As flu season is descending upon us, and an infectious disease continues to ravage the country, it’s more important than ever that you support your immune system.
Let’s take a look at the immune system, autoimmune disorders, and how cannabinoids like CBD and THC can bring balance to your immune system and improve your health.
How Your Immune System Works
The immune system is an elaborate network of organs, tissues, and cells all working together to help your body fight off infections and diseases. An infection occurs when a bacteria or virus enters the body and begins to attack and multiply, which can lead to disease.
Better Health, a resource provided by the Australian government, defines the main elements of the immune system and their purposes:
●White blood cells: “key players” that search blood and tissue throughout the body for invaders. When they find microbes, they attack. Lymphocytes (like T-cells, B-cells, and natural killer cells) are one type of white blood cells
●Antibodies: proteins created to fight microbes and toxins. They find antigens on the surface of microbes and mark them for destruction
●Complement system: a system of proteins that work in collaboration with antibodies
●Lymphatic system: a system of tubes that manage fluids, cells, and cell products, respond to bacteria, and absorb fats. It is made up of microbe-trapping lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and lymphocytes
●Spleen: an organ that filters blood, removes microbes, and rids the body of old red blood cells. The spleen also creates antibodies and lymphocytes
●Bone marrow: spongy tissue in your bones that produces oxygen-carrying red blood cells, infection-fighting white blood cells, and blood-clotting platelets
●Thymus: a gland behind your sternum that filters and monitors blood content and produces T-cells
Any substance deemed harmful or foreign by the body is labeled as an antigen. Some examples of antigens include microbes (like bacteria, viruses, parasites, or fungi), chemicals, toxins, and damaged cells.
When the immune system recognizes an antigen, it begins making antibodies and other cells “to attack, weaken and destroy antigens;” this is known as an immune response, notes MedlinePlus, an info site produced by the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Once the immune system has identified an antigen, it is cataloged to be remembered and recognized again. “If it sees the antigen again, it can recognize it [and] will quickly send out the right antibodies, so in most cases, you don’t get sick,” thus giving you immunity, reveals MedlinePlus.
There are three different types of immunities: innate immunity, active immunity, and passive immunity.
MedlinePlus describes innate immunity as “your body’s first line of defense,” with natural barriers like skin and mucous membranes that prevent harmful substances from entering your body. Active immunity is long-lasting, and develops after exposure to an antigen through infection or vaccination. Lastly, when you receive antibodies from another source, you quickly develop passive immunity.
An Overview of Autoimmune Diseases and Traditional Treatment
When you have an autoimmune disorder, your body mistakenly attacks your own cells.
Stephanie Watson of Healthline explains, “Normally, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells, [but] in an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as foreign,” and attacks healthy cells.
The true cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown, but genetics, diet, and environmental factors all seem to play a part.
For example, Healthline reports women are more likely to develop an autoimmune disorder than men “at a rate of about 2 to 1.” A diet high in sugars and fats may also cause excess inflammation that could trigger the immune system, claims Watson.
Watson lists the most common early symptoms and side effects across autoimmune diseases:
●Swelling and redness
●Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
Traditional treatment of autoimmune disorders involves expensive medications and powerful steroids that suppress the immune system.
Immunosuppressive medications can make you more vulnerable to infection, and have been linked to cancer, reveals writer and cannabis consultant Sarah Russo. Additionally, steroids “may decrease blood supply to various parts of the body, and create fat deposits in the face or other areas” without addressing “the root of the discomfort,” Russo elaborates.
In addition to immunotherapy being costly and dangerous, many patients choose to discontinue their medications due to adverse side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and trembling.
Cannabis Relieves Symptoms of Several Autoimmune Diseases
Cannabis products, such as CBD and THC, have been used to treat many symptoms of different autoimmune diseases to provide patients with valuable, lasting relief.
●Neurodegenerative diseases: Parkinson’s disease (PD), Huntington’s disease (HD)
●Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis
●Inflammatory skin conditions: psoriasis, atopic dermatitis (eczema)
●Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
●Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
●Multiple sclerosis (MS)
Cannabinoids and Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts communication between the brain and the body. In people with MS, the myelin sheath, a protective nerve coating, is damaged.
“Damage to the myelin sheath slows the transmission speed of messages between your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body, [leading] to symptoms like numbness, weakness, balance issues, and trouble walking,” describes Watson.
A 2018 article published in Frontiers in Neurology investigated the effects of cannabidiol (CBD) on mobility in people with MS, revealing many positive outcomes. Researchers concluded the use of CBD “reduces spasticity, pain, inflammation, fatigue, and depression” in people with MS.
Additionally, people with MS that used cannabis showed a reduction in “usage of prescription drugs, particularly pharmaceutical opioids and benzodiazepines, and antidepressants.”
Anecdotal evidence also continues to amount in support of using cannabis products for MS.
Linda Kiepke was recommended a combination of CBD and THC to treat her MS symptoms by her neurologist specializing in MS at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, IL.
Her doctor wanted to improve her sleep by reducing adrenaline-inducing hypnic jerks, and calm muscle spasms caused by false messages sent by the nervous system.
