You’ve probably been hearing a lot of news reports over the past few months that cannabis might help treat COVID-19 in some way. And it’s true, researchers have begun exploring how cannabis—specifically anti-inflammatory, non-intoxicating, cannabis-derived CBD (not THC)—may be able to treat the severe lung inflammation that can be caused by the deadly coronavirus. But first things first: cannabis is definitely not a potential ‘cure’ for those with COVID-19, nor is it a way to avoid getting the virus. And it’s also not a brazenly heralded fix-all—like hydroxychloroquine—that some people would have you believe. More likely, according to research, cannabis could possibly help treat lung damage resulting from COVID-19, which could help patients restore healthier oxygen levels and potentially even reduce or eliminate a patient’s need to be put on a ventilator.
COVID-19 and Cannabis: The Science Behind How it Might Work
In addition to the ever-growing laundry list of symptoms like fever, cough, muscle pain, infection, fatigue and more, COVID-19 is so destructive because it can also cause serious lung damage via overwhelming inflammation, also known as a cytokine storm. This happens when there are increased levels of certain cytokines (molecules secreted by immune cells) such as IL-6, IL-10, and G-CSF in the bloodstream. Cytokines aren’t always a bad thing: in moderate levels, they help the body spur ‘good’ (or, at least, better) inflammation to fight infection. But too much cytokine activity—as is the case in a cytokine storm—is downright dangerous.
That’s where does cannabis enter the picture. The non-intoxicating part of the plant, CBD, has been found to have potentially powerful anti-inflammatory properties, something you’re probably well acquainted with if you’ve dabbled in anything from a soothing CBD skincare product to a calming CBD tea to a PMS suppository packed with CBD.
“CBD has been getting significant attention over the past few years due to its wide spectrum of functions, including its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity—recently, it is under speculation that these anti-inflammatory effects could be of any benefit to treat the lung inflammation due to the cytokine storm, or inflammation, associated with COVID-19,” explains Dr. Sunitha D. Posina, MD, a board-certified internist and locum hospitalist in New York. “Although a lot of data is still preliminary and appears promising, we need more and larger studies. I wouldn’t be surprised if it works well in helping with the lung inflammation.”
COVID-19 and Cannabis: How It’s Being Tested
Like the novel, pandemic-causing virus itself, the understanding of cannabis’ potential as a COVID-19 treatment is still very much in its infancy. Researchers at the University of Augusta in Georgia have begun to “explore whether CBD can reduce the cytokine storm and treat ARDS [Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome],” the main cause of death from COVID and other respiratory viruses.
As documented in an article from Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, researchers gave mice an innovative simulation of the virus, then monitored their lung functions before, during, and after being treated with CBD. “Oxygen levels went up, while temperatures and cytokine levels [inflammation] went down with CBD therapy,” pointing to early evidence that “CBD could help patients showing signs of respiratory distress avoid extreme interventions like mechanical ventilation as well as death.”
In July, researchers at the University of Nebraska and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute underscored the need for further research on CBD as a coronavirus treatment, in a peer-reviewed article in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity which explored how cannabis-derived CBD might be a safer alternative (with far less side effects) to other medications targeting inflammation. One such drug is Tocilizumab, which can reduce IL-6 cytokine activity and effectively clears the lungs so effectively, patients had a 90% recovery rate, per an April 2020 study. But already-fragile, critically ill patients might not be able to handle the drug’s significant side effects—like inflammation of the pancreas and hypertriglyceridemia—which can lead to coronary artery disease.
What Still Is Unknown
A lot remains TBD about how CBD could help COVID-19 patients—just as much is unknown about the lingering aftermath of a person’s brush with the virus. “We are still in the evolving stages of learning about the long-term effects of COVID-19, such as residual lung fibrosis, cardiac damage, and other effects,” Posima explains, adding that further research is necessary to understand the medical applications of cannabis—both for the coronavirus and in general. “We need to do larger studies on [cannabis’] anti-inflammatory and other effects, specifically in COVID-19 patients with severe disease, to determine the appropriate form of delivery, such as oral or nasal, and dosage that is optimum for its therapeutic effect,” Posima says.
The Good News and Bad News
The gentleness of cannabis-derived CBD for soothing and reducing inflamed lungs is certainly one of its selling points. “From most of the studies so far, CBD does not appear to have any significant harmful side effects or psychoactive effects. However, it is difficult to predict or comment at this time in regard to its long-term effects on COVID-19 treatment given we are still in the early phases,” Posina says. Clearly, there’s plenty more that must be figured out, but the initial research seems promising. “I am not supporting or refuting its usage, but I believe it would be a great area to invest our resources and time to study as there appears to be significant potential,” Posina says. “Any help in improving inflammation and hence the symptoms associated with COVID-19 at this time would be of immense help given the current global health crisis and for the future.”
*This article is in no way meant to suggest that cannabis or cannabis-derived products work as a definitive treatment for COVID-19 or any other severe illness.