Bolstering or Weakening Defences? CBD and Your Body’s Immune System

Thomas Lowe
Bolstering or Weakening Defences? CBD and Your Body’s Immune System

The human immune system is your body’s own defence mechanism. And as defence mechanisms go, it's a very sophisticated one. Made up of an expansive web of cells and organs that are controlled by 8,000 genes, it’s less one big wall that keeps everything out and more an intelligent, living network that actively responds and adapts to threats.

On its own, the immune system is already pretty efficient. Bar bad habits and autoimmune disorders, your average immune system can effectively protect you from most threats. Yet many of us are far from a picture of glowing health.

Stress, lack of sleep, and a bad diet are proven to significantly impede immune functions. These are conditions experienced by a majority of the populace. Sleep eludes around 7.5 million people in the UK. Poor diets contribute to tens of thousands of deaths. Over the last year, 74% reported crippling levels of stress.

The immunity of millions is under constant siege from stressors. Can CBD users also count on the compound to bolster their defences?

CBD: Reinforcements or Suppressors?

CBD has numerous purported benefits, many of them related to its action as a suppressant for our central nervous system. Of all claims, the most promising according to present research are effects that calm physical and mental functions. 

Most people who take CBD do so for anxiety. Others swear by it as a sleep aid, taking it in conjunction with melatonin. A growing body of evidence supports the cannabinoid’s anxiolytic properties. Epidiolex, the only FDA-approved, pharmacological drug with CBD, is used to manage seizures.

CBD’s anti-inflammatory effects are also often highlighted, especially in skincare and arthritis management. Some studies have observed that topical application can significantly reduce inflammation in people with psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. In arthritis patients, CBD may help minimise joint swelling

All three are diseases caused by an overactive immune system. Messages get crossed and the body attacks its own cells and structures, triggering the symptoms such as inflammation, which is our natural response to pain and damage.

While the exact biological mechanisms of CBD have yet to be mapped out by scientists, we know that CBD reacts with our endocannabinoid system, which can inhibit immune cell function. CBD, in effect, tells your body to stand down, reducing the swelling

Yet if CBD acts as an antagonist to your immune system’s responses, how can it be strengthening it at the same time?

Can CBD Strengthen Immune Response?

Researchers are only starting to discover CBD’s immunosuppressive properties. Little is definitive yet, and we know even less about how exactly it can be an agonist for the immune system. 

One test detected elevated levels of white blood cells (WBCs) in cannabis users. These immune cells have various functions, from fighting infection to repairing the damage they cause. Whether the increase can be attributed to CBD is unknown.

Cannabinoids have been observed to increase the immunogenicity of tumour cells. Basically, this means making the cells more visible to the immune system, triggering it to attack the errant cells.

Some animal studies have found that effects change with dosage. At higher doses, researchers observed an overall decrease in leukocytes, a type of immune cell many know as white blood cells. However, lowering the dose by half increased the amount of Natural Killer T (NKT) cells, another type of immune cell that targets viruses and tumours.

Supporting Balance

Data on CBD’s full influence on immune health remains inconclusive. A majority of the data we have now comes from animal studies. More clinical human trials will be needed to explore the complicated ways CBD regulates our body’s immune responses.

But when it comes to CBD and immunity, perhaps the pertinent question isn’t whether it strengthens or weakens. A healthy immune system is balanced, made up of organs and cells that know when and what to attack.

Overactive defences are just as faulty as weak ones. While current findings suggest that CBD is largely an immunosuppressant, that doesn’t automatically mean it leaves you more vulnerable to infection. By calming hyperactive inflammatory responses, CBD helps keep your immune health robust and functioning optimally.

A Complimentary Approach to Immune Health

Another way CBD can benefit immune health is by improving our general wellness through three pathways: stress, sleep, and pain.

Stress has been shown to negatively impact immune health. Mental stress causes physical reactions in our immune system. There are decades of research that link psychological distress to slower healing and a decreased ability to stave away infections. 

CBD, with its mood regulating properties, can help us get a better handle on tension, indirectly contributing to modulating immune responses. 

Sleep is directly linked to our immune system. People who are sleep deprived are more susceptible to catching an infection or illness. Simply getting less than six hours of sleep per night can make you up to four times more likely to catch a common cold. 

CBD can help people get the rest they need to mount an effective response against viruses and bacteria. As with most scientific queries into CBD, research between sleep and the compound is in its early stages. 

But the preliminary data coming out of some labs shows promise. In one study, CBD was able to reduce symptoms of REM sleep disorder. Another one observed that people who suffer from insomnia were able to sleep longer without interruption when given higher doses of CBD.

Pain can also tax your immune system. Our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol when under stress or pain. Normally, cortisol is beneficial, triggering changes that prepare our body to repair itself or respond to fight or flight situations.

However, our bodies weren’t meant to stay in flight or fight mode. Prolonged, elevated levels of cortisol damages tissue, negatively interfering with the immune cells responsible for repair and healing. By helping to ease pain, CBD helps your body maintain normal, healthy levels of cortisol, which in turn can help your immune system do what needs to be done.

The Verdict: Should You Take CBD for Immunity?

The link between CBD and immunity remains murky. What we do know is that the relationship seems to be complex. Dosage doesn’t only amplify or weaken CBD’s effect on immune cells – it seems to completely alter it.

Until the data becomes more definitive and absolute, it’s always best to consult with your healthcare provider about using CBD for boosting your immune system.


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