As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, researchers have started to look for solutions in an unlikely place - the cannabis plant. Cannabis’ active compounds have a number of properties that make it appealing as a potential adjunct treatment for infections from the novel coronavirus, and recently scientists have begun looking at its potential for reducing susceptibility to the disease, and even discussed whether it could be used as an antiviral medication.
This month, researchers from the University of Nebraska and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute are recommending more research into how cannabis-derived CBD might help treat dangerous lung inflammation from the novel coronavirus. The authors detailed the evidence for how cannabis’ anti-inflammatory powers may help in a peer reviewed article in this month's issue of Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
In the article, researchers explain that “recent reports have suggested that acute infection is associated with a cytokine superstorm, which contributes to the symptoms of fever, cough, muscle pain.” These extreme instances of inflammation can lead to severe pneumonia which clog up the lungs, make breathing difficult or impossible. So, one of the important strategies that scientists are studying in the fight against COVID-19 is reducing inflammation.
In particular, researchers are looking at drugs which reduce IL-6 cytokine activity. In a recent study, one such drug, Tocilizumab, was able to clear out patients' lungs, and resulted in recovery for 90% of the patients treated. Unfortunately, it also produced serious negative side effects like inflammation of the pancreas and hypertriglyceridemia (a risk factor for coronary artery disease). This has led researchers to continue the search for anti-inflammatory strategies - preferably ones that aren’t as harsh on these already critically ill patients.
That’s where cannabis comes in. The authors explain that several cannabinoids in the cannabis plant have anti-inflammatory properties. In particular, they point to CBD as the most likely candidate for treating COVID-19 related inflammation. CBD has shown serious anti-inflammatory properties in previous studies, it doesn't create the disorienting psychotropic effects associated with cannabis’ most common chemical THC, and it has already been approved by the FDA as safe for children with intractable epilepsy. If successful at reducing inflammation for COVID-19 patients, it could be a safer alternative to other anti-inflammatory options.
Why do researchers believe CBD can help with COVID-19, specifically?
For one thing, the authors explain that previous research has shown that CBD can reduce a number of pro-inflammatory cytokines including IL-6, the one reduced by other drugs being studied for COVID-19. CBD was also shown to reduce interleukin (IL)-2, IL-1α and β, interferon gamma, inducible protein-10, monocyte chemoattractant protein-1, macrophage inflammatory protein-1α, and tumor necrosis factor-α - all of which are associated with the pathology of severe cases of COVID-19. In addition to reducing these pro-inflammatory cytokines, CBD has also been shown to increase the production of interferons, a type of signaling protein that activates immune cells and prevents viruses from replicating.
Previous research also supports the idea that CBD can specifically reduce lung inflammation. In an animal study on asthma, CBD was able to reduce production of proinflammatory cytokine production, actually reducing airway inflammation. In the same study CBD also reduced pulmonary fibrosis - a condition where lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred, thickening lung tissue and making breathing more difficult. This is important, because COVID-19 can also leave patients with serious pulmonary fibrosis.
The authors also note that CBD isn’t the only cannabinoid that shows promise as an anti-inflammatory medicine. THC has also shown powerful anti-inflammatory results, but it’s less well tolerated than CBD, with common symptoms like disorientation, anxiety, and increased heart rate. Research on CBD, on the other hand, shows it to be safe and well-tolerated with dosing as high as 1500 mg a day, for a period of up to two weeks. The authors explain that this “suggests its feasibility to reduce SARS-CoV2 induced lung inflammation/ pathology and disease severity.”
While negative side effects are minimal with CBD, the article’s authors point out that CBD may have a side benefit for patients with the disease - reduced anxiety. “The many uncertainties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic such as status of the economy, employment and loss of connection can fuel depression, fear and anxiety” they explain, pointing out that the increased inflammation in COVID-19 may also trigger increased levels of anxiety. But CBD has shown serious promise for the management of anxiety, and may help reduce these challenging levels of stress.
No peer reviewed studies to date show that cannabis or it’s compounds can help with COVID-19 specifically, but the authors of this article say the evidence suggesting that it may help is worth further investigation. They recommend that scientists begin studies to investigate whether CBD can be used to reduce inflammation and anxiety in COVID-19 cases, as an adjunct to antiviral medications.
While this doesn’t suggest cannabis should be considered a cure or treatment of COVID-19 on it’s own, it does suggest that it may have potential to help bring down inflammation and reduce anxiety in those suffering from the disease. But until more studies are done, this is just a well-supported theory. Direct experimentation is needed to bring us real answers.