The body of evidence demonstrating the medicinal value of cannabis is growing and becoming more compelling, yet there continues to be resistance to using cannabidiol (CBD). Even as the legal arguments are settling, many are resistant to using cannabis sativa (hemp) or cannabis indica (marijuana).
Cannabis has been a popular botanical medicine for thousands of years, valued for its healing properties. Through at least the 19th century it could be found in U.S. pharmacies.1 Then, in 1970, the herb was declared a Schedule 1 controlled substance.2 This is a classification reserved for drugs with a “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medicinal use.”3
Three years later, the Drug Enforcement Agency was formed and they began their fight against marijuana.4 It may be hard for many to shake the idea that a plant once associated with hippies, rebellion and counterculture has medicinal value and may be important to optimal health.
CBD May Use Three Pathways in the Fight Against COVID-19
Although there is nothing in the chemical makeup of CBD to suggest it specifically attacks COVID-19, some experts believe the anti-inflammatory properties could present a potential treatment for pulmonary inflammation that ultimately can lead to death.
In the severe form of the disease, damage leads to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), raising the mortality rate of those with ARDS to nearly 50%.5 Hyperactivity of the immune system has been dubbed a “cytokine storm” and is characterized by a release of inflammatory mediators including interleukins and chemokines.
However, Emily Earlenbaugh, co-founder of a cannabis consulting company and a contributor to Forbes, points out that as the body recognizes pathogens, immune cells trigger an early cytokine response that helps control the infection.6,7 This means the body requires cytokines at the start of an infection, but a hyperactive immune response later on can lead to lung damage and severe pneumonia.
Among the different cannabinoids that have been extracted from the cannabis plant, it is CBD that has shown strong anti-inflammatory properties.8 It makes sense, then, to investigate whether CBD can treat ARDS.
Earlenbaugh writes in Forbes that researchers have studied CBD for three ways it may help in the treatment of COVID-19. These include the ability to reduce inflammation, act as a potential antiviral and affect ACE2 expression.9
CBD May Calm the COVID-19 Cytokine Storm
In an interview with CBS News, Earlenbaugh spoke of past research in which CBD demonstrated the ability to act as an interleukin-6 inhibitor, and thus affect the hyperactive immune response.10,11
A more recent study by scholars from Augusta University in Georgia concluded that CBD had a potential protective role during ARDS, which may make it a valuable part of treatment for COVID-19 “by reducing the cytokine storm, protecting pulmonary tissues, and re-establishing inflammatory homeostasis.”12
While more clinical trials are needed to determine dosage and timing before CBD can be part of mainstream treatment, researchers believe they have evidence it can help patients avoid mechanical ventilation and death from ARDS. Babak Baban, immunologist and corresponding author of the study, commented:13
“ARDS is a major killer in severe cases of some respiratory viral infections, including severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and we have an urgent need for better intervention and treatment strategies. The natural instinct of the virus is to make more of itself. It weaves with our DNA to make the cell produce food and everything it needs.”
In their animal study, a synthetic analog was used to mimic the activity of SARS-CoV-2.14 CBD was administered in a pattern that would be like the human experience with the virus and treatment. The animals showed quick clinical improvement, and in a subsequent examination it was found that their lung damage had totally or partially healed.
Terpenes Have Antiviral Activity
Terpenes, also found in the cannabis plant, have been another focus of study for the antiviral properties as scientists search for natural remedies in the treatment of some viruses,15 inflammatory diseases16 and SARS.17
Terpenes are phytochemicals and the oils that give the plant a distinctive flavor and odor.18 Some have antiviral activity, which may help fight COVID-19. A team from the Israel Institute of Technology led by Dedi Meiri, Ph.D., spoke with a reporter from Health Europa about a formulation having been extracted from cannabis and being tested against SARS CoV-2.19
In the initial study, the team is trying to identify the molecules capable of reducing the hyperactive immune response without completely suppressing the system. In the second phase they plan to look at how the plant may affect the viral process through ACE2 receptors.
