50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease. Some of these people suffer from more than one autoimmune condition. As it is, there is no cure for autoimmune diseases, but cannabis may offer a solution for the sufferers.
What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases are immune system disorders that are the result of a hyperactive immune system. They occur when the immune system reacts to a false alarm and triggers an immune response.
Naturally, when the body senses foreign cells it goes into defense mode and releases antibodies to fight off the invaders. The same happens in autoimmune conditions; only that, in this case, the cells being fought off are normal healthy cells. This response is mediated by T-cells that are in charge of cell-mediated.
Autoimmune attacks can occur in any region of the body where the body senses “foreign invaders.” When it occurs in the joints, it is referred to as rheumatoid arthritis, when it occurs in the thyroid glands it is referred to as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis when it occurs in the skin it is called psoriasis and so forth. As mentioned above, a person may be affected by more than one autoimmune condition.
The causes of autoimmune diseases are not very clear. However, a number of factors have been isolated that may predispose one to the same. It is believed that genetics play a key role in increasing one’s risk of autoimmune diseases. Women are also more predisposed to autoimmune disease than men are, in a ratio of 2:1. Ethnicity may also have a role to play considering that systemic lupus (SLE) is more common in African-American women than it is in Caucasians. Diet is also believed to contribute to the development of auto immune diseases; taking super-refined foods with high sugar content causes inflammation. Anything that could trigger inflammation could have the potential of triggering an auto-immune response.
Lastly, it is believed that when children are brought up in extremely sanitary environments they are more likely to overreact to harmless substances in the environment in later life, triggering an auto-immune response. This is called the hygiene hypothesis.
There are over 80 known autoimmune conditions. Common autoimmune conditions include:
- Lupus (SLE)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Multiple sclerosis
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Celiac disease
Some symptoms are common in most forms of autoimmune diseases. They include:
- Joint pains
- Swollen and tender glands
- Extreme fatigue
Cannabis and Autoimmune Diseases
The immune system is a complex system that is influenced by different factors, including the endocannabinoid system. Cannabis is thought to have immune-modulating effects; it achieves this through the endocannabinoid system. Immune modulating effects imply that cannabis is able to both up-regulate and down-regulate the immune system.
Current treatment for auto immune disease focuses on reducing inflammation as well as suppressing the immune system. A similar approach has been taken with the use of cannabinoids in treating auto immune diseases. A number of studies have touted the benefits of cannabinoids in reducing inflammation. Newer studies are now focused on the immune-modulating effects of cannabis. Three mechanisms that may help in treating auto immune diseases have emerged so far.
- Cannabinoid influence on gene expression
- Cannabinoids as immune-modulators
- Cannabinoids as anti-inflammatory agents
THC Can Influence Gene Expression
Research published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry showed that THC has a role to play in auto immune disease. In this study, THC was given to 609 mice and 13 of them showed a positive response. This ability to regulate gene expression could potentially help in the treatment of Type 1 diabetes, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
Initially, it was believed that cannabidiol (CBD) found in the cannabis plant had pure immunosuppressant effects. Research is now proving that CBD can both suppress and enhance the immune system in order to achieve homeostasis.
In autoimmune disease, CBD suppresses the immune system by slowing down the production of T cells through different mechanisms. In this way, CBD is able to mitigate autoimmune attacks by suppressing the sensitivity of the immune system. CBD also reduces oxidative stress which can aggravate autoimmune attacks.
Inflammation plays a key role in the development and progression of autoimmune diseases. A study conducted by the University of South Carolina revealed similar findings. It was concluded that THC may be useful in the treatment of arthritis, lupus, colitis, MS and other conditions where inflammation plays a central role.
This study was led by Mitzi Nagarkatti, Prakash Nagarkatti, and Xiaoming Yang and was published online in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
What is the way forward?
Due to years of cannabis prohibition, not much research has been done to ascertain the true potential of cannabinoids in treating autoimmune and other chronic diseases. Most of the studies mentioned above have been preclinical, meaning that there is still a long way to go before cannabis can be rubberstamped as a potential cure for autoimmune disease.
Nonetheless, there is a glimmer of hope as more and more countries are warming up to the legalization of medicinal cannabis. We have seen progress with the approval of cannabis-based drugs such as Epidiolex for the treatment of severe childhood seizures. We can only hope to see larger clinical studies in the future that will pave way for the adoption of novel cannabinoid-based therapies for autoimmune conditions.
From the staggering statistics mentioned above, it is clear that autoimmune conditions are a burden on the healthcare system. Compared to pharma, cannabis remedies are far much cheaper and safer to use in the long run. If cannabis can offer hope to patients suffering from these conditions, it can be a great reprieve for both the government and the population in general.
- AARDA: Autoimmune disease statistics. Retrieved from https://www.aarda.org/news-information/statistics/
- Dove Press: The hygiene hypothesis: current perspectives and future therapies. Retrieved from https://www.dovepress.com/the-hygiene-hypothesis-current-perspectives-and-future-therapies-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-ITT
- Medical News Today 2019: ‘Taking treatment for autoimmune disease in a new direction’ Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324615.php
- NCBI 2009: Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2828614/
- NCBI 2008: The Profile of Immune Modulation by Cannabidiol (CBD) Involves Deregulation of Nuclear Factor of Activated T Cells (NFAT). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2748879/
- Science Daily: Marijuana shows potential in treating autoimmune disease. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140602150914.htm