Humans have been using cannabis medicinally for thousands of years, and we’re still unearthing ways it can benefit our health. Recent scientific discoveries have led to potential therapies of cannabis in treating autoimmune disorders – diseases that are notoriously difficult to manage, or even diagnose due to their unpredictable nature.
Autoimmune disease targets specific areas of the body, (or many areas) with an overactive immune response that creates uncontrolled inflammation interfering with the way our body functions. While inflammation is a natural, protective immune response to a perceived threat – like a wound or injury, it flares up repeatedly in otherwise healthy tissue with autoimmune disease, as if responding to an infection that will never heal.
This repetitive inflammation damages cells, tissues and organs, causing pain, swelling, muscle wasting, depression and immobility. Essentially – the body is attacking itself. These conditions can range in severity and can seriously diminish quality of life, or even be fatal.
Some autoimmune diseases include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (affects the cartilage in joints)
- Systemic lupus (affects organs including kidneys, skin, joints, and brain)
- Celiac disease (immune system damages small intestine in response to gluten)
- Psoriasis (immune dysfunction in the skin)
- Type 1 diabetes (affects insulin-producing glands in the pancreas)
- Multiple sclerosis (immune system attacks the myelin which surrounds neurons)
Conventional treatment of autoimmune disease focuses primarily on calming the immune response and reducing inflammation and symptoms.Typical medications include NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), steroids and even immunosuppressant pharmaceuticals – which can offer relief of symptoms, but don’t address the underlyingimmune disruption. They simply mute the problem, allowing the disease to progress without interference and often come with some unfortunate side effects, and the potential of addiction with the heavier hitting pain killers.
Enter cannabis. What makes it an appealing subject of study in the treatment of autoimmune disorders not just in its capabilities in relieving pain and inflammation – but in its relationship with the immune system.
This involves our endocannabinoid system – an extensive network of cannabinoid receptors throughout our bodies in the brain, organs, connective tissue, glands and immune cells that play a part in regulating our body’s response to trauma and imbalances.
The endocannabinoid system is activated by our body’s own natural endocannabinoids and plant-based cannabinoids, notably, THC and CBD in cannabis. This is why cannabis is so successful in many medicinal applications – because we have our own network of receptors for them to interact with. Among the different types of cannabinoid receptors,CB2 receptors are found mostly in the immune cells and have been found to be critical for limiting inflammation.
More research is emerging on pharmacology and the endocannabinoid system in how it functions in states of health and disease, and certain patterns emerging in specific cannabinoid receptor sites among those suffering with autoimmune diseases indicate a strong potential for cannabis-based therapies.
Researchers noted higher levels of CB2 receptors in the immune cells of rheumatoid arthritis patients – suggesting an elevated requirement for cannabinoids in these cells that may require further stimulation to function properly.
Another study found that the cannabis could be of benefit in the treatment of autoimmune bowel disease. Eventhough CB2 receptors are most commonly associated with the immune system, this study suggests that elevated CB1 receptors in the brain and gut of inflammatory bowel disease patients indicates an elevated need for cannabinoids in helping to modulate bowel motility, secretion and curbing excessive inflammation. Other autoimmune diseases have also indicated clear interactions between the endocannabinoid andimmune systems that point to cannabis-based treatments as effective therapies.
Gaining more understanding about our endocannabinoid systems could change the future of autoimmune therapies. Further research, along with exploring cannabis’s role in in homeostasis – the physiological balance of the body – will no doubt uncover even more possibilities for cannabis applications and human immune system health.
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