Scientific research is proving more and more medical uses for cannabis. Experts cite medical marijuana as an effective treatment to use in conjunction with other medications, often to decrease their side effects. For example, people with epilepsy, cancer and HIV frequently use cannabis. Furthermore, many people choose to smoke weed instead of drink alcohol when they’re sick. But does cannabis affect your immune system? Here’s what we know so far.
There’s a deficit of marijuana research due to government agencies hesitancy or downright opposition to cannabis research. However, a few studies conducted without federal backing show promising results when it comes to marijuana and your immune system.
To date, there is little conclusive data on the impact of consuming cannabis on a healthy person’s immune system. The bulk of immune system-related research looks at cannabis’ effect on HIV/AIDS patients.
HIV/AIDS is an immunodeficiency virus, meaning that it targets the immune system. For this reason, people with HIV/AIDS’ response to cannabis suggests how everyone’s body interacts with cannabis.
If people with less healthy immune systems—or severely impaired immune systems as is the case with AIDS patients—can safely consume cannabis, perhaps everyone can.
Reportedly, 27 percent of people with HIV/AIDS used marijuana to cope with their symptoms in 2005. Considering today’s greater access to medical marijuana and increased knowledge of its benefits, this percentage would be higher if the same study were conducted in 2018.
Cannabis alleviates many common HIV/AIDS symptoms such as nausea, loss of appetite, pain, depression and anxiety. It also has a well-deserved reputation for increasing appetite.
In addition to abundant anecdotal evidence that cannabis can treat HIV/AIDS symptoms, the Annals of Internal Medicine published an article on the “Short-Term Effects of Cannabinoids in Patients with HIV-1 Infection.”
The findings presented in the article were overwhelmingly positive. They found that cannabis had no effect on patients’ CD4 and CD8 cell counts (immune system cells targeted by the HIV/AIDS virus).
The study also found that people who smoked or ingested marijuana were healthier than those who didn’t. The accompanying explanatory article states, “Patients receiving cannabinoids had improved immune function compared with those receiving placebo. They also gained about 4 pounds more on average than those patients receiving placebo.”
Not only did marijuna help HIV/AIDS patients gain weight, it also had a positive effect on their immune systems over the course of 21 days.
New research goes even further in answering the question, does cannabis affect your immune system? Two recent studies support the findings that cannabis could improve immune function for people with HIV/AIDS.
The first study, dating from 2014, was published in the scientific journal AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses. It links THC to higher production of CD4 and CD8 cells in monkeys. These two cells are primarily responsible for fighting disease.
A second study conducted by New York City’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine discovered that cannabinoids prevented the HIV virus from infecting immune system cells.
Ultimately, the study found that the cannabinoids reduced the number of infected cells from 30 to 60 percent.
Due to its interaction with the endocannabinoid system, cannabis may have a profound impact on the immune system. On the cellular level, it could significantly strengthen the immune system.
Most of the concern regarding cannabis use revolves around smoking. In an article from 2001 published in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, Dr. Donald P. Tashkin worries about the effects of smoking.
“Effects of Smoked Marijuana on the Lung and Its Immune Defenses: Implications for Medicinal Use in HIV-Infected Patients” reads: “Frequent marijuana use can cause airway injury, lung inflammation and impaired pulmonary defense against infection.”
Not surprisingly, the DEA does not support cannabis use for people with HIV/AIDS. When asked to clarify its stance on the subject, the DEA wrote, “[M]arijuana can affect the immune system by impairing the ability of T-cells to fight off infections, demonstrating that marijuana can do more harm than good in people with already compromised immune systems.”
However, keep in mind that the DEA, and the National Institute of Health, are often subject to politics. It is against many money interests that the federal government support medical marijuana.
As with all health-related questions and cannabis, it’s impossible to guarantee that cannabis will have a positive effect. For now, we know that most research shows that marijuana has no effect, or has a positive effect, on immune system cells.
Research also shows that being properly vaccinated has a positive effect on the immune system.
By the nature of the legalization movement it would seem that we’ll have access to medical marijuana before conclusive research can answer the question, does cannabis affect your immune system?