Cannabis’ medical benefits range from the psychological to the physical, with patients reporting relief from ailments as different as depression and lower back pain. But did you know that cannabis can also act on the body’s own immune system response — and in the process, possibly even work against painful autoimmune conditions?
Let’s learn about cannabis and the immune system to get a better understanding of how this potent medicine interacts with the human body’s natural defenses.
What Is the Immune System?
The immune system is what allows humans to move through the world without succumbing to infection from harmful external threats. It consists of interconnected cells and tissues that communicate with one another to identify and control foreign bodies that might enter the body.
The portion of the immune system that you can actually see is called the innate defense system — this includes the skin as well as the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes, ears, and mouth. These frontline defenders block and filter out pathogens and damaging bacteria.
Less visible is the adaptive defense system, a more specialized portion of the immune system that goes after threats that may have worked their way into the body. Organs that comprise the adaptive immune system include the spleen (located in the abdomen) and the thymus (located in the chest, just in front of the heart), both of which produce disease-fighting white blood cells. Marrow, the tissue inside bones, also plays an important role in generating these cells.
You know the feverish, ache-y feeling you can develop when you first catch a cold? That’s the adaptive immune system at work, raising the body’s temperature to kill off foreign bodies and inflaming the mucous membranes as white blood cells get to work at the site of infection.
For the most part, these uncomfortable side effects of immune response are a small price to pay in exchange for freedom from long-term illness and infection. In some cases, though, the immune system may be unable to distinguish between external dangers and the body’s own natural, innocuous cells and processes.
Such reactions result in what we call “autoimmune” diseases. These include sickle cell disease, the chronic pain condition lupus, and intestinal disorders like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Now, let take a look at how cannabis and the immune system interact with one another — and how THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids might offer hope for those with autoimmune diseases.
Cannabis and the Immune System
The endocannabinoid system is the network of neuroreceptors that process the chemical compounds in cannabis, ultimately causing the consumer to feel “high,” relaxed, hungry, or sleepy, depending on the circumstances.
As it turns out, the endocannabinoid system (or ECS) may also regulate immune response.
For one, the cannabinoids in whole-plant cannabis can decrease immuno-related inflammatory responses by suppressing signaling proteins called cytokines. This can help minimize any excessive discomfort due to a triggered immune system; it may also reduce the dangerous neurological inflammation that the immune system may introduce in the case of a stroke.
Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that anandamide, a cannabinoid that occurs naturally in the human body, can mimic the effects of a fever by healing irritated tissue in the stomachs of mice. This may hold some promise for those afflicted by digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.