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How Medical Marijuana Affects the Immune System

Marijuana is now being recommended to patients across the country for a variety of medical reasons, and the healing properties of the plant are becoming more socially accepted as time goes on. As this trend continues, and marijuana use becomes more widespread, it is vital to remain informed on how medical marijuana can affect important body systems. The immune system, for example, plays a key role in not only everyday life, but in many of the qualifying conditions that medical marijuana can be recommended to treat. In this post, we will look at how marijuana modulates and changes the body’s immune system.

If you live in Florida and have questions or concerns about becoming a Florida medical marijuana patient, our team here at DocMJ is ready to help! You can find a licensed Florida medical marijuana doctor near you by visiting us on the web. Find out if you pre-qualify for a medical marijuana recommendation by completing our online eligibility survey. It is always important to speak with a doctor concerning any medication concerns, and marijuana is no different.

What is the Immune System?

The immune system is a complex system of structures that work together to protect the body from disease. The main two forms of immunity are innate and adaptive (there are also passive immunity, and some may include vaccinations as a form of immunity, but these are more niche). Innate immunity is what we are born with, including anatomical systems like skin and mucous, white blood cells, and other immune responses. Adaptive immunity refers to the immune responses specific to an antigen. In short, innate immunity is general, adaptive is specific.

The cells of the immune system are produced in several places across the body. Bone marrow builds white blood cells and lymphocytes, the spleen helps synthesize antibodies, the thymus matures some lymphocytes into T cells (important in HIV/AIDS), and lymph nodes hold onto lymphocytes. In many of these organs, cannabinoid receptors can also be found. These receptors have diverse effects and link the immune system and the endocannabinoid system. More information on the endocannabinoid system can be found here.

How Does Marijuana Affect the Immune System?

The endocannabinoid system, and by extension marijuana, has been shown to have numerous effects on the immune system. Knowing these effects is important not just for the general population, but how it can affect those with compromised immune systems and autoimmune disorders.

In the past, marijuana had been used to combat inflammation, an immune response in itself. This use is coming back into popularity, especially for those with conditions like arthritis. In rheumatoid arthritis specifically, the pain from the disease is caused by chronic inflammation and an increase in the number of certain cells leading to the loss of cartilage and bone. Research has also shown that certain lymphocytes play a role in the development of the disease as well [1]. Other studies have also called for more research on marijuana as a potential drug for people with arthritis, and have shown both lowered disease activity and pain after taking a marijuana-based medicine [2]. These same effects may be possible mechanisms that improve organ transplantation [3].

Outside of inflammation, marijuana is thought to have significant control over the production of immune cells themselves. This idea is not completely unfounded either, as marijuana has been shown to both modulate cell destruction and creation in the brain [4]. As of now, marijuana has been shown to help control B and T cells, NK cells, the secondary immune response, and cytokines [5].

Interestingly, cannabinoids may be able to both help suppress the disease or enhance it. It was previously shown that cannabinoid receptors were present on certain immune cells, but the reason was unknown. More recent speculation, though, states that these receptors may help guide the cells, and the loss of the receptors would have far-reaching effects across the body.

In the case of autoimmune diseases, such as the previously mentioned rheumatoid arthritis, problems in the endocannabinoid system have been linked to type one diabetes, Graves disease, and juvenile arthritis. This is likely due to a lessened ability of the endocannabinoid system to reduce the proliferation T cells in some cases, and may also lead to other symptoms [6]. While research on marijuana and its direct effects on specific autoimmune diseases are hard to come by, scientists are hopeful that the drug will open new pathways and marijuana has already been shown to provide relief from neuropathic pain in some people [7], which often occurs due to autoimmune disease.

Another interesting case is in those with weakened immune systems, such as those living with HIV/AIDS. In African Americans with HIV/AIDS, patients who were found THC-positive also had significantly higher lymphocyte counts than those without THC [8]. This is important, because CD4 levels are an important metric in diagnosing AIDS. Combine this with another study showing lower viral numbers after consuming cannabis, and it seems there may be therapeutic potential [9]. On the other hand, numerous other studies have shown compromised immune systems in patients, and as such may present a double-edge sword to those using it.

It is important to note that while the above findings are exciting, more research is required. The gold standard of research is randomized controlled trials and marijuana’s history has made such research difficult. As legalization continues, and labs are able to get easier access to higher quality and more controlled substances, better and more research will follow. Specific mechanisms are still being discovered and there is much more work being done. It is also important to speak with a certified physician if you are considering medical marijuana.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22608255

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16282192

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20591510/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1253627/

[5] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165572897002269

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15845647/

[7] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1526590012008644

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30903985

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3914785/


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