation is a completely normal bodily response to any external threat or infection. Misinformed people tend to perceive inflammation as a negative occurrence, but the truth is not that straightforward.
Inflammation helps to locate, isolate and ultimately trap the infected or damaged parts of our organism, leaving the healthy sections safe and unharmed.
In these instances, it would be absolutely detrimental to decrease inflammation, because the infected cells could roam freely throughout our body, causing additional harm without the inflammation process isolating the threat.
However, sometimes the immune system needs to be suppressed.
This is most evident in autoimmune diseases, where the immune response goes haywire and “attacks” the person’s body through excessive inflammation.
This constant activation of the immune system causes chronic inflammation, which can have devastating effects on one’s general wellbeing.
Conditions that are most affected by chronic inflammation are:
- Migraines and headaches
- Anxiety and frequent mood swings
- Insomnia and other sleep disorders
- Arthritis and joint stiffness
- Gut issues such as IBS, indigestion and leaky gut
- Issues with gums, teeth and bad breath
For all these conditions it is crucial to suppress the immune system response, and this can be achieved by consuming precise and regulated doses of cannabinoids.
There are also conditions where an overly active immune system is the main culprit to the creation of the disease and they are:
Cannabinoids can strengthen the immune system
Unlike the lessening of the excessive function of the immune system, there are some instances where cannabinoids can do the exact opposite—strengthen our immune system. (2)
This function is best visible in the case of cancer and HIV/AIDS patients.
One aspect that differentiates these conditions from the ones I previously mentioned is a severe drop in overall immune capacity.
Active chemical compounds from cannabis are able to trigger apoptosis in cancerous cells. (3)
Apoptosis is a “genetic program” within a cell which determines if that cell should live or die.
Rogue cancer cells don’t react to triggers that are normally enough to cause apoptosis (self-destruction) of that dysfunctional cell, and this inability to perform apoptosis allows the cancer cells to spread rapidly across our body without any resistance from our natural defenses.
Cannabinoids “force” certain cancerous cells to “realize” that they are defected, making them perform this cellular suicide.
Read more about the complex connection between cannabis and cancer.
HIV and AIDS
With HIV/AIDS the virus is responsible for controlling the immune system, causing it to not function in full capacity, which makes the body exposed to numerous different infections and diseases.
In 2015, a study showed that patients who ingested cannabis had much lower viral loads from patients who didn’t use it. (6)
For the unacquainted, viral load is term used to describe the number of HIV’s ribonucleic acid (RNA) copied in a patient’s blood.
The concentration of HIV in one’s blood determines the number of CD4 cells. The more HIV in the blood, the lesser the number of CD4 cells.
HIV patients participating in this study had higher CD4-cell numbers. CD4 cells are a subtype of T-cells, which are immune system’s killer cells in charge of locating and eliminating pathogens and other malicious microorganisms, including HIV.
Another study showed a 20% increase in the number of two T-cells (CD4 and CD8 cells) in patients who used cannabis, compared to those who didn’t. (7)
There was also a 10% T-cell increase in patients who used dronabinol (which is an artificially created synthetic THC, the most prominent cannabinoid found in cannabis), which is about 10% lesser T-cell count than in patients who smoked real cannabis.
The effect of cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds on the immune system is a very complicated topic because there are so many different conditions and diseases that make this system work either too much, or too little.
The most important thing to consider here is the adaptive nature of the endocannabinoid system, which directly determines the type of reaction our cells will express once they are triggered by cannabinoids.
There’s another essential factor for a fully functional treatment. Depending on what troubling you personally, a precise quantity of ingested cannabinoids should be devised.
What’s also important is the cannabinoid type used in the treatment. For some conditions cannabis products that contain only THC should be used, and for some CBD is the best possible method.
For most disorders treatable by cannabis both THC and CBD should be used, as they interact with each other and terpenes maximizing their therapeutic potential in what’s colloquially known as the entourage effect.
Consuming cannabis can undoubtedly help with many conditions where the immune system is plagued, but to take full advantage of the healing powers of this plant, two factors have to be followed—a personalized regiment of use, and a carefully selected strain (or some other form of cannabis), which has a desirable quantity of cannabinoids in it.
To help you find optimal strain, we made a tool called Strainblazer which uses findings of research studies to profile the best strain for any given condition (or a set of filters).
- Prakash Nagarkatti, Rupal Pandey, Sadiye Amcaoglu Rieder, Venkatesh L Hegde, and Mitzi Nagarkatti; Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs; October 2009; 1333–1349
- Massi P, Vaccani A, Parolaro D; Cannabinoids, immune system and cytokine network; 2006; 3135-46
- Daniel J. Hermanson and Lawrence J. Marnett; Cannabinoids, Endocannabinoids and Cancer; December 2011; 599–612
- Paweł Śledziński, Joanna Zeyland, Ryszard Słomski, Agnieszka Nowak; The current state and future perspectives of cannabinoids in cancer biology; March 2018; 765–775
- Daniel J. Hermanson, Lawrence J. Marnett; Cannabinoids, Endocannabinoids and Cancer; Dec 2011; 599-612
- April D. Thames, Zanjbeel Mahmood, Alison C. Burggren, Ahoo Karimian, Taylor Kuhn; Combined Effects of HIV and Marijuana Use on Neurocognitive Functioning and Immune Status; May 2016; 628–632
- Jeff Sheehy; Short-Term Medical Cannabis Doesn’t Harm HIV+ Patients; August 2003