Something strange is happening to our immune systems. Over the last fifty years there has been a dramatic rise in the incidence of autoimmune diseases, conditions in which the body’s immune system begins to attack itself. Multiple Sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Diabetes Type 1, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus are just the more well known of over one hundred autoimmune diseases, all of which are reaching record levels.
In the US alone approximately 24 million people have an autoimmune disease of some kind, which reflects the threefold increase across the industrialised world as a whole. Women are affected more than men, with 1 in 9 having an autoimmune disease compared to 1 in 12 for men.
Theories abound as to why these conditions are getting such a stranglehold on the developed world, such as ‘the Hygiene Hypothesis’ which suggests a lack of exposure to bacteria and viruses – the normal targets of a healthy immune system – is causing our immune systems to get confused and either attack themselves or develop allergies.
Others view chronic inflammation as a possible cause. It would be wrong to say that inflammation per se is bad as it forms a crucial role in the body’s immune response to viruses and bacteria, and healing injuries. The problem occurs when this inflammatory response is called upon unnecessarily and its action is directed towards the body’s own tissues, as in the case of autoimmune disease. The result is the body literally destroying itself.
So why does the inflammatory response get out of whack in the first place? It would seem for many autoimmune conditions a contributing factor is an overproduction of cytokines, which are small proteins released by cells affecting the inter-cell communication. The cytokines includes interleukins, lymphokines and cell signal molecules, which trigger inflammation and respond to infections.
So the next question is why are too many cytokines produced? A major cause is something called oxidative stress.
Living in the modern age leaves us open to a constant bombardment by chemicals, pollutants and free radicals. When the body doesn’t have enough antioxidants to counteract them, oxidative stress is caused, making the body more likely to develop age related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Cancer, and of course autoimmune diseases.
According to one study by scientists at the University of Kobe in Japan, ‘when the state of oxidative stress was investigated in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), systemic lupus erythematosus, and Sjögren’s syndrome by oxidative stress profile, most subjects were in excessive oxidative stress’. Another study found that ‘Rheumatoid Arthritis synovial fluid and tissue have demonstrated oxidative damage to the tissue. Signs of oxidative stress such as DNA oxidative damage, are present in the inflammatory synovium (the membrane lining synovial joints) of RA patients’.
Patients diagnosed with an autoimmune disease are usually prescribed a cocktail of anti inflammatory medication and immunosuppressants, which are often accompanied by a host of side effects and may only work for finite periods of time before another drug has to be tried.
But what if there were a substance that were both an antioxidant and an anti inflammatory agent? Well it just so happens that the cannabis plant does both.
Biochemist Dennis Hill, who himself used cannabis to treat his prostate cancer, describes how compounds within the cannabis plant called cannabinoids ‘have the ability to suppress the inflammatory cytokine cascade by inhibiting glial cell production of the cytokines interferon or interleukin’ (both of which are proteins used in the immune system response). ‘Here we see the seeds of chronic inflammation dissolved by the modulation process of cannabinoids bringing homeostasis to systems out of balance’.
Indeed it’s no surprise that plant cannabinoids can have an anti inflammatory effect when we consider how they work in the body. And it’s mostly down to the Endocannabinoid system, a vast network of cannabinoid receptors that interact with the body’s own natural cannabis-like chemicals anandamide and AG-2, to bring about homeostasis and balance.
The CB1 receptors are mostly found in the central nervous system and therefore correspond to functions such as memory, mood, sleep, appetite and pain sensation. Whereas the CB2 receptors can be found in the periphery, modulating the immune system and includes the inflammatory response.
As it happens, plant cannabinoids can work in a similar way to the body’s own endocannabinoids, with two in particular standing out as having particular therapeutic potential.
THC, the compound in cannabis that gets you stoned, has been shown to be a powerful analgesic. But it is its non-psychoactive cousin Cannabidiol (CBD) that scientists believe could have particular benefit for inflammatory conditions due to its interaction with the CB2 receptors. This is because CBD stimulates the vanilloid pain receptors and inhibits the breakdown of the body’s own cannabinoid Anandamide by suppressing the Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH). All of which elicits an anti inflammatory effect.
But there’s a further string to Cannabidiol’s bow. Remember how the body’s out of whack inflammatory response can be caused by excessive oxidative stress? Well it turns out that CBD is also a powerful antioxidant, something discovered by scientists as far back as 1998 and even recognised by the American federal government who hold a patent saying as much. It should be pointed out that THC is also an antioxidant, but many people find its psychoactive effects difficult to manage, so CBD offers a more palatable, non-mind altering alternative.
However, for anyone suffering from an autoimmune disease, it’s all well and good quoting scientific studies that have never made it outside of the laboratory, when what you really want to know is if it works in real life.
Well as ever, the evidence is anecdotal. But little by little more cases are coming to light such as Cleo Bella, who at 11 was diagnosed with Polyarticular Rheumatoid Arthritis. According to her mother, ‘she walked with a limp, and at times couldn’t walk at all because of the pain. She also had the beginning of the classic rheumatoid arthritis wrist deformity, ulnar deviation in both wrists, which caused limited mobility. Her fingers were swollen and painful, making it hard to write or draw. Cleo needed help with almost every major task to function properly’.
After implementing dietary changes that brought minimal results, Cleo’s mother turned to Cannabidiol (CBD). Her mother continues, ‘within just 2 weeks of taking CBD, Cleo’s appetite came back and she started gaining weight, the grey was gone and the pink in her skin came back, the swelling in her knees decreased by half making the swelling noticeably better and stunning her physical and occupational therapists. Since October, Cleo has grown a couple of inches in height and has gained at least 12 lbs in weight. Her left wrist has gained some of its mobility back and the swelling is gone. I have even noticed a significant cognitive improvement with her as well.’
Cleo was using a CBD oil made from industrial hemp, which due to its minimal THC content is legal in most countries. In an ideal world every autoimmune patient would be able to take full plant medicine, including small amounts of THC, but until enough clinical trials prove otherwise and the plant’s therapeutic potential is recognised, for many CBD made from hemp is the only legal option.
It’s only Multiple Sclerosis patients that can legally benefit from both cannabinoids in the form of the drug Sativex. Made by GW Pharma it is prescribed specifically for the spasticity associated with MS and has shown significant improvement in spasm frequency and sleep disruption. But it is only prescribed for patients whose condition has been resistant to other forms of medication.
But for those patients who don’t meet the requirements or live in a part of the world where cannabis is illegal, the only way to access cannabinoid based alternatives is to buy CBD oil made from hemp or chance their luck with whatever their local drug dealer can provide them.
Increasingly, many autoimmune patients are taking the first option.