Medical cannabis advocates can be a cringey lot sometimes. For every deep-diving marijuana researcher nursing a migraine from staying up all night reading European white papers, there are ten dippies wearing tie-dyed onesies, Birkenstocks and a novelty hat. We all know and love them, but we avoid making eye contact or mentioning them in polite company. They stand on street corners and proselytize like old timey medicine show hucksters, saying crazy things like, “Pot can stop migraines!” or “Weed eats cancer!”
They will claim that it cures back pain and depression, rheumatism and irritable bowels. It will knock your hat off and make your romantic interests swoon. It’s utter madness. And we snicker to ourselves or maybe roll our eyes. What we never expect is that they could actually be right.
The mechanism behind weed’s alleged ability to act as a miracle panacea might be incredibly simple. Cannabis fights inflammation, and chronic inflammation may be to blame for the great majority of the world’s diseases.
Chronic Inflammation and Disease
A study published in the journal Nature Medicine in 2019 makes a wild claim: Chronic inflammation can “lead to several diseases that collectively represent the leading causes of disability and mortality worldwide.”
It sounds about as ridiculous as the dippies’ claims. But consider the long list of diseases to which chronic inflammation contributes, which includes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, autoimmune disorders, asthma, stroke, neurodegenerative disorders, arthritis, eczema, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s … it goes on and on. The researchers are right. Chronic inflammation is likely responsible for most of the deaths in the world.
Before we get too deep in the weeds, let’s look at the difference between acute and chronic inflammation.
Inflammation is a natural part of the body’s defense mechanisms. It starts the process of removing harmful foreign stimuli. In the context of pushing out a dangerous intruder, inflammation is actually good.
Acute inflammation is recognizable by telltale signs like redness, swelling and localized pain in response to an injury or infection. While the area is inflamed, white blood cells are sent to surround and protect it as the body repairs itself. This sort of inflammation is a necessary and helpful part of the recovery process.
But too much inflammation can be harmful. Chronic inflammation is long-term and can last for years. It occurs when white blood cells are continually sent to the affected area, and they begin attacking healthy tissue. For various reasons the body continues to send the message that it’s under attack, ultimately harming itself. Researchers believe that the risk of developing chronic inflammation can be traced back to early development.
Cannabis and Inflammation
In light of this data, all of those wild health claims about cannabis suddenly make sense. If there is one solid, accepted and irrefutable health benefit of cannabis, it’s that it can reduce inflammation.
In study after study, marijuana has tamed a range of inflammatory symptoms. A 2011 paper published in the journal Neuroscience Letters found that CBD helped reduce inflammatory pain in rats. A 2016 study from the European Journal of Pain found that CBD relieves pain and inflammation associated with arthritis. Another 2016 study found in the journal Gastroenterology and Hepatology discovered that marijuana can counter symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.
Cannabinoids affect inflammation by interacting with CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system. When they bind with these receptors, they help regulate the body’s immune system and inflammatory responses. THC and CBD aren’t the only compounds in cannabis that interact with CB2 receptors. Beta-Caryophyllene, a terpene with anti-inflammatory properties, also regulates the system through the CB2 receptors. These receptors are found throughout the immune system, meaning the effects can reach every part of the body.
This relationship with inflammation made cannabis a star during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, leading to a vindicating moment last year when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi defended the inclusion of cannabis protections in a proposed pandemic relief bill, saying that the drug was “a therapy that has proven successful.”
She was likely citing research that showed cannabis could halt an inflammatory response known as a cytokine storm. At the time, doctors believed that these storms were one of the main causes for severe respiratory distress in patients infected with SARS-CoV-2. A 2021 Canadian study published in the journal Aging found that using cannabis extracts helps to “curb inflammation and prevent fibrosis, and lead to disease remission.”
Researchers have since questioned the role of cytokine storms as a contributor to severity of SARS-CoV-2 infection, but this data is incredibly relevant to anyone suffering from autoimmune diseases in which the storms wreak havoc on the body. It also shows just how powerful cannabis is at curbing inflammation. Cytokine storms are usually treated with strong steroids and immunosuppressive drugs that have many more side effects than marijuana.
With all of this in mind, the wild health claims made by many medical marijuana enthusiasts may not seem so wild after all. Many of the claims center around diseases and conditions that result from or are exacerbated by chronic inflammation. What’s wild is that cannabis could potentially be a cure-all for these vastly different illnesses because of its role in battling a single foe.
This raises the topic of a need for more research into areas that have so far been largely ignored. Science will now need to start looking closer at the mechanism behind pot’s affect on the immune system and test whether its benefits could help more inflammatory diseases.
We don’t have to go all the way and start preaching on the street corner while wearing pot leaf shirts and tea shades, but maybe we can encourage our leaders to promote more study of the plant.