Can CBD Prevent COVID-19?
A number of sources claim that CBD can help in the fight against the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Is there any evidence for this? Can CBD prevent a COVID-19 infection or alleviate its symptoms?
The short answer is, no. There is no evidence yet, as it’s too soon for any studies to be conducted as to the effects of CBD on COVID-19.
While several studies suggest that CBD may help boost your immune system, the best way to protect yourself is by washing your hands frequently, avoiding touching your face, and avoiding close contact (2 metres) with people.
Importantly, research suggests that CBD may be effective in dealing with insomnia, anxiety, and depression. These are all common side-effects of stressful situations like lockdowns and quarantines.
What is COVID-19?
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), also known as coronavirus disease or COVID-19, is an infectious disease caused by a novel coronavirus.
The disease causes respiratory illness (like the flu) with symptoms such as a cough, fever, and in more severe cases, difficulty in breathing. While some 80% of sufferers only exhibit mild to moderate symptoms and recover on their own, COVID-19 can lead to pneumonia and death.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Since COVID-19 impacts the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions most severely, the WHO has asked everyone to help protect those people at the highest risk.
Practicing good hygiene and prevention measures, social distancing, and avoiding crowded places, continue to be very important. Those who do not feel well should stay home and contact their health-care providers.
Can CBD prevent COVID-19?
Cannabinoids like CBD do affect the immune system (more on that below). However, with no studies conducted on the subject of CBD and COVID-19, it’s still premature to make any claims.
This is not a bad thing. CBD does so many amazing things that there is no need to stretch the truth or make extraordinary claims.
What we do know is that CBD can help individuals deal with some of the effects of the pandemic. Social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines are stressful situations that can affect your mental health. Studies suggest that CBD can help with insomnia. CBD may also alleviate anxiety and depression.
If you get COVID-19, consult your doctor before taking any CBD, as CBD may interact with your existing medication. While the rumour that NSAIDs (a group of anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen) can worsen COVID-19’s symptoms has been disproven, it shows how careful you need to be when treating a disease we still know so little about.
How does CBD affect the immune system?
Does CBD affect the immune system? The short answer is yes. But it doesn’t necessarily boost it, as some of CBD’s proponents suggest.
Instead, recent studies suggest that cannabinoids interact with the human immune system mostly as an immunomodulator—i.e. they help regulate it.
There are strong indications that CBD, THC and other cannabinoids extracted from cannabis could be the next big thing in the pharma world—as long as we can untangle the various ways they interfere with the complex human immune system.
The three layers of the human immune system
The human immune system is a complex defence mechanism. It comprises of several processes and biological structures responsible for detecting, indexing, and fighting the many enemies that constantly attack the human organism.
Just think of what the immune system has to do every moment of the day. It must distinguish between your body’s own cells and external pathogens, such as viruses, parasitic worms, bacteria, toxins, etc.
The immune system works hard for us 24 hours a day. It does so by providing a three-layered defence, which progressively goes from generic to highly specific.
Physical or natural barriers
Physical barriers include the skin, the hair, mucous membranes (e.g. in the nose), the tears, and even earwax.
All of them prevent dust, bacteria, viruses, etc. from entering the body. They trap them or flushing them out. These barriers are constantly at work, without us even noticing them. Do you pay any attention to your nose filtering small particles in the air as you breathe?
The stomach’s acid fluids are also part of this first layer of defence, as they destroy any ingested microorganisms. Other first-layer defence mechanisms include coughing and sneezing to eject pathogens from your respiratory tract.
Innate immune system
If a pathogen breaches the first level of physical defence, your innate immune system is activated. This provides a second-level response, mainly inflammation.
Inflammation stops, kills, and removes any pathogens. It should be stressed that this is a non-specific response: the body recognizes an intruder but can’t identify him or activate a specific counter-attack. It is the innate immune system’s strategy of “one therapy fits all”.
Importantly, this kind of defence does not participate in the creation of antigens as it doesn’t memorize any attacks.
Adaptive immune system
This is the strongest and most specialized weapon of the human body’s arsenal against disease. It provides immunological memory: your body will remember each pathogen that has attacked it through a specific antigen.
The adaptive immune system is activated if the previous layers fail. It tries to identify the specific pathogen in order to create a “tailored” response to it. In its efforts, it employs specialized cells that destroy and remove antigens. They also help the body remember previous attacks.
When the immune system goes wrong
The immune system has a fine balance to keep. When it fails to do so, immune disorders can manifest. There are three main kinds of immune disorders:
- Immunodeficiency manifests when the immune system is damaged and fails to effectively counterattack. They are often linked to age (too young, too old). Immunodeficiency can also be the result of serious diseases like AIDS and certain kinds of cancers.
- Hypersensitivity, on the other hand, results in excessive immune responses to external stimulants, even if they are harmless. In this case, the immune system ends up damaging the body’s own tissues. Common examples of hypersensitivity include allergies and anaphylactic reactions.
