Cannabis may be one of the coolest plants out there, but it’s more than just recreational.
It’s also uniquely helpful at bringing your body into balance — the type of balance that, according to experts, normally gets thrown off by illnesses like COVID.
Keep reading to learn about cannabis’s potential roles in regulating immunity, preventing COVID infection, reducing COVID’s severity, and more. Here’s an outline:
- Cannabis and immunity 101
- Cannabis and COVID: what the research says
- Cannabis terpenes for COVID? Maybe!
- The newest cannabis and COVID research
Cannabis and immunity 101
The human body has 11 major organ systems, and the immune system is one of them. The immune system is basically an internal web of defense; its main role is to identify and destroy ‘foreign’ pathogenic bacteria before they get a chance to do any damage. The immune system also helps single out rogue cells before they can multiply and become cancerous. Basically, it’s really, really important!
Like most parts of your biology, your immune system is pretty complex. Its presence is felt throughout the bloodstream, lymph nodes, spleen, skin, and other areas. Interestingly enough, a large part of your immune health actually isn’t controlled by you — it’s controlled by your gut bacteria. 
The most important part of the immune system? You’re probably already familiar with it: the white blood cell. White blood cells are what give your immune system its kick. Just like anything else in the body, however, they can get out of balance. Too much white blood cell activity can lead to autoimmune diseases, while too little activity allows little problems to become big ones.
Early research on cannabinoids seemed to show something interesting: most cannabinoids, especially CBD, were found to slow down immune function in the short term.
But new-and-improved research shows that it’s not quite that simple. One comprehensive 2020 review better explains how cannabinoids affect immunity — or at least what we know so far. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD may: 
- Promote selective apoptosis (i.e., cell death) of ‘bad’ cells
- Lower TNF-alpha levels (an acute inflammatory marker)
- Lower oxidation (i.e., work as an antioxidant)
- Lower ROS production in white blood cells
- Lower inflammation in immune cells
- Lower nitric oxide-induced stress
- Lower cytokine levels
While this is a pretty extensive list, researchers acknowledge that the data at this point is still far from complete. “Increasing our understanding of CBD’s effects,” study authors explained, “will help in interpreting effects of CBD in humans […] that are naturally exposed to a variety of pathogens.”
Speaking of pathogens, let’s get a little more specific and see what might happen when cannabis squares off against COVID-19!
Your immune system is located all throughout your body…but so is your body’s endocannabinoid system. Supplementing with cannabis/cannabinoids could have a variety of anti-inflammatory, antioxidative effects.
Cannabis and COVID: what the research says
As we mentioned above, cannabinoids were thought to suppress the immune system when researchers first began studying them.
It turns out that cannabinoids actually have more of an immunomodulatory role; they’re capable of downregulating too much immune activity…and upregulating immune activity when there’s not enough.
Here’s how cannabis expert Dr. Garcia de Palau describes it: “I believe [cannabis] is immunosuppressive when there is a hyper-immune response, but otherwise it regulates and corrects the immune system. In fact, you could say it functions like the endocannabinoid system, bringing equilibrium to the organism.”
This type of immunomodulation could prove especially helpful for those who wish to avoid or recover from COVID? Why? Because at the heart of this illness’s worst effects lies something called the cytokine storm.
While these small cytokine proteins play a vital role in the innate immune response, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Out-of-control cytokine production can cause dangerous levels of inflammation within the lungs and other areas.
Both THC and CBD have been associated with reduced cytokine levels, at least in lab studies, which is what got many researchers thinking cannabis might be able to help COVID patients.
Up until pretty recently, however, this theory was just that — a theory. It wouldn’t be until April of 2020 that researchers first brought their ideas into the lab for clinical testing.
One study from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta honed in on CBD, the second most prevalent cannabinoid in cannabis. This study looked at CBD’s activity at the ACE2 receptor, a receptor located in lung tissue that’s been shown to ‘misfire’ in many severe cases of COVID-19.
“Cannabis sativa, especially [strains] high in the anti-inflammatory cannabinoid [CBD], has been proposed to modulate gene expression and inflammation and harbour anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties,” study authors explained in their abstract. 
What’d the study find? “The extracts of our most successful and novel high [CBD] Cannabis Sativa lines, pending further investigation, may become a useful and safe addition to the treatment of COVID-19 as an adjunct therapy.”
Another study, this one from Canadian-based biopharmaceutical company Tetra Bio-Pharma, aims to learn more about cannabis’ effects on COVID-driven sepsis, or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). ARDS affects roughly 10-15 percent of COVID patients, with almost uniformly bad results.
But cannabinoids could help. “Cannabinoids that act at [the type 2 cannabinoid receptor] have shown promise for reducing the acute inflammatory response in experimental sepsis and some of these could be useful in patients with SARS-CoV-2,” explain researchers. They suspect that certain types of cannabis could “prevent the progression of symptoms of the acute lung injury.”
