Medical marijuana and the treatment of lupus


Lupus is a complex autoimmune condition that affects an estimated 5 million people worldwide. There is no cure for lupus and the medications used to treat the disease often cause a wide variety of side effects. According to anecdotal evidence, some lupus patients are turning to medical marijuana for relief of their symptoms.

The idea of using marijuana to battle the symptoms of lupus isn’t that farfetched; cannabis, after all, is known to have extremely strong anti inflammatory properties, making it a prime candidate for treating lupus, a disease which causes chronic inflammation.

UNDERSTANDING LUPUS

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory condition that causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy tissue and organs. While its underlying causes aren’t clear, it is known that the disease triggers an alternate response in white blood cells, causing them to attack healthy body tissue rather than simply fighting disease and infections.

As the body is under constant attack from its own defense system, it ultimately becomes inflamed, giving rise to a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Muscle weakness
  • Joint pain
  • Rashes and skin lesions
  • Hair loss
  • Damage to internal organs like the kidneys, heart, or brain
  • Photosensitivity
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry eyes
  • Headaches

Like many chronic conditions, lupus can affect each patient differently. Symptoms can come on suddenly in some patients, while others might experience a more gradual onset. In some patients, symptoms might be severe, while others only experience mild effects of the condition.

Most patients, however, tend to suffer from a mild case of lupus, generally characterized by ‘flare ups’, or periods of strong symptoms, followed by periods where symptoms decrease or disappear altogether.

THE EFFECTS OF LUPUS

The prolonged inflammation caused by lupus can target various parts of the body, including internal organs. This can lead to serious health complications. Some of the parts of the body commonly affected by lupus include:

  • Skin, muscles, and bones: Some of the most common symptoms of lupus include skin conditions (like a butterfly-shaped rash on the face), joint pain, and muscle weakness/fatigue.
  • Kidney: The chronic inflammation caused by lupus can cause kidney damage. According to Mayo Clinic, kidney failure is one of the leading causes of death among lupus patients.
  • Brain and central nervous system: Inflammation caused by lupus can also cause damage to the brain, leading to headaches, dizziness, behavior changes, hallucinations, and even strokes or seizures. Lupus patients commonly have memory problems and may struggle to express their thoughts clearly.
  • Blood and blood vessels: Lupus can cause anemia, an increased risk of bleeding or blood clotting, and inflammation of the blood vessels.
  • Lungs: Lupus can cause inflammation of the lungs and make breathing painful and difficult.
  • Heart: Lupus can lead to inflammation of the heart muscle and surrounding areas, as well as increase the risk of cardiovascular conditions

DIAGNOSING LUPUS

Lupus can be a difficult disease to diagnose. In fact, according to Lupus UK, it can take up to an average of 7 years for patients to get officially diagnosed with lupus and receive adequate treatment.

The fact that it is hard to diagnose lupus is due to 3 main reasons.

First of all, lupus is hard to diagnose because the symptoms of the disease can vary so dramatically from patient to patient. Secondly, many of the symptoms of lupus overlap with those of other conditions, which may lead to misdiagnosis. Thirdly, the fact that there is no one test to diagnose lupus (instead, a diagnosis depends on a multitude of tests, individual symptoms, and physical examinations) also adds to the difficulty of diagnosing the condition.

Patients are generally advised to see their doctor after experiencing an unexplained rash, ongoing fever, and persistent fatigue and/or aching.

WHAT TRIGGERS LUPUS?

As mentioned earlier, there is no clear cause of lupus. However, it is generally believed to be caused by an unknown environmental factor that affects persons who are genetically susceptible and may have immune deficiencies.

It has been noted that lupus runs in families, but no specific gene has yet been associated with the disease. Instead, multiple genes seem to influence a person's chance of developing lupus.

People with the genetic susceptibility to lupus may develop the condition due to environmental factors, including sunlight and certain infections. Vitamin D deficiencies have also been associated with the disease.

