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How does CBD Affect the Immune System?

Humans are exposed to a multitude of infection-causing bacteria and viruses, and other microscopic organisms every day of our lives. Any of these cellular particulates could kill us – if it wasn’t for our built-in immune system – that keeps these “foreign bodies” out.

A network of cells, tissues, and organs, this system works in tandem to build up our immunity, fortify our body against these minute – yet dangerous – invaders, and eventually destroy these foreign bodies, keeping us healthy and alive.

Apart from these toxic invaders, the immune system also protects healthy cells and tissues of our body by identifying and destroying damaged or sick cells, like tumor or cancer cells, so that they don’t get the chance to grow and multiply.

While there are many immunity boosters in the market today – some natural and other pharmaceutical chemicals – a new natural chemical compound has made much headway in the market as a natural, potent, and safe substance.

Yes, it is CBD.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a chemical compound derived from cannabis plants and a cannabinoid. A long-misunderstood chemical, CBD was recently accepted as a safe and beneficial compound. Now it’s making news for all the wonderful benefits it showers on its users.

But before we can understand its effects on the immune system, we must understand how it interacts with the body.

A part of our central nervous system, known as the endocannabinoid system, is known for homeostasis, i.e. establishing and maintaining the balance between the different systems in the body.

This system produces certain endocannabinoids and endocannabinoid receptors that interact with each to transmit the right messages to the right places to maintain this balance. One of the key functions of the endocannabinoid system is to control and modulate the immune system.

When the body’s endo-cannabinoids fail to do its job, naturally available cannabinoids can help replace the deficit or enhance the effects of the existing endocannabinoids.

CBD is one such natural cannabinoid. Unlike its close cousin ∆-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), with which it shares its molecular structure (but a different atomic arrangement), CBD isn’t a psychotropic or psychedelic substance. That means it does give you “high” that we usually associate with cannabis or marijuana.

To understand how CBD interacts with our body, read on…

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CBD’s Association with The Immune System

The trichomes (or tiny hair-like extensions) of cannabis flowers contain more than 80 different cannabinoids. This special kind of chemical compound interacts with our body’s endocannabinoid receptors to produce certain specific effects on our body and mind.

Remember we mentioned that the endocannabinoid system produces endocannabinoid receptors? Well, they are mainly two types – CB1 and CB2. These receptors together are among our body’s prime neurotransmitters.

While CB1, mainly present in the brain (some throughout the body), regulates coordination, movement, pain, emotions, mood, thinking, appetite, and memories, among others, CB2 receptors, mostly available in the immune system, influences pain and inflammation responses.

While THC always attaches to CB1, directly acting as an agonist or antagonist to certain bodily functions, CBD interacts only indirectly with both receptors, simply pushing the body to produce more of its own cannabinoids and utilizing them to promote better health.

How CBD Affects The Immune System?

Interestingly, CBD seems to work both as an immunosuppressant and an immunomodulator, i.e. suppressing the body’s immunity as well as boosting it.

Now, you must be wondering: “How can THAT be?”

[Note: Immunosuppressants are agents that suppress, prevent, or inhibit the immune response. They can treat autoimmune diseases, such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease. Some treatments for cancer act as immunosuppressants. Immunomodulators, on the other hand, are agents that help regulate the immune system, i.e. enables the latter to do its job smoothly.]

So, how does CBD carry out BOTH these functions?

Here’s how:

Cannabinoids as immunosuppressants vs. boosters

There are studies to back the claim that cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, can suppress the immune system. This could explain why some people with pain and inflammation (including autoimmune diseases) experience relief when they use full-spectrum CBD products or medicinal cannabis.

Meanwhile, other studies have shown that regular CBD use can boost white blood cell count in patients with immunodeficiency disorders, such as HIV, indicating CBD’s immune-boosting properties.

These may seem contradictory to the uninitiated. But it is not when you consider cannabinoids, like CBD, to be modulators or regulators, rather than suppressants or boosters.

Its modulatory function has been well-explained in the review, titled, “Effects of Cannabinoids on T-cell Function and Resistance to Infection”, published online in the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology on April 16, 2015. It examined the effects of cannabinoids on immune function, with the focus on the effects on T-cells and the resistance to infection. [CBD can suppress T-cell production and function, resulting in the suppression of the immune system’s ability to identify invaders.]

In another study, conducted at universities in Virginia and Florida, 95 HIV patients – both cannabis users and non-users – were studied for their white blood cell counts. The results showed that the cannabis-users had higher white blood cell counts.

According to 1998 review, published in the Immunopharmacology, showed that CBD (along with THC) can suppress the function and secretion of cytokines, a large group of protein cells secreted from the immune system to interact with molecules that regulate the body’s immunity, white blood cell production, and inflammation.

A recent (2020) review of Epidiolex®’s effects was published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, titled “Immune Responses Regulated by Cannabidiol” that delved into how CBD can suppress chemokine production, a cytokine, that acts as a chemoattractant, i.e. a chemical agent that attracts an organism/cell towards itself. Chemokines lead immune cells to an infected area so that the white blood cells can fight and destroy invaders in the infected area.

While these studies do not conclusively say how exactly CBD would modulate or maintain the balance in the immune system, it seems apparent that it does so by either suppressing or boosting the immune system – depending on the condition of your body.

No matter how it helps, the evidence that these research papers yielded certainly indicates that CBD has a positive influence on the human immune system – that too – in a big way!

Parting Thoughts

A healthy immune system is important for survival. Whether you’re sick or well, you need to make sure that you keep your defenses high – high enough to ward off all invaders and enable your body to function normally.

In the absence of adequate defenses, your body would cease to function normally, causing a multitude of health problems.

While the exact effects of cannabinoids on the body aren’t completely understood, HIV and AIDS patients have long been known to use cannabis extracts to address issues like, pain and inflammation, anxiety, depression, stress, as well as improve their appetite and sleep patterns.

In fact, for thousands of years, man has been using cannabis plants in different ways to boost his health. The potency and safety of hemp’s benefits were first realized as way back as 3000 BC. But the use of other forms of cannabis and their products dates further back.

Nevertheless, it was only recently that the US government finally gave its nod to the legal cultivation of hemp plants and the production of hemp-based CBD products.

Whether a CBD product will help you boost your immunity or suppress it so that you sleep pain-free depends on a lot of other variables, including the chemical balance in parts of your body other than the trouble areas.

Ivan writes about Cannabis at The Cannabis Radar. He has a degree in Nutrition Sciences from University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Centre. He likes to spend his spare time reading to his daughter or spending time with his wife.

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