Medically reviewed by
PharmD Scientific Advisor, Medical Reviewer, and Clinical Pharmacist
Adjunct Faculty, UMKC School of Pharmacy
We often hear about CBD and its ability to help treat a variety of diseases such as chronic pain, addiction, anxiety, and certain psychotic disorders. But as researchers dive deeper into the interplay between CBD and the human body, they are finding that one of CBD’s most promising attributes is its potential to manage inflammation.
But why such an interest in inflammation, especially when there are so many serious diseases that warrant attention? The answer, according to Johns Hopkins Health Review, is that inflammation has been found to be an underlying cause in many common and serious health conditions.
In fact, they explain: “As scientists have searched for the mysteries behind the diseases most likely to afflict us, they have alighted on one factor common to virtually all of them: inflammation.”
Chronic inflammation has “a role in a host of common and often deadly diseases, including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and possibly even depression,” according to the researchers.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Inflammation also exacerbates conditions like acne, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and others, all of which can have quality-of-life implications to varying degrees.
The problem, however, is that researchers are still perplexed about how inflammation develops and how to treat it. “Basic science hasn’t yet answered the major questions about inflammation,” according to Johns Hopkins, particularly in the field of chronic inflammation.
This uncertainty, combined with a growing interest in more natural treatments, has researchers curious about CBD’s role as an anti-inflammatory agent. Though far from conclusive, this list provides five things you need to know about CBD oil and inflammation.
In the simplest terms, inflammation is our immune system’s response to things like bacteria and other potentially harmful pathogens. Inflammation plays a critical role in our immune health, protecting us from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and chemicals and giving our body time to repair damaged tissue.
This process—known as acute inflammation— typically features signs of redness, heat, swelling, pain, or loss of function, and you might feel exhausted, feverish, or experience the “chills.” These are all symptoms of your immune system fighting off external stimulus at the cellular level by releasing blood plasma, cytokines, B- and T-cells, and hormones that protect healthy tissues and destroy harmful pathogens.
The problem occurs when acute inflammation turns chronic. In other words, this cellular battle doesn’t stop when the harmful bacteria is gone. Instead, the immune system starts fighting its own cells.
Johns Hopkins explains:
“[Chronic inflammation] is the result, in part, of an overfiring immune system. Low levels of inflammation can get triggered in the body even when there’s no disease to fight or injury to heal, and sometimes the system can’t shut itself off. Arteries and organs break down under the pressure, leading to other diseases, including cancer and diabetes.”
Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation does not serve an evolutionary or biological function and can lead to debilitating diseases like Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Crohn’s disease, and others.
How do you control one aspect of an immunological response (i.e., “good inflammation”) and not another (i.e., chronic inflammation)? And even if you can control these responses, how do you adapt treatments for a range of complex immunological conditions, like inflammation of the arteries for cardiovascular patients, inflammation of the bronchial wall for asthma sufferers, inflammation and joint destruction for those with RA, etc.?
These are the challenges researchers face when trying to control chronic inflammation. Essentially, medical practitioners are tasked with weakening the immune system just enough to control chronic inflammation while still allowing the body to fight off bacteria.
There is a growing body of research showing that cannabinoids have great potential because they can exert anti-inflammatory effects through various channels, many of which are the same pathways that trigger inflammation in the first place, including cytokine production and T-cell induction.
Some researchers believe that because cannabinoids can potentially suppress inflammation through multiple pathways, there is also a potential to attenuate disease symptoms such as pain and nausea.
According to research published in the Future of Medicinal Chemistry, “cannabinoids have been tested in several experimental models of autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, and hepatitis and have been shown to protect the host from the pathogenesis through induction of multiple anti-inflammatory pathways.”
Researchers have studied CBD’s anti-inflammatory effects in a variety of settings, with largely positive results. It’s important to note that most studies do not include human subjects and much more research is needed.
There’s a lot of buzz around CBD and its ability to treat sore joints and tight muscles. It’s gained even more popularity thanks in part to the World Anti-Doping Agency removing it from its list of banned substances and the subsequent wave of athletes throwing their support behind CBD.
CBD topicals such as gels, lotions, and soaks, are popular treatments for acute inflammation since it’s is absorbed on site and targets inflammation locally. Though anecdotal, some enthusiasts have ditched traditional nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen or Advil in favor of a more natural treatment.
The Arthritis Foundation estimates that 54 million adults and 300,000 babies and children suffer from arthritis or a rheumatic condition. Arthritis is also a comorbid condition, meaning rates are higher among individuals suffering from other diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other conditions are typically treated with injectable fusion-proteins that control pro-inflammatory cytokines. While effective in managing inflammation, this treatment also suppresses other immunological functions.
Researchers are interested in CBD’s ability to replicate this treatment without the harmful side effects.
A 2016 study found that a daily transdermal application of CBD in arthritic rats reduced joint swelling, immune cell infiltration, and pro-inflammatory markers without adverse side effects.
A 2017 study evaluated CBD’s potential to mitigate pain, inflammation, and joint neuropathy in osteoarthritic rats. Researchers found that CBD helped decrease joint inflammation and increased weight bearing thresholds in rats with end-stage osteoarthritis. CBD also helped prevent the development of joint pain, indicating it may have potential as a prophylactic (i.e., preventative) inflammation treatment.
Asthma is a chronic lung disease characterized by inflamed airways and bronchial tubes. Studies have shown that many asthma suffers have elevated levels of certain T-cells, which can interact with allergens and lead to lung inflammation.
A 2015 study evaluated the anti-inflammatory potential of CBD in asthma-induced rats and found that CBD decreased cytokine levels, and concluded, “CBD seems to be a potential new drug to modulate inflammatory response in asthma.”
Researchers are just beginning to study CBD’s effects on inflammatory bowel disease such as colitis. One study found that various applications of CBD in colitis-induced mice reduced colonic inflammation and improved certain antimicrobial enzyme activity.
Since cannabinoids are known to mitigate inflammation by regulating the production of cytokines, researchers are interested in CBD’s ability to treat certain skin conditions, such as allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) and acne.
One study found that CBD and other cannabinoids were able to help regulate the release of cytokines that can inflame allergic responses, while another found that CBD oil helped reduce the appearance of acne by regulating sebum production and helping control cytokine production.
Though CBD is often described as having a favorable safety profile, there is still a lot that researchers don’t know.
Pinpointing CBD’s side effects is challenging since a majority of CBD trials do not include humans and those that do have typically studied CBD’s effects on epilepsy and psychotic disorders. Researchers are still working to determine CBD’s long-term effects on hormone production, cell viability, and fertilization, as well as understanding how CBD interacts with other drugs.
Though more and more studies are revealing that cannabinoids can help reduce pain and inflammation, it should be noted that side effects tend to vary depending on how you much CBD you take, how you take it, and how long you take it.
A good rule of thumb in the health and wellness field is to be a critical consumer. This is especially true when evaluating options to treat inflammation.
Given the gamut of cure-all claims, ranging from diet to sleep to teas, your safest bet when it comes to managing inflammation is to eat well, get an adequate amount of sleep, exercise, and recognize that, while CBD has broad anti-inflammatory potential, it’s probably only part of a solution rather than a cure-all.
PharmD Scientific Advisor, Medical Reviewer, and Clinical Pharmacist
Adjunct Faculty, UMKC School of Pharmacy
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