Medical Cannabis and Lupus: 3 Things You Should Know

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Lupus is a prevalent and debilitating health condition that negatively impacts the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Americans.  Lupus symptoms can range from mild to unpleasant and, in some cases, life threatening. There is no known cure for lupus and the current treatment options available are often associated with unwanted side effects. Perhaps as a result, more and more lupus patients are turning to natural and holistic treatment options with medical cannabis being the most popular alternative treatment. Let’s take a closer look at lupus and how medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, can be a suitable treatment option.

1. Understand what lupus is

Lupus is designated as an autoimmune disease which creates an environment that causes the body’s immune system to attack its own healthy organs and tissues. Without lupus, the body is able to naturally produce antibodies which fight any type of unfamiliar or foreign objects invading. However, when a person has an autoimmune condition (such as lupus), the body instead creates autoantibodies that begin fighting healthy tissue. A chronic disease, lupus can last as little as a few weeks but in many cases often lasts for years. Being afflicted with lupus often leads to inflammation which, in turn, negatively affects a variety of the body’s systems leading to pain and sometimes long-term damage to the affected body parts. The parts of the body usually affected by lupus are the joints, kidneys, brain, heart, skin, and lungs.

There are four major types of lupus with each of the types affecting the body a bit differently. These four types of lupus are: systemic lupus, cutaneous lupus, drug-induced lupus, and neonatal lupus. Systemic lupus is the most common type and it can affect all of the body’s major organs by causing inflammation that negatively impacts the functioning of the central nervous system as well as the kidneys and circulatory system. The symptoms of systemic lupus can range from mild to severe and life threatening. The second type of lupus is known as cutaneous lupus. Cutaneous lupus only affects the skin and fortunately spares other parts of the body. With this type, patients often find lesions or rashes on the surface of their skin. It can also lead to changes in skin pigmentation and even hair loss. Approximately ten percent of people with cutaneous lupus will go on to develop system lupus. 

The third type of lupus, drug-induced lupus, is caused by prescription drugs, particularly the blood pressure medication known as Hydralazine. Other medications known to cause drug-induced lupus are Isoniazid, which is prescribed for tuberculosis, and Procainamide- a medication commonly prescribed for irregular heart rhythm. The fourth type of lupus is neonatal lupus which, though not a true type of lupus, presents symptoms similar to lupus in infant babies. Neonatal lupus occurs when the antibodies from a pregnant woman with lupus affect the developing fetus. Upon birth, the infant will show symptoms that can include rashes, low blood cell counts, and problems of the liver. Though these symptoms often clear up on their own within a few months after birth, the condition can in some cases lead to future health issues such as heart defects.

2. Current Lupus treatments and their side effects

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for lupus and the main objective of current available treatment plans is the treatment of specific symptoms. Due to the variation in symptoms between patients the treatment plans will correspondingly vary. The medications used may also change as patients experience flare-ups or changes in their symptoms. The most common treatments for lupus include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, antimalarial drugs, and anticoagulants- medications which are not without their own associated lists of unwanted side effects.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often available over the counter and can be used by patients with lupus in an attempt to relieve any pain or inflammation they may be experiencing. When these do not have the desired effect, patients can obtain stronger prescription-strength pain relievers, such as opiates. The risks associated with these medications can include issues of the stomach and kidneys as well as heightening the risk of heart disease. Opiates have many risks and dangerous side effects, are very addictive, and should only be taken under the care of a medical professional. Corticosteroids are used to reduce inflammation and its related issues such as pain, tenderness, and swelling. One of the most commonly prescribed types of corticosteroids is Prednisone, which has many potential side effects including depression, high blood pressure, fluid retention, an increased risk of infection, diabetes, and weight gain.

Many of the same medications used to treat malaria are also prescribed in an effort to control symptoms of lupus. These medications, known as antimalarial medications, can be useful for treating rashes, ulcers, and blood clotting issues. Additionally, antimalarial medications can help to suppress the production of autoantibodies and stop them from erroneously damaging healthy tissues. Some of the risks and common side effects associated with antimalarial medications are upset stomach and, interestingly, retina damage. Another pharmaceutical option for treating lupus is a type of drug known as an immunosuppressant. While immunosuppressant drugs can be beneficial in lessening the damage done by autoantibodies, they also have their own risks such as liver damage, heightened risks of cancer and infection, fertility difficulty, nausea, and fever.


3. How Medical Cannabis can help

Medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, is often considered an excellent mediation which can help patients with lupus to endure the often unpleasant symptoms they regularly face. Perhaps due to its reputation as an effective anti-inflammatory, cannabis is also a very effective pain reliever and can also suppress nausea. Additionally, the chemical components found in cannabis- such as the cannabinoids CBD and THC– have been shown to be successful in supporting the body’s own endocannabinoid system and boosting the immune system. These cannabinoids are successful at lowering the levels of an inflammation-promoting protein known as interleukin-2 as well as boosting the levels of the anti-inflammatory protein known as interleukin-10, benefiting patients with autoimmune disorders bearing the hallmark of inflammation, such as lupus. By addressing the underlying inflammation, the compounds found in medical cannabis can relieve any pain the patient may be experiencing. Additionally, medical cannabis researchers have found that cannabis helps patients with autoimmune problems through the activation of myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs), which, when activated, work to fight against the overaction of the immune system.

When attempting to determine the correct medication for treating lupus, finding the correct strain, dosage, and method of consuming medical cannabis can sometimes be overwhelming. At times, it can even feel like a matter of trial and error. With methods of ingestion such as smoking, vaporizing, edibles, topical applications, tinctures, and full extract oils, what is appropriate for one patient may not be the best option for another. It is therefore advised that each patient speak with a reputable medical cannabis practitioner before beginning a medicinal protocol.


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