Finally, lupus can also be triggered by some medications, including procainamide, isoniazid, hydralazine, quinidine, and phenytoin. While drug-induced lupus produces the same symptoms as the non drug-induced condition, symptoms usually subside once a patient stops taking the medication causing the disease.

LUPUS TREATMENT

There is currently no cure for lupus, and treatment varies from one patient to another. Patients may find they need to change or combine medications as their symptoms and their severity change.

Some common medications used to treat lupus include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Antimalarial drugs
  • Corticosteroids
  • Immunosuppressants

These medications can cause side effects, including:

  • These medications can cause side effects, including:
  • Stomach upsets and bleeding
  • Kidney problems
  • Weight gain
  • Easy bruising
  • Osteoporosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver damage
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

Besides medication, patients may also be adviced to try a variety of lifestyle changes and home remedies.

CANNABIS AND LUPUS

Cannabis has received a lot of attention over the last years, mainly for the newfound medicinal benefits of some of its major compounds, including THC and CBD.

Evolving research into cannabis, its main active components and how they interact with the body has contributed to a growing body of literature exploring the medicinal benefits of the plant, which may help in the treatment of everything from epilepsy and PTSD to Alzheimer's.

Pain relief and anti inflammation are 2 of the most well known benefits associated with cannabis. In fact, the plant’s anti-inflammatory properties are highly regarded as the backbone of its medicinal power.

Josh Stanley, a leading medicinal cannabis entrepreneur and one of the creators of Charlotte’s Web, a renowned CBD tincture and cannabis strain, has labelled the anti inflammatory and neuroprotective properties found in cannabis as “the highest in nature.”

Cannabis’ strong anti-inflammatory properties make the drug appealing for patients dealing with lupus, which is characterized by chronic inflammation in various parts of the body. In fact, there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence from lupus patients turning to cannabis to tame their symptoms.

Some patients explain that cannabis is their best bet for managing symptoms without the side effects of regular medications. Some patients that have noticed positive outcome, say that medicating using orally ingested CBD on a daily basis give the best results.

But the evidence for cannabis’ anti-inflammatory benefits isn’t just anecdotal. In 2010, for example, a study explored the effectiveness of both THC and CBD in treating intestinal inflammation in rats.

The study, published in The British Journal of Pharmacology, found that THC was effective at treating and managing this inflammation. In fact, it was more effective than sulphasalazine, a long used anti-inflammatory medication.

The study also noted that CBD, while ineffective when used on its own, was able to boost the anti inflammatory response of THC and noted lower doses of THC and CBD produced better results than higher doses of THC alone.

More recently, a 2015 paper from researchers at the Institute of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Meir Medical Center, Israel, found similar results.

Using 2 clinical trials involving 30 and 21 patients (respectively) with Crohn’s disease (a form of inflammatory bowel disease), the researchers found that medicinal cannabis lowered disease activity and reduced the use of regular medications in patients.

In fact, one of their studies produced close to 50% remission in patients using cannabis as a treatment, while a placebo produced less than 10% remissions.

THC isn't the only compound in cannabis that reduces inflammation. Cannabis contains over 100 compounds including phytocannabinoids and terpenes, some of which are also found in other plants and already known to reduce inflammation.

CANNABIS: A RELIABLE TREATMENT FOR LUPUS?

As is the case with many other fields relating to medical cannabis, there is a serious lack of research focusing directly on how medical marijuana may help manage the symptoms of lupus.

However, there is strong evidence supporting the plant’s anti-inflammatory benefits, making it a logical candidate for treating this condition and others, which involve chronic inflammation (such as IBD and arthritis).

In fact, lupus is a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in 3 US states (Hawaii, Illinois, and New Hampshire), and may used in other places outside of the US as well.

Unfortunately, the lack of clinical trials testing the efficacy of treating lupus with cannabinoids makes it hard to come to clear conclusions. Hopefully new research will provide more insight into the relationship between lupus and cannabis in the near future.