The Truth About Cannabis And The Healthy Immune System (2019)

An honest look at how cannabis affects your immune system.

Decades of scientific findings reveal that the Endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a crucial regulator of homeostasis: the body’s normal operating standard. Cannabinoids are immunomodulators, meaning that they activate and/or suppress functions of the immune system. When cannabinoids are ingested, they interface with the ECS, altering the body’s immune function.

Just as the discovery took decades, understanding both the ECS and the effects of individual cannabinoids will take decades more. Major studies have shown THC’s efficacy in treating pain, nausea, appetite loss, and seizures, as well as CBD’s efficacy in treating anxiety, depression, and inflammation (little is known about the other suspected 67+ cannabinoids). On the flip side, major studies have also shown negative side effects of cannabis, such as sleep interruption, over-eating, anxiety, depression, and adolescent cannabis use increasing the incidence of psychosis as an adult. Despite science demonstrating positive and negative outcomes, scientists, themselves, avoid making overarching statements like CBD helps sleep, THC causes anxiety, or, as was in the news a few months ago, cannabis causes psychosis.

Good science requires an understanding of how and why before reaching prescriptive conclusions. The immune system is comprised of many different cell types, each of which performs several distinct functions. Studying an individual cellular response produces findings that make sense only within a comprehensive review of a broad range of different cell types and reactions. This degree of holistic understanding does not currently exist and will take years of study to achieve.

Regardless, cannabinoid research will continue to explore and eventually map ECS behavior. New technologies, including genetically modified animals and trace-able chemical probes, will prove or disprove presently popular beliefs regarding cannabinoids, as an overall understanding builds. All around the world, research is charting new dynamics in our understanding of cannabinoids, the ECS, and immune system.

CB1 and CB2 Receptors

The opioid and cannabinoid receptors are involved in pain-sensation, mood, appetite and memory. Agonists are potent analgesics: Endorphin (red) and tetrahidrocannabinol (green).

iStock / selvanegra

CB1 and CB2 receptors are the two main uptake mechanisms through which the body is influenced by cannabinoids. CB1 receptors broadly regulate immune function in the body’s neurological center, the brain.

Activating the brain’s CB1 receptors causes chemical fluctuations that result in the THC high. CB2 receptors were long-believed to have no major effect on ECS and are a relatively new item of scientific study. CB2 receptors populate immune cells throughout the body and are less expressed in the brain. Influencing CB2 receptors has the potential to alter immune function without unwanted psychoactive effects. CB2 Receptors regulate homeostasis levels throughout much of the body, making them a therapeutic target for immune function deficiencies in diseases such as HIV-AIDS.

A 2019 study found that CB1 and CB2 expression varies between individuals, adding another layer of consideration for ECS study, and possibly accounting for why a bong rip causes relaxation for one person and paranoia for the next.

Regulating the Immune System with the Endocannabinoid System

Cannabinoids have been proven as an effective treatment for inflammation-based disorders and diseases through therapeutic targeting of CB1 and CB2 receptors. To date, research indicates that CB1 activation helps with nausea and headaches; CB2 activation helps with chronic pain to inflammation. Interest in cannabinoids, primarily THC and CBD, has fostered an enthusiasm and willingness to operate beyond the foundations of what science is prepared to support. Cannabis users are essentially hacking their ECS and experimenting with the body’s reaction.

While relatively little scientific understanding of regulating ECS through cannabinoids exists, people have experimented with cannabinoids and devised methods of invoking feelings and mindfully guiding the cannabis experience toward directed outcomes. This practice is effective without scientific backing.

This practice of mindfully using (usually small) amounts of cannabis, called right-dosing, can elicit overwhelmingly positive outcomes through the ECS’ control over the immune system. Chronic stress is a silent killer in the human population. Chronic stress dampens the immune system response, rendering sufferers more susceptible to viruses and disease. CBD has been anecdotally linked to anxiety relief, when employed mindfully. Using CBD to influence the ECS system and mediate chronic stress caused by modern society is an example of people’s experimentation with the the body’s immune system through cannabinoids. The mindful consumption of CBD can minimize stress, contributing to productivity and good sleep, and thus reversing the compounding effects of chronic stress.

The Unpopular Truth about Cannabinoids and the ECS

Studies of cannabinoids, CB receptors, and the ECS are limited by federal prohibition. Typically, cannabinoid experiments study animals and cellular organisms. Applying these results to humans is, in the words of Dr. Guy Cabral, “fraught with substantial challenges.” Humans differ drastically from animal counterparts. Cannabinoids have different effects on humans due to anatomical differences. Humans also have more complex brain function and ingest a greater variety of substances that modulate the immune system. For that reason, popular applications of cannabinoids in regulating the ECS are largely speculative.

Animal experiments for urine collection using white experimental rats in metabolic cages

iStock / unoL

For every study showing positive effects of cannabinoids in the ECS, there is a publication demonstrating negative effects. Anecdotally, these findings are often well known to cannabis users: A 2012 study concluded that increased ingestion of THC caused rats to become more forgetful. Sometimes, however, results are overwhelmingly negative and readers have to wonder if humans are subject to the same effects. One particularly concerning 2015 study showed that adolescent mice chronically exposed to THC suffered from over-active neuro-inflammatory responses in adulthood. Unwanted inflammation in the brain is far more serious and dangerous than in any other part of the body.

The truth is that objective science is still undecided about the effects of cannabis on our immune system. Corporate interests and staunch opposers find little value in the non-committal language of scientists. Too often, cannabis professionals give in to the temptation to extrapolate and twist findings to support their own position.

The prospect of CBD aiding sleep, for example, is a very complex study with a lot of corporate, opposing, and everyday users pulling for results. As was mentioned above, mindful use of CBD can help sleep, but no scientist is wiling to come out and say: CBD helps sleep, because that’s not altogether true. A 2017 scientific review concludes that CBD might be effective in incidences of these medical disorders: Sleep Apnea (8% of US population), PTSD nightmares (3%), REM sleep behavior disorder (1%), and chronic pain (20%). The study also states that prolonged use of CBD as a sleep supplement impairs sleep quality. Used correctly to treat one of these disorders, CBD can probably help, but the truth is hard to find when so many people want so badly to sell something — information, product, or just their truth…

Cannabinoids have a very understudied role in the body. Science does not suggest that cannabinoids support a normal healthy immune system but neither does suggest it the opposite. Self-regulating the ECS system with cannabinoids boils down to whether a user is willing to derive their own conclusions based on feelings and experience over possible consequences of tinkering with ECS.

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