Understanding the very complex relationship between our immune system and cannabis can be very hard. Once we understand the interaction between them, we can be amazed by the exceptional body defence system and by the effect of cannabinoids on the immune system regulation. Moreover, endocannabinoid system (ECS) is crucial in the process as it is the system through which cannabinoids can supress or strengthen our immune system.
To fully comprehend the effects of cannabis on our immune system regulation, we have to arrange this topic into multiple important segments. We will start with the immune system and endocannabinoid system.
Immune system is a network of biological processes, which protects our organism against disease. It detects and responds to various pathogens from viruses to parasitic worms, cancer cells, and mechanical injuries, which it distinguishes from the body’s health issues. It can be divided into two subsystems, the innate immune system, which provides a preconfigured response to broad groups of situations and stimuli, and the adaptive immune system, which provides a tailored response to each stimulus by learning to recognize molecules it has previously encountered. Both subsystems use molecules and cells for immune system regulation.
Dysfunction of the immune system can lead to autoimmune disease, inflammatory disease, and cancer.
THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM (ECS)
Endocannabinoid system is a large network of cells that have cannabinoid receptors on them. There are many different cell types that include these receptors, which are spread through the body and brain. They are located practically in every system of our body including the central nervous system, immune system, circulatory system, digestive system, reproductive system, respiratory system, endocrine system, lymphatic system, and muscular system.
Besides cells with cannabinoid receptors, the endocannabinoid system also includes internal compounds that affect these receptors. We call them endocannabinoids and structurally, they are very similar to cannabinoids, which can be found in cannabis. Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids found in cannabis trigger a specific response from each cell they affect. There are multiple important factors that determine if the response will have a positive or negative effect on our immune system regulation.
To understand how a cell responds to these molecules we first have to understand the purpose of our endocannabinoid system. The main function is to maintain balance between multiple different systems that our organism is made of. Besides humans, all vertebrates have this system, alongside many other non-vertebrate life forms.
Endocannabinoid system is very adaptive, which means it can “sense” or “perceive” when something is wrong within a single cell (or a group of them). If it detects an error, the organism will produce endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors on demand, so the ECS has a way to intervene on a cellular level. Unfortunately, many genetic abnormalities and degenerative condition, as well as negative outside stimuli such as unhealthy diet, pollutants, and lack of exercise incapacitate the endocannabinoid system, preventing it to function properly.
Cannabinoids from cannabis rejuvenate our endocannabinoid system and help the body to synthesize even more receptors and endocannabinoids. One of the ways cannabinoids influence the endocannabinoid system is by stimulating a specific response from the immune system. This is called and immuno – cannabinoid modulation. It means that once stimulated by cannabinoids, the immune cells that have cannabinoid receptors will change the way they behave and regulate how our immune system performs as a whole. Your can read more about the endocannabinoids system, cannabinoids, and cannabis effects here.
CANNABINOIDS CAN SUPPRESS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Cannabinoids are able to supress the immune system in a way of reducing general inflammation.
Inflammation is a completely normal body response to any outside threat or infection. People that are poorly informed or misinformed, understand inflammation only as a negative occurrence, however the truth is not that simple.
Inflammation helps to locate, isolate, and catch the infected or damaged part of our organism. In this way the healthy parts of our organism remain safe and undamaged. In cases like this it would be harmful to supress the inflammation, as the infected cells could move freely through our body and cause additional damage, without isolation of the threat by the inflammation process.
On the other hand, suppression of the immune system can be very beneficial. This is most notable with autoimmune disease, where the immune system overreacts and “attacks” the human body through excessive inflammation. The constant activation of the immune system can cause chronic inflammation, which can have devastating effects on persons wellbeing.
Medical condition 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 supress the immune system response. We can achieve this with consumption of precise doses of cannabinoids. A common way of cannabinoid consumption is with the use of CBD oil of various cannabinoid compositions
There are also conditions where overly active immune system is the main reason for development of disease such as:
- Crohn’s bolezen, and
- Multiple sclerosis.
CANNABINOIDS CAN STRENGHTEN OUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
Contrary to the cases of our organism defences suppression, there are also situations where cannabinoids strengthen our immune system. This function is most notable in cancer and HIV/AIDS patients. One aspect that differentiates these conditions from the ones previously mentioned is a severe drop in the overall immune capacity.
Cannabis active chemical compound can trigger apoptosis in the cancer cells. Apoptosis is a “genetic program” inside a cell, which determines if the cell lives or dies. Harmful cancer cells do not respond to triggers, which are enough in normal circumstances to cause apoptosis (self-destruction) of dysfunctional cells. The inability to perform apoptosis allows cancer cells to quickly spread through our body without any resistance from our natural protection.
Cannabiniods “force” certain cancer cells to “realize” they are defected, making them perform this cellular suicide. Other ways cannabinoids can increase the functioning of the immune system in regards to cancer include slowing down cell proliferation (division) and preventing certain tumors to metastasize.
HIV and AIDS
With HIV/AIDS the virus is responsible for the control over the immune system and causes it to function in a weakened capacity. This makes the body exposed to many infections and diseases.
A 2015 study showed that patients who consumed cannabis had much lower viral loads compared to patients who did not use it
Viral load is an expression which describes the number of HIV’s ribonucleic acid (RNA) copied to patient’s blood. The concentration of HIV in the blood determines the number of CD4 cells. The more HIV in the blood, the lower the count of CD4 cells. Patients involved in this study had much higher number of CD4 cells. CD4 cells are a subtype of T-cells, which are immune systems killer cells. Their purpose is to locate and eliminate pathogens and other harmful microorganisms, including HIV.
Another study showed a 20 % increase in number of two different T-cells (CD4 and CD8) with patients who consumed cannabis, compared to those that did not.
LETS FOLLOW CANNABINOID SCIENCE
The effects of cannabis and cannabis compounds on the immune system is a complex topic, as there are many medical conditions that cause the system to work too hard or too little. The most important thing to consider is the adaptive nature of the endocannabinoid system, which directly determines the type of reaction our cells will express once triggered by the cannabinoids. Furthermore, the quantity of cannabinoids is important as well. It is however very specific depending on a person’s health status or health problem. Moreover, the cannabinoid ratio is important as well. For most conditions, the combination of cannabinoids and terpenes (full spectrum) works very well, as they increase the therapeutic potential due to their interaction (entourage effect). You can read more about the full spectrum here.
Below you can find some interesting sources for further reading on the topis of immune system regulation.
- 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