Cannabis is a powerful herb that has a wide variety of effects on the body. Many of the plant’s most profound effects happen in the immune system. The active components in the plant, called cannabinoids, are immune-modulators. This means that they tap into the immune system and alter its effects. But, does cannabis weaken or strengthen immune function? Here’s what some of the early research has to say.
The correct answer to this question? No one really knows, it’s complicated, and it depends. Preclinical research has found that cannabis can suppress the immune system. It does this by decreasing inflammation, which is the body’s natural response to infection.
While inflammation has a bad reputation, no human would be able to survive without it. Inflammation helps trap and isolate damaged parts of the body, preventing the spread of infection. Decreasing inflammation when it is needed can potentially worsen infection or injury.
However, sometimes the body’s inflammatory response goes awry and it becomes too inflamed for its own good. Such is the case with autoimmune disease, in which the immune system begins to attack a patient’s own body. This causes chronic inflammation, which can be detrimental to health.
Recent research has pegged chronic inflammation as a major contributor to many modern diseases, including depression, anxiety, multiple sclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases, asthma, arthritis, allergy, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, obesity, and more. Scientists are currently researching the ways in which anti-inflammatory tools may aid in the treatment of these diseases and others.
As a powerful anti-inflammatory, the immune suppressant qualities of cannabis may be useful for those who have health problems associated with high levels of inflammation.
Healthy individuals with normal inflammation response may not benefit from continuously consuming high levels of anti-inflammatory compounds like those in cannabis. However, it will take more research to determine once and for all whether or not cannabis consumption causes detrimental effects to the immune system in the long term.
In some instances, research suggests that cannabis can strengthen immune function. Cancer and HIV/AIDS are two examples of this. In contrast to autoimmune disease, both cancer and HIV are associated with a decline in immune function.
However, even though these conditions are associated with suppressed immunity, early evidence suggests that cannabis can still have a beneficial effect.
In fact, preclinical research suggests that the herb may actually strengthen immune response in these conditions. However, advanced trials are necessary to be certain. Here’s the scoop on some early research:
In rodent and laboratory models of cancer, cannabis compounds effectively trigger something called apoptosis. Apoptosis is a fancy term for cell-suicide. Cell-suicide is an adjunct part of the immune response that determines whether a diseased cell lives or dies. A dysfunctional immune system can cause either too much or too little apoptosis. Neither of which is a good thing.
For some reason, cancer cells stop responding to triggers that would otherwise tell them to self-destruct. This allows cancer cells to continue to grow and proliferate.
Early research in rodents and human cancer cells cultivated in the laboratory has found that cannabis compounds trigger apoptosis in cancer cells. This means that chemicals in the herb successfully killed the cells. For this reason, scientists around the globe are studying the potential anti-cancer effects of cannabis.
Another interesting area of research is cannabis therapeutics for HIV/AIDS. In HIV, a virus hijacks the immune system and causes immune suppression. This means that the body can no longer fight off infection, making patients more susceptible to infection which can lead to premature death.
Though the immune-suppressing qualities of cannabis often get media attention, preliminary research in HIV patients has shown that cannabis may actually improve immune function.
A 2015 study found that HIV positive patients who consumed cannabis had lower viral loads than those who did not. The cannabis-consuming patients also had higher CD4 counts, which is a measurement of immune cells that naturally kill the HIV virus. CD4 is a type of T-cell.
In 2003, research from Dr. Donald Abrams found that cannabis consuming HIV/AIDS patients showed a 20 percent rise in T-cell counts. T-cells are killer cells that seek out pathogens and destroy them, a major component of immune response. The study tested both CD4 counts and CD8 counts in 62 HIV patients.
The improvements were seen in consumers who smoked cannabis and as well as those given the drug dronabinol, which is a synthetic THC. The synthetic THC only caused a 10 percent increase in CD8 T-cells while smoked cannabis caused a 20 percent increase.
Another 2016 study surveyed 955 HIV patients and examined their CD4 counts. This study found no negative or positive association between cannabis consumption and immune function.
The major takeaway from these studies? In some specific instances, cannabis may be beneficial in strengthening immune health.
It’s important not to jump to conclusions when it comes to cannabis and the immune system. All of the research mentioned in this article indicates that the herb can modulate the immune system. Whether that is for better or for worse likely depends on your unique situation.
For a healthy person, the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis may be unnecessary. Inflammation is a natural response of the immune system and is vital if you want to stay healthy and survive.
However, chronic inflammation is detrimental to health. Those with autoimmune diseases and conditions like allergy, asthma, and depression may benefit from the anti-inflammatory effects of the herb. However, there’s just not enough information to say for sure quite yet.
At this point, substantial investigations into when cannabis may be beneficial for immune function and when it is not are lacking. Yet, as the early research on cannabis, cancer, and HIV/AIDS suggests, there is much more to the cannabis and immune question than meets the eye.
Until more research is completed, it’s important to listen to your body and work with a trusted medical professional to decide whether or not cannabis is helping or hurting in your particular case.