Another goal was to lessen her dependence on sedatives like alprazolam (Xanax) for sleep, and the use of CBD and THC has allowed her to comfortably cut her dosage by a third so far. Kiepke says the combo leaves her “feeling good” and has increased her sleep quantity and quality.
Overseas, a combination of THC and CBD in a 1:1 ratio has already been approved for treatment of MS under the name Sativex.
Cannabinoids like THC and CBD continually produce promising results for symptom management and improved quality of life in people with MS.
How Cannabinoids Bring Balance to the Immune System
Cannabinoids are the active ingredients found in cannabis; the most well-known and extensively studied cannabinoids are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). They benefit our bodies by relieving nausea, boosting our mood, and helping us sleep through interacting with the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The ECS is responsible for regulating the body, and consists of cannabinoid receptors (like CB1 and CB2), naturally-produced endocannabinoids, and enzymes that speed up reactions. CB1 receptors are mainly in the brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors exist on the surface of cells in the immune system.
Mary Biles describesfor Project CBD how cannabinoids interact with the immune system, and their implications for autoimmune diseases: “THC binds to the CB2 receptor and activates it, which has an anti-inflammatory effect. This suggests THC is immunosuppressant,” which is beneficial for overactive immune systems associated with autoimmune disorders.
Biles also classifies CBD as an immunosuppressant, because it “[reduces] cytokine production and [inhibits] T-cell function.”
However, new research supports the idea that cannabinoids have “an adaptive, immunomodulating effect,” instead of acting only as immunosuppressants, reveals Biles.
Dr. Garcia de Palau of the Spanish Medical Cannabis Observatory describes new insights into cannabis and the immune system, stating “I believe [cannabis] is immunosuppressive when there is hyper-immune response, but otherwise it regulates and corrects the immune system, [...] bringing equilibrium to the organism.”
Russo also supports the immunomodulating powers of cannabis, which can decrease inflammation and aid in digestion. She describes cannabis as “a unique biphasic botanical remedy that can bring the system back into balance.”
Based on this new understanding of cannabis, it is clear its use can be beneficial to anyone with an immune system that is out of tune, or wants to ensure their immune system remains balanced.
How to Take CBD to Support Your Immune System
There are several simple ways to take CBD to support your immune system and treat symptoms associated with autoimmune diseases:
●CBD oil from a tincture, which can be taken sublingually (“under the tongue”), or added to foods and beverages
●CBD isolate, a powerful dose of CBD that can be taken as an edible, added to food or drink, or taken via a vaping pipe or dab rig
●A soak in a steamy bath with CBD bath products provides relaxing, all-over relief
At the advice of her doctor, Kiepke experimented with several different modes of consumption and different dosage levels before finding what worked for her. Speak to your doctor to learn more about how CBD can fit into your health plan.
Other Ways to Support a Healthy Immune System
Russo describes other simple steps you can take to lower inflammation and support the health of your immune system, such as:
●Eating a healthy, balanced diet with minimal sugars and bad fats linked to inflammation
●Exercising frequently to “increase circulation of anti-inflammatory cytokines”
●Getting a good night’s sleep, which naturally lowers inflammation
●Taking natural anti-inflammatories, such as turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon
●Adding probiotics like yogurt and pickles to your diet to promote your gut health and improve your immune response
The immune system is complex, with many moving parts. Its role is to keep us safe by fighting off infections and diseases.
However, in those with autoimmune disorders, healthy cells are attacked instead. Autoimmune diseases are likely a result of diet, genetic, and environmental factors.
Traditional treatment of autoimmune disorders is expensive and puts users at risk by suppressing the immune system.
Cannabis can be used to treat the symptoms of several autoimmune disorders with powerful results. Persons with MS who used cannabinoids experienced relief from a variety of symptoms, and were able to wean off prescription drugs.
It was previously thought that the cannabinoids THC and CBD only behaved as immunosuppressants, but new research reveals they are adaptive, and capable of bringing both immune systems on either end of the spectrum into balance.
Taking CBD to support your immune system is easy with a variety of different methods of consumption. Additionally, lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise can reduce inflammation and improve immune system function.
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
Department of Health & Human Services. (2017, December). Immune system explained. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/immune-system
Kiepke, L. (2020, October 28). CBD and THC for treating symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) [Telephone interview].
MedlinePlus. (2020, September 28). Immune System and Disorders, Autoimmune Diseases. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from https://medlineplus.gov/immunesystemanddisorders.html
Rudroff, T., & Sosnoff, J. (2018). Cannabidiol to Improve Mobility in People with Multiple Sclerosis. Frontiers in Neurology, 9. doi:10.3389/fneur.2018.00183, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5874292/#
Russo, S. (2017). Molecular Mimicry: The Role of Cannabis in Healing Autoimmune Disease. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from https://www.fundacion-canna.es/en/molecular-mimicry-role-cannabis-healing-autoimmune-disease
Watson, S. (2019, March 26). Autoimmune Diseases: Types, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & More. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/health/autoimmune-disorders
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.