Evidence suggests that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and other cannabinoids can be beneficial in the treatment of many symptoms related to autoimmune diseases.
Despite their prevalence among the general population, autoimmune diseases remain largely misunderstood. There are currently more than 80 identified autoimmune disorders (1) impacting nearly every part of the human body. Each is characterized by an improper response by the body’s immune system, which attacks healthy cells mistakenly interpreted as foreign invaders. Depending on which part of the body is targeted, this response can lead to a variety of chronic and sometimes deadly diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), and others.
Normally, the human immune system can distinguish foreign cells in a body from a person’s own cells. With an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of a person’s body—like the joints or skin—as foreign. Physicians and researchers do not know exactly what causes the immune system to misfire, but they have identified that some people are more likely to develop autoimmune disease than others. Some autoimmune diseases are more common among certain ethnic groups. For example, lupus impacts more African American and Hispanic ethnicities than Caucasians. In addition, certain autoimmune diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis run in families and can be genetic.
Many patients have found cannabis to be an effective treatment for the symptoms often associated with many of these ailments. Pain, inflammation, and spasms are common symptoms of many autoimmune diseases, as well as fatigue, muscle aches, swelling, and skin redness or irritation. These symptoms may come and go over time and can also be unique to a specific illness.
While there are no cures for autoimmune diseases, some treatments can help manage the overactive immune response and reduce inflammation and pain. Traditional treatments for symptoms of many autoimmune diseases include the use of steroids as well as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen for pain. However, utilizing cannabis as a treatment has been gaining traction as research has uncovered the connections between autoimmune diseases, the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and other cannabinoids. Specifically, there is growing evidence (2) to support the involvement of the ECS in both inflammatory and neurodegenerative processes typical with MS and ALS. Additional research supports the role of cannabinoid receptors (3) as therapeutic targets for autoimmune disease as well as cannabis as a medicinal remedy (4) for symptoms related to RA, MS, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Studies also reveal that cannabis has been found to be an effective treatment for some autoimmune diseases’ most common symptoms, including pain (5), inflammation, insomnia, muscle relaxation (6), and appetite stimulation. In addition, cannabis has been found to help reduce polypharmacy (7) by helping patients eliminate or taper off prescribed pharmaceuticals, and animal research shows that CBD may help to slow the progression of ALS (8) in some patients.
While it is impossible to know if cannabis can help every patient manage symptoms of an autoimmune disease, there is enough supporting evidence to suggest that patients seeking relief might consider incorporating it into their health regimen. The first step should always be to consult with a cannabis clinician or connect with a cannabis-trained registered nurse at Leaf411 (9) for information on how cannabis might be beneficial for your specific condition. Patients uncomfortable with smoking or vaping cannabis need not be concerned. Today, there are a wide variety of consumption methods including edibles, tinctures, topicals, and others that allow patients to experience the benefits of cannabis without inhalation. The biggest challenge can be finding the right product and dosage that works best for a particular patient and ailment. The rewards for patients struggling to find relief can be life changing.
For example, Peter Skertich is an engineer from Katy, Texas who has struggled with rheumatoid arthritis for more than 10 years. His treatment regimen has included multiple pharmaceuticals, many with potentially dangerous long-term health impacts. None of the drugs have fully alleviated his symptoms. In late 2019, he was diagnosed with Lupus which was attacking his liver and kidneys. He knew he could not continue with an ineffective drug treatment considering his new diagnosis. During a two-week visit to Colorado and under the guidance of medical cannabis professionals, Peter discovered how cannabis can provide the relief he was seeking.
“By the end of the two weeks, it was apparent that cannabis was my solution and it alleviated 95% of the symptoms,” he said. “There was only one problem, cannabis was not legal in Texas for my conditions and the Texas Medical Marijuana Program does not afford enough THC to help my condition. However, hemp is legal and specifically delta-8 THC is legal in Texas. So, I have now been using delta-8 THC for two years safely and effectively.”
Peter uses 10 mg of delta-8 THC in the evening and 5 mg during the day if needed. He consults with his internal medicine physician and Leaf411 to refine his regimen or if he is experiencing any issues. As with any cannabis regimen, the mantra of “start low, go slow” applies. Because everyone’s endocannabinoid system reacts differently, cannabis impacts different individuals in different ways. Most likely, a combination of CBD, THC, other cannabinoids, and terpenes will prove most effective since autoimmune diseases often result in a variety of symptoms. Due to its anti-inflammatory effects, THC is bound to play a pivotal role in any treatment. Until a patient is completely comfortable with the effects of any cannabis treatment, consumption should be conducted at home or other safe location where no travel will be required.
Eloise Theisen is a board certified adult geriatric nurse practitioner who specializes in cannabis therapy. For more than 20 years, Theisen has worked primarily with cancer, dementia, and chronic pain patients. In the last eight years, she has focused her efforts on cannabinoid therapies. Eloise has worked with more than 7,500 patients to help them effectively treat age-related and chronic illness with cannabis. She is a co-founder and the Chief Executive Officer of Radicle Health and Radicle Health Clinician Network and currently serves as Chief Nursing Officer and Board President of Leaf411. Eloise also works in Palliative Medicine at Stanford Health Care.