When the COVID-19 pandemic started gaining steam in the United States in 2020, CBD (cannabidiol) enthusiasts naturally wondered whether CBD might help. It is thought to have several possible health benefits, after all, so it made sense that it might serve an important role in fighting the infection.
We now have several studies indicating that CBD and cannabis may offer benefits to those suffering from COVID-19, while other studies suggest cannabinoids may harm a patient, depending on the circumstances. Here’s what we know so far.
Can CBD Help Treat COVID-19?
In September 2020, researchers from Augusta University in Georgia found that CBD may help fight the lung inflammation that often accompanies a COVID-infection, taming the dangerous inflammatory “cytokine storm” that is so characteristic of the disease. Specifically, they found that administering CBD to animal subjects down-regulated the level of pro-inflammatory cytokines associated with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)—the leading cause of mortality in severe cases of COVID-19. The CBD also protected lung tissues, helped bring inflammation levels under control, and increased white blood cells, which are important for fighting off infections. The researchers concluded that CBD could play a role in treating severe respiratory viral infections like COVID-19.
In October 2020, scientists from the Dental College of Georgia and the Medical College of Georgia found that CBD could improve oxygen levels, while reducing inflammation and lung damage related to ARDS. They also found out how CBD did this—by normalizing levels of a peptide called apelin, which is known to reduce inflammation.
An abstract published in November 2020 presented a similar hypothesis, with scientists suggesting that CBD could limit the severity and progression of COVID-19 for several reasons:
- It can down-regulate the expression of two key receptors for the virus
- It exerts a wide range of anti-inflammatory effects and can mitigate the cytokine storm responsible for acute lung injury
- It can directly interfere with viral activity
- It inhibits the development of scar tissue on the lungs
Despite these promising findings, scientists warn that depending on the stage of the disease, cannabinoids like CBD can either help or harm a patient, as each phase of the disease is different.
Could CBD Increase the Risk of COVID-19?
Using CBD in the early stages of COVID-19, for instance, could do more damage than good. In the beginning, when the immune system senses the presence of the virus, it releases cytokines into the bloodstream. These are immune cells that help attack and eradicate the virus. Since CBD and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) suppress immune responses, they would weaken the immune reaction to the virus, potentially allowing the coronavirus to reproduce and gain a firmer foothold in the body.
Some research has also suggested that using cannabis may increase the risk of developing the disease. Researchers from the University of Western Australia compared cannabis use in the U.S. with COVID-19 infection rates and found a correlation between the two. Cannabis use was tied to an increased risk of the disease. This study, of course, only shows an association. It doesn’t prove that using cannabis increases the risk of the disease, but the results do support the idea that using cannabis products too early may suppress the immune reaction to the virus.
It’s also possible that those who smoke cannabis may be more at risk because smoking causes a mild form of bronchitis, making the lungs vulnerable. Since COVID-19 harms people most by causing lung damage and breathing problems, there is a possibility that damaging the lungs through smoking could make them less likely to resist damage from the coronavirus.
These were the findings of a January 2021 study. Researchers noted that during COVID-19 lockdowns, there was an increase in the use of psychoactive substances like cannabis and that those users “may have a more vulnerable respiratory system to viral diseases.” They noted that both regular smoking and use of cannabis causes similar harmful cardiovascular and respiratory effects, and therefore those that regularly smoke cannabis could be more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections.
CBD Shows Promise in Helping to Treat COVID-19
Despite these concerns, there remains great promise in the use of CBD against COVID-19 in its more serious stages, and potentially even as an antiviral. In March 2021, Aging US published a study showing that high-CBD Cannabis sativa extracts altered gene expression and inflammation and contained anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.
Working under a Health Canada research license, the scientists developed over 800 new C. Sativa cultivars and found that 13 of them decreased ACE2 protein levels. High levels of ACE2 are associated with higher COVID-19 predisposition and enhanced severity of the disease. Some of the cultivars also down-regulated proteins required for the coronavirus to enter the body’s cells.
The researchers noted in a press release that more studies are needed, but that the findings suggested that high-CBD C. Sativa lines “may become a useful and safe addition to the prevention/treatment of COVID-19 as an adjunct therapy.”