What The Research Says About Cannabis And Covid-19

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Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis that has generated significant scientific interest in the last few years. CBD is studied for its potential anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anxiolytic effects, among other benefits.

In more recent news, a study from Oregon State University was published demonstrating cannabis compounds' potential to prevent Covid-19 infection and with the surge of the Omicron variant taking the world by storm, this news broke the internet.

Even late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel joked, "All this time we've been listening to the CDC, we should have been eating CBD."

While the recent studies is promising, no serious health organization is interpreting this news as a green light for cannabis products as an effective treatment against coronavirus disease.

In this blog post, we'll discuss the research summary and explore the possible mechanisms by which hemp extract may provide support against covid-viral infection in the simplest of terms.

TL;DR:

  • Researchers observed that cannabinoid acids (CBDa and CBGa) bind to the spike protein in the coronavirus, which may block a critical step in the process of infecting human cells—the viral entry and replication cycle.
  • Cannabinoid acids are abundant in hemp plants. They are essentially the raw form of the cannabinoids we know before they undergo decarboxylation (heating) to break off the carbon chain to transform into CBD and CBG. Meaning smoking weed or hemp cigarettes will alter these cannabinoid acids. 
  • This study was conducted with Oregon State University, which was observed on cells in a Petri dish. It's also possible that this primary study outcome won't prevent virus particles from infecting humans.
  • This study is a fascinating starting point for further exploration, but cannabinoid acids and their interactions with virus particles can get more complicated in larger organism studies, so it's not a green light to use cannabis products to protect or treat covid.

What Are The Active Compounds In Cannabis?

What Are The Active Compounds In Cannabis?

The cannabis sativa plant produces over a hundred biologically active compounds called cannabinoids that interact with a cell-signaling system present in all mammals called the endocannabinoid system. The most abundant cannabinoids are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Cannabinoids first start as cannabinoid acids. To transform the acidic form to its more recognized and bioavailable state, it must undergo decarboxylation to break off a carbon chain with heat. This turns CBDa and THCa into CBD and THC [1].

If you've ever wondered why eating a raw marijuana flowers won't get you high, it's because THC (the main psychoactive compound) is still THCa and its molecular shape doesn't bind readily to receptors responsible for changes in our mood or preception.

Humans have been using the cannabis plant worldwide as early as 2,500 years ago in Asia for ceremonial activity. Ancient Greek pharmacopeia of medicinal plants, De Materia