- Sometimes the immune system fails to recognize its own cells and ends up attacking them, thinking them an enemy. Autoimmune disorders then manifest.
CBD and the immune system
Several studies suggest that cannabinoids like CBD interact with the human immune system.
They do so through their interaction with the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system is responsible for maintaining homeostasis—the body’s natural balance. To do so, it uses two receptors: CB1 and CB2. Crucially, they are both present in immune system cells, especially CB2.
There has to be a reason for that—after all, as our knowledge of the human body becomes more precise at a molecular level, we discover that there is no randomness in how our cells are organized. The endocannabinoid system spans the whole body. Since the immune system interacts with all the other body systems to engage cells into fight, it makes sense that CB1 and CB2 would be involved in this.
Is CBD biphasic?
Research on CBD and the immune system is often inconclusive: while some studies show that cannabis has immunosuppressant qualities, i.e. it can suppress the immune system, others show that it can actually boost it.
One possibility is that cannabinoids neither simply stimulate nor simply suppress the immune system, but rather modulate it. The challenge for a whole new wave of research is to explain how that exactly happens.
Another possibility is that phytocannabinoids are biphasic in their functioning, having opposite results for low and high doses.
Until we know more on that crucial question, what is it that we already know about phytocannabinoids and the immune system? Below is a summary of our current knowledge.
Cannabinoids and inflammation
Inflammation is one of the first responses of the immune system to infection. It results in fever, the dilatation of blood vessels (to decrease blood pressure), stimulation of the white blood cells, shutting down of protein activity in infected cells, etc.
The objective of all these reactions, which we usually find annoying, is to remove pathogens and promote the healing of any damaged cells/tissue.
CBD and THC are often used as anti-inflammatory agents, and with good reason.
THC antagonizes the CB2 receptor, resulting in an anti-inflammatory effect. CBD, on the other hand, has been found to reduce cytokine production and to inhibit T-cell function. Thus both compounds have been found to suppress the inflammation that the immune system activates, and for this reason, are called “immunosuppressants.”
Is CBD good or bad for you?
The short answer is, both and neither.
The strong anti-inflammatory action of cannabinoids explains why regular marijuana smokers are often victims of repeated infections. THC shuts down the efforts of their immune system to remove any intruders. Obviously, that’s a bad thing.
On the other hand, chronic autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s or multiple sclerosis are instances of unnecessary chronic inflammation. They actively destroy the body, so inflammation must be stopped. In this case, the immunosuppressant effects of the cannabinoids are therapeutic.
It is also worth mentioning that research on anti-inflammatory effects is not limited to CBD and THC. It actually extends to terpenes like beta-caryophyllene, and to other cannabinoids such as cannabinoid acid (CBDa).
Treatments for autoimmune diseases could be among the first pharmaceutical applications of cannabis in the next few years.
Does CBD boost the immune system?
From the above, it becomes clear that there are even more questions to answer when it comes to CBD’s promise for boosting the immune system.
Initial observations in animal samples, small human samples, and laboratory experiments show that the interaction between CBD and the immune system is complex.
CBD may have great potential in the development of new treatments for diseases related to the immune system, like autoimmune conditions, immunity deficiencies, or a hyperactive immune system.
For the moment, however, research has mainly served to put forward even more questions:
IS CBD biphasic?
Research suggests that CBD is, indeed, biphasic. If this is the case, then cannabinoids are immunomodulators capable of restoring the balance of the immune system.
While we explore the underlying mechanisms, it’s good to remember that CBD may present opposite results depending on the dosage. So, it could suppress the immune system in some cases, and boost it in others.
Is it possible to suppress the immune system too much by taking cannabinoids?
When we’re talking about a healthy immune system, it seems unlikely that cannabinoids could suppress the immune system too much. Both CBD and THC provoke immunosuppression by controlling inflammation and a healthy individual doesn’t suffer from inflammation.
In a diseased individual, however, it is conceivable that cannabinoids could have too much of an anti-inflammatory action. If cannabinoids are, indeed, biphasic, then the anti-inflammatory effects of the cannabinoids are probably biphasic too. Such questions help explain why the dosage is crucial.
Should you take CBD, THC, terpenes, or a combination of them?
Certain studies on diseases like multiple sclerosis have only observed therapeutic effects when THC and CBD are combined. This is hardly an unusual combination: THC is often combined with CBD to counteract THC’s psychotropic effects. More research, however, is required before we know for sure.
What are the side-effects of taking CBD with immunosuppressants?
The side-effects of taking CBD along with other therapies are still underexplored. In some cases, like with immunotherapy for cancer, it is possible that cannabinoids can compromise the efficiency of the immunotherapy treatment. Any patients wishing to complement their existing treatment with CBD should discuss the matter with their treating doctor.