And it’s only fitting that some of the best findings yet have come out of Israel, which is basically the birthplace of medical cannabis science. Israel-based pharmaceutical company Innocan just raised $5 million dollars to study the effects of liposomal CBD on COVID-19.
They’ll be using these funds to research special liposomes and exosomes that could act as “homing missiles” and help bring CBD directly into stressed cells. “When the cell healing properties of the exosomes are combined with the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD, it is expected to reach high synergetic effect[s],” lead researcher Dani Offen explains.
This exosome-related research may benefit the medical community long after COVID-19 is gone. “We are facing a challenging time,” professor Offen says, “and I believe our unique approach holds a promise to offer a treatment for COVID-19, pneumonia, and perhaps for other lung inflammations as well.”
Cannabis’s ability to modulate the immune system — particularly its cytokine levels — makes it a potential candidate for alleviating COVID and its complications. Different companies are looking into different ways to deliver THC and CBD into the areas where they’re needed most.
Cannabis terpenes for COVID? Maybe!
Conventional methods of warding off the cytokine storm exist, but most of them have serious downsides. Corticosteroids can reduce cytokine production, for example, but they can also make existing COVID-related lung damage even worse. Not good!
Thankfully there are more holistic options. Both the cannabinoids and the terpenes found in cannabis may be able to reduce cytokine levels without causing unwanted side effects. Some research groups are focusing their efforts on the application of cannabis-derived terpenes — these terpenes are often more legal and accessible than cannabinoids are.
Actually, the research on terpenes and coronaviruses goes way back. A study from 2002 found that terpenes could fight off SARS, an earlier type of coronavirus, by inhibiting the virus’s RNA replication. This study looked at 221 plant-derived terpenes, including larger terpenoids and curcumin, and found that many of them were potent enough to fight against ARDS. 
Fast forward to today’s COVID-19 pandemic, and a group from the Israel Institute of Technology is choosing to dive deep into cannabis terpenes and their ability to keep cytokine levels in check. This group believes that a simple inhalable terpene product could be enough to suppress cytokine production and reduce the risk of respiratory distress. Terpenes may have the added benefit of inhibiting viral replication — many cannabis terpenes have been shown to do this in vitro.
Many of the terpenes found in cannabis may be able to fight off coronaviruses. When it comes to fighting off COVID-19, some research groups are looking into inhalable terpene products.
The newest cannabis and COVID research
The above research is already pretty promising — but things just got even better.
That’s because a study published in January of this year found that some cannabinoids may prevent COVID viral particles from entering human cells. Which cannabinoids? Two ‘raw’ cannabinoids, CBGa and CBDa, that are common in cannabis and hemp. 
This cellular breach is how COVID begins to take hold in the first place…so preventing it is a very big deal. Researchers discovered that CBGa and CBDa bind themselves to the virus’s spike proteins, essentially neutralizing them before they could find a host cell. This effect was seen with both the alpha and beta variants, and it may apply to future variants, too!
The safety and ubiquity of cannabis-based therapy make this study’s findings an even bigger deal. “These [cannabis] compounds can be taken orally and have a long history of safe use in humans,” attests the study’s lead researcher, Richard van Breemen. “They have the potential to prevent as well as treat infection by SARS-CoV-2.”
It turns out that cannabis may be good for more than just treating end-stage cytokine storms or ARDS. It could also help one avoid getting sick in the first place by preventing the COVID-causing virus from entering cells.
Summing things up
The idea of using cannabis to reduce one’s risk of catching COVID may not be as popular or as flashy as other prevention methods. Cannabis is old news, having been used to promote health and ward off disease since ancient times. Could it really compete with more modern therapies?
That’s only a hypothetical question. The fact that cannabis has been around for so long doesn’t mean it’s obsolete — it means it’s stood the test of time for years, decades, and generations.
And, unlike most pharmaceutical solutions, cannabis products work holistically enough that it’s free from serious side effects. The hundreds of compounds in cannabis (THC, CBD, delta-8 THC, terpenes, etc.) activate dozens of different receptor systems within your body, promoting a type of balance that even the most advanced pharmaceuticals normally can’t match. If you haven’t already, consider adding these compounds to your health and wellness routine and giving them a try!
Thanks to its immunomodulatory effects, cannabis is even safe for those whose compromised immune systems mean they may be wary of more aggressive therapies. “The global qualifying conditions for medical cannabis […] all include individuals with compromised immune systems and other chronic health conditions,” professor Denise C. Vidot of the School of Nursing and Health Studies explained at the start of the pandemic. Maybe he was right all along.
Here’s a little thought experiment to wrap things up. What if, instead of focusing on COVID-19 and all the other stuff going on out there in the world, we focused on the one thing we can control: our body’s inner balance and health?
We think such a shift would be pretty empowering.
So maybe it’s time to focus on our own health. Maybe this virus, as devastating as it might be, could serve as a wake-up call to those who haven’t prioritized their own health and wellness. Potential cures for COVID-19 will come and go, but in the meantime, we’ve all got lots of living to do!