The hope is that terpenes found in cannabis can help modulate the overreaction of the immune system, which causes organ system failure leading to death.20
Your Body Has an Endocannabinoid System
Endocannabinoids were discovered in the 1990s, which in turn led to the realization that the human body makes endogenous cannabinoids to influence those receptors.21 Endocannabinoids are similar in structure to the cannabinoids found in cannabis.
Board certified nutritionist Carl Germano is an expert on phytocannabinoids and the importance of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the human body. He likens the ECS system to the conductor of an orchestra, in which the orchestra is your organ system.22
He goes on to explain how this important system may not be fully appreciated and understood, as there continues to be a stigma — even in medical schools — where students and researchers are testing the boundaries of human biology and physiology:23
“The ECS has been the subject of many scholarly textbooks … Quite frankly, this is something that should be taught from high school to college to medical school. Unfortunately, because of the stigma attached to cannabinoids … less than 13 percent [of medical schools in the U.S.] are teaching the ECS.
I say, ‘Are you insane? This is like saying that for the next 70 years we will not teach the cardiovascular system, as if it never existed.’ We now have to dismantle this medical travesty … The whole thing is about education. This is critical and crucial to our health and well-being.
We have to dismantle the stigma, and we have to start educating ourselves to understand that the ECS is probably one of the most important medical discoveries in quite some time … understanding the enormity of this system and what it does and what it influences throughout the entire human body.”
Documented Health Benefits Associated With CBD
CBD is only one of more than 100 compounds that are classified as cannabinoids and found in the cannabis plant. Since cannabinoid receptors are part of our physiology, it should come as no surprise that CBD has so many health benefits. There are myriad medical uses that have been attributed to CBD, many of them scientifically documented. However, as Germano warns:24
“We must get off this single magic bullet bandwagon. We must appreciate the full gamut of all of these phytocannabinoids as a whole and that they complement each other because CBD is not the answer to support the endocannabinoid system as a whole.”
You’ll find more information about cannabis production, quality and medicinal benefits at “The Many Medicinal Benefits of Cannabis and Cannabidiol (CBD).” Here are just a few of benefits associated with health conditions that raise the risk for severe COVID-19:
- Allergic asthma — “CBD treatment decreased the inflammatory and remodeling processes in the model of allergic asthma,” according to the European Journal of Pharmacology25
- Anxiety and sleep — “Cannabidiol may hold benefit for anxiety-related disorders,” The Permanente Journal26
- Blood pressure — “This data shows that acute administration of CBD reduces resting BP and the BP increase to stress in humans,” JCI Insight27
- Diabetes — “These results suggest that the neuroprotective effects of CBD in middle-aged diabetic rats … are related to a reduction in neuroinflammation,” Neurotoxicity Research28
Feed Your Body’s Endocannabinoid System
In my interview with Germano, he talked about the conditions that may result when endogenous cannabinoids are not produced. This can produce a number of symptoms such as inflammation, stress, anxiety and depression.29 Others include poor eye health, insomnia, neurological problems and poor bone health.
Before reaching for a supplement, consider taking steps to raise your endogenous production of cannabinoid compounds. A paper published in PLOS|One explains how nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, exercise, chiropractic care, massage and acupuncture influence the function of your ECS.30
If you choose to use a supplement, then I strongly recommend buying from a reputable company. As I’ve written in the past, Amazon has misled consumers because they allow vendors to tag their items at will, despite their policy of forbidding the sale of any controlled substance.31
Products containing CBD oil fall into this category, based on a technicality of the law.32 Yet, you can still find hemp extract and other products containing CBD on the website.33 One healthy option is using hemp, which was legalized in 2018 with the Farm Bill.34 As Germano has said, CBD alone is not enough to support the body’s endocannabinoid system. Hemp oil has 100 other phytocannabinoids to help meet many of those needs, including CBD.35
Germano wrote a book about the ECS called, “Road to Ananda: The Simple Guide to the Endocannabinoid System, Phytocannabinoids and Hemp.” I am proud to have written the forward to this book, as it is a great resource. Definitely pick up a copy if you want to learn more about this fascinating topic.