Researchers say cannabis could help treat Covid-19

A recent study by researchers at Dalhousie University in Canada concluded that cannabis can be helpful at every stage of Covid-19 disease, from preventing infections to treating long-Covid symptoms.

Since the pandemic began in 2020, researchers have been studying cannabis as a possible treatment for Covid-19. They have focused much of their attention on cannabis's ability to dampen the immune system and suppress cytokine storms, a dangerous and potentially fatal immune reaction that occurs in severe Covid-19 cases and leads to respiratory distress and organ failure. Since then, scientists have identified several ways cannabis could help combat the disease.

The far-reaching potential of cannabis to combat Covid

Covid-19 is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Symptoms vary but often include fever, cough, headache, fatigue, and an altered sense of smell and taste. As mentioned above, it can also cause cytokine storms. Some patients develop the symptoms of “Long Covid” such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress injuries, insomnia, pain and reduced appetite.

Early in the pandemic, researchers noted that cannabis had mechanisms that could help treat Covid-19 – particularly its ability to reduce cytokine storms. However, population-based studies have provided mixed results. Some studies suggest that cannabis use increases infection rates or worsens survival rates for Covid-19, while subsequent research suggests that cannabis users are less likely to get Covid-19 and in cases severe enough to require hospitalization, achieve better results.

The researchers in this current review found that cannabis can not only help reduce cytokine storms in the most severe phase of the disease, but also help prevent infections early and reduce the severity of Long Covid symptoms.

Let's break down the possible effects at different stages of the disease.

Cannabis for Covid prevention

Population studies have documented reduced rates of Covid-19 infections among cannabis users. And while these studies don't offer much of an explanation for why cannabis might help reduce infections, other research does:

The SARS-CoV-2 virus infects people by binding to a specific enzyme receptor (called ACE2). However, certain cannabinoids found in cannabis – such as CBD – have been shown to lower the expression levels of these receptors, thereby blocking or reducing the virus's ability to infect.

Courtesy of the study.

The cannabinoids CBDA and CBGA also reduce the effectiveness of the enzyme TMPRSS2, which allows the virus to fuse with the host membrane and enter the cell.

In other words, cannabis may be able to actively reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection by limiting some of the factors that increase the risk of infection. A similar approach has proven successful in preventing infections in diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), influenza and paramyxovirus. The strategy could also work with Covid-19.


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Cannabis interventions during Covid infection

Cannabis may also help with active Covid-19 infections by reducing what is known as “redox and oxidative stress”: an imbalance between unstable atoms and antioxidants in the body.

Research suggests that these stress levels increase during Covid-19 and other viral infections; They, in turn, lead to more severe infections, cell damage, organ damage, and increased immune and inflammatory responses. Fortunately, CBD has been shown to reduce redox and oxidative stress, potentially reducing the severity of the disease.

Taken together, these results suggest a potential protective role for cannabinoids in alleviating oxidative stress.

Scott, Journal of Clinical Medicine, 2024

Patients with severe Covid-19 infections may experience cytokine storms that can cause inflammation and damage their lungs and other vital organs. But cannabinoids like CBD and THC have been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory effects and act on the specific inflammatory markers seen in severe Covid-19, such as IL-6, IL-8 and TNF-α. Studies have shown that cannabis can effectively reduce cytokine storms, helping to treat Covid-19 in the most severe phase of the disease.

Cannabinoids against “Long Covid”

Cannabis can also be helpful for patients with “Long Covid”. As the Dalhousie University team points out, cannabis is already being studied to treat many symptoms of “Long Covid.” Ongoing research suggests that cannabis has the potential to relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, pain and loss of appetite.

Since our natural endocannabinoid system plays an essential role in regulating our mood, stress response, pain and appetite, modulation with cannabinoids can influence these factors.

Courtesy of the study.

We still need more research

While our current data suggests that cannabis has the potential to help in all phases of Covid-19, the research is still in its early stages. The authors of this current study note that further research is needed to draw firm conclusions. So don't assume that you can treat your own Covid-19 illness with cannabis, or at least only with cannabis. As always, be sure to consult a physician when making any health care decisions.

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