If your life or livelihood has been affected by COVID-19, you know how important treatment and prevention is—it can truly be the difference between life and death.
We all want to safely return to “normal,” and soon.
We miss hugging our loved ones, seeing smiles now hidden by masks, and watching the news without spiking our blood pressure.
And now, there is new hope!
As researchers participate in a worldwide race for a cure, many have creatively turned to cannabis.
The ancient super plant is a powerful anti-inflammatory capable of closing cell doors to COVID-19, calming wild cytokine storms, and outperforming recommended treatment drugs.
COVID-19 and ARDS: What You Need to Know
COVID-19, officially severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), is a deadly new strain of coronavirus affecting tens of millions worldwide.
“COVID-19 uses its spiky surface proteins to grab on to receptors found on healthy cells, particularly those found in the lungs,” notes Stephanie Price, editor of the Medical Cannabis Network for Health Europa.
When COVID-19 infects the body, “[it] sets off an immune response that causes inflammation, leading to symptoms such as cough, sore throat, and fever,” says experts at Yale Medicine.
COVID-19 is able to enter the body through a specific receptor known as angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), an enzyme found on the surface of cells.
ACE2 exists to regulate the protein angiotensin II (ANG II), which can increase inflammation and blood pressure and cause damage to blood vessels and tissue.
However, when COVID-19 binds to ACE2, it inhibits ACE2’s ability to control ANG II levels, leading to lung and heart damage in COVID-19 patients, reveals authors at The Conversation .
A higher concentration of ACE2 receptors in lower airways allows COVID-19 “to go deeper than other viruses such as the common cold,” often resulting in breathing difficulties and potentially pneumonia, notes Price.
In severe cases of COVID-19, patients may develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) around eight days after first experiencing symptoms. Age, diabetes, and high blood pressure can put patients at a higher risk of developing ARDS from COVID-19, details Yale Medicine.
Also of concern, ARDS triggers an additional immune response, amplifying inflammation that can lead to multiple organ failure.
Cannabinoids “Close Cell Doors” to COVID-19, Regulate ACE2
A group of researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada explored the potential of cannabinoids, active ingredients in cannabis like THC and CBD, as tools for treatment or prevention of COVID-19.
The team developed over 800 new Cannabis sativa lines and extracts, targeting the strain for its high CBD content, explains the study published in Preprints. To test the power of the strains, researchers used 3D models of human oral, airway, and intestinal tissues.
In their research, they found cannabis high in anti-inflammatory CBD possesses the ability to “to modulate ACE2 expression in COVID-19 target tissues, [...] a plausible strategy for decreasing disease susceptibility,” explains the report.
In addition to controlling ACE2 gene expression and protein levels, data supported the cannabis strains also suppressed of transmembrane serine protease 2 (TMPRSS2), “another critical protein required for SARS-Cov2 entry into host cells.”
“Imagine a cell being a large building,” Dr. Igor Kovalchuck, a leader of the study, muses in an interview with the Canadian network CTV. “Cannabinoids decrease the number of doors in the building by, say, 70 percent, so it means the level of entry will be restricted, [and] you have more chance to fight it.”
Researchers hope to use their findings to create mouthwashes and throat gargles available to the public “to decrease viral entry via the oral mucosa.”
CBD Stops “Cytokine Storm,” Reverses Symptoms in Mice
Researchers at Augusta University in Georgia artificially induced ARDS in mice using polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid, or Poly(I:C), to test the efficacy of CBD treatment.
The infection resulted in what researchers refer to as a “cytokine storm:” a dangerous inflammatory response characterized by a sudden increase in the circulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukin (IL-6), IL-1b, and IL-17. Cytokine storms are associated with both ARDS and COVID-19.
Cytokines are small proteins involved in cell signaling, and can be good or bad depending on their behavior.
At their best, cytokines “[stimulate] the immune system to fight a foreign pathogen or attack tumors,” but sometimes cytokine expression can result in inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, or Crohn’s disease, claim experts.
The mice displayed symptoms similar to severe cases of COVID-19; their blood oxygen saturation fell by 10% and analysis revealed structural damage to their lungs.
“These symptoms were totally or partially reversed and returned to the level and condition of the normal [mice] after the treatment with CBD,” concluded researchers.
Not only did the CBD treatment significantly reduce negative pro-inflammatory cytokines like IL-6—researchers also noticed an increase in the level of lymphocytes, which are infection-fighting white blood cells, in the mice’s blood.
“The current data support the notion that the anti-inflammatory function of CBD may reduce cytokine storm and mitigate the effects of exaggerated inflammation,” exclaims authors of the study.
Additionally, results of the study support CBD’s ability to reestablish homeostasis within the immune system. CBD can bring an over- or under-active immune system back into balance, “bringing equilibrium to the organism,” claims Dr. García de Paula, who is described as one of the most recognized and specialized doctors in cannabinoid therapy.
Authors of the study extend the scope of their results, stating:
“Considering all potential regulatory effects of CBD as well as the vast distribution of the endocannabinoid system in the body, it is plausible that CBD may be used as a therapeutic candidate in the treatment of various inflammatory conditions including COVID-19 and other virus-induced ARDS.”
Based on their findings, the future for cannabinoid treatment of infectious diseases is bright and deserves further exploration.
The “Entourage Effect” Outperforms Dexamethasone Drug
A collaboration between Israeli companies Eybna and CannaSoul Analytics illustrates the therapeutic power of the “ entourage effect ,” the theory that suggests cannabis components are more powerful when taken together.
The therapeutic potential of terpenes, which give cannabis its distinct flavor and smell, is still being explored by researchers.
When taken together, the entourage effect boasts benefits such as better absorption, targeting of multiple areas, and less adverse side effects.
Eybna, known for producing terpene-based medicines, produced a formulation of 30 terpenes called NT-VRL™ to fight cytokine storm associated with COVID-19.
Researchers tested the drug on human blood cells on its own, in conjunction with CBD, and against CBD and dexamethasone alone. Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid designed to reduce inflammation given to patients with severe cases of COVID-19.
Forbes cannabis contributor Emily Earlenbaugh walks readers through the results:
“The best results came from the combination of CBD and the NT-VRL™ terpene formulation, which was able to inhibit around 90% of the tested cytokines.
In comparison, dexamethasone was only able to inhibit around 30% of the cytokines, suggesting that the combination of CBD and terpenes may be 2 times more effective than the current recommended treatment.”
The emerging study further validates the power of the entourage effect, and its implications for COVID-19 treatment.
It’s All in the Details
COVID-19 is a dangerous infectious disease that can result in acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), pneumonia, multiple organ failure, and even death.
Cannabis has long been used for medicinal purposes, and research continues to support its extraordinary effects on the body.
Cannabis high in CBD has been shown to decrease a person’s susceptibility to COVID-19 by “closing the door” to the ACE2 receptor where it attaches.
Additionally, mice with ARDS treated with CBD made almost a complete recovery; the CBD neutralized the cytokine storm and increased white blood cells in the mice’s blood.
CBD has been proven to bring balance back to the immune system and reestablish homeostasis.
The results of an emerging study validated the “entourage effect” when a combination of terpenes and CBD produced better results than dexamethasone, the current recommended course of treatment for severe cases of COVID-19.
Cannabis may be the secret to COVID-19 treatment and prevention, and the results of numerous studies reveal it may be the key to fighting future infectious diseases.
Biles, M. (2019, May 02). Cannabis & the Immune System: A Complex Balancing Act. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.projectcbd.org/science/cannabis-and-immune-system
Earlenbaugh, E. (2020, August 03). New Research Suggests Terpenes And CBD Work 2X's Better For Covid-19 Inflammation Than Corticosteroid. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/emilyearlenbaugh/2020/07/21/new-research-suggests-terpenes-and-cbd-work-3xs-better-for-covid-19-inflammation-than-corticosteroid/?sh=4395fd304e95
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Price, S. (2020, October 14). Medicinal cannabis may play a significant role during COVID-19. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.healtheuropa.eu/medicinal-cannabis-may-play-a-significant-role-during-covid-19/103093/
Ramani, T., Auletta, C. S., Weinstock, D., Mounho-Zamora, B., Ryan, P. C., Salcedo, T. W., & Bannish, G. (2015). Cytokines: The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly. International Journal of Toxicology, 34(4), 355-365. doi:10.1177/1091581815584918, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26015504/
Sriram, K., Insel, P., & Loomba, R. (2020, September 06). What is the ACE2 receptor, how is it connected to coronavirus and why might it be key to treating COVID-19? The experts explain. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/what-is-the-ace2-receptor-how-is-it-connected-to-coronavirus-and-why-might-it-be-key-to-treating-covid-19-the-experts-explain-136928
Vogt, T. (2020, April 22). Southern Alberta researchers say medical cannabis could help fight COVID-19. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/southern-alberta-researchers-say-medical-cannabis-could-help-fight-covid-19-1.4906249
Wang, B., Kovalchuk, A., Li, D., Ilnytskyy, Y., Kovalchuk, I., & Kovalchuk, O. (2020). In Search of Preventative Strategies: Novel Anti-Inflammatory High-CBD Cannabis Sativa Extracts Modulate ACE2 Expression in COVID-19 Gateway Tissues. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/202004.0315/v1
Yale Medicine. (2020). Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/ards/
About the Author
Lily Kiepke is a freelance writer and blogger based in the Denver metropolitan area. She enjoys using CBD to relieve anxiety and improve sleep. When she is not writing about cannabis, she can be found hiking in the Rocky Mountains or curled up with a good true crime book.