A recent review conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University in Canada concluded that cannabis may provide aid in each stage of the Covid-19 disease, from preventing infection to treating long-covid symptoms.
Researchers have been investigating cannabis as a possible treatment for Covid-19 since the pandemic began in 2020. They directed much of their attention towards cannabis’ ability to dampen the immune system and quell cytokine storms, a dangerous and potentially deadly immune response that occurs in severe Covid-19 cases and leads to respiratory distress and organ failure. Since then, scientists have identified a variety of ways cannabis might be helpful in fighting the disease.
Cannabis’s wide-reaching potential to combat Covid
Covid-19 is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Its symptoms are variable but often include fever, cough, headache, fatigue, and an altered sense of smell and taste. As noted above, it can also cause cytokine storms. Some patients develop the symptoms of “Long Covid” like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress injury, insomnia, pain, and decreased appetite.
Early in the pandemic, researchers noted that cannabis has mechanisms which might help treat Covid-19—in particular, its ability to reduce cytokine storms. But population-based studies offered mixed results. Some studies suggested that cannabis use increased infection rates, or worsened Covid-19 survival rates, while later research suggested that cannabis users were less likely to get Covid-19, and had better outcomes in cases severe enough to require hospitalization.
The researchers on this recent review found that cannabis may not only help reduce cytokine storms in the most severe phase of the disease, but also help prevent infection early on and lessen the severity of Long Covid symptoms.
Let’s break down its potential impact at various stages of the disease.
Cannabis for Covid prevention
Population-based studies have documented reduced rates of Covid-19 infection for those who use cannabis. And although these studies don’t offer much of an explanation as to why cannabis might help reduce infection, other research does:
The SARS-CoV-2 virus infects humans by binding to a particular enzyme receptor (called ACE2). But certain cannabinoids found in cannabis—such as CBD—have demonstrated the ability to lower the rate of expression for these receptors, and thus block or reduce the virus’ ability to infect.
Cannabinoids CBDA and CBGA also reduce the potency 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 chance of Covid-19 infection by limiting some of the factors that increase infection risk. A similar approach has proven successful in preventing infection in diseases like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), influenza, and paramyxovirus. The strategy may work for Covid-19 as well.
The 7 most important cannabis research studies of 2023
Cannabis interventions during Covid infection
Cannabis may also help during 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; in turn, they lead to more severe infection, cellular damage, organ damage and increased immune and inflammatory responses. Thankfully, CBD has been shown to reduce redox and oxidative stress, and thus may be able to reduce the severity of the disease.
Patients with severe infections of Covid-19 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 potent anti-inflammatory effects, acting on the specific inflammatory markers seen in severe Covid-19, such as IL-6, IL-8, and TNF-α. Studies have demonstrated that cannabis can effectively reduce cytokine storms, helping to treat Covid-19 during the most severe phase of the disease.
Cannabinoids for “Long Covid”
Cannabis may also be helpful for patients suffering from “Long Covid. As the Dalhousie University team points out, cannabis is already being studied to treat many of the symptoms of “Long Covid.” Ongoing research indicates cannabis’ potential to alleviate the symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, insomnia, pain, and low appetite.
Since our natural endocannabinoid system is integral in regulating our mood, stress response, pain, and appetite, modulating it with cannabinoids can impact these factors.
We still need more research
While our current data suggests that cannabis has the potential to aid in all phases of Covid-19, the research is still in early phases. The authors of this recent study caution that more research is needed to draw firm conclusions, so don’t assume you can treat your own Covid-19 with cannabis, or at least cannabis alone. As always, make sure to consult with a doctor on any healthcare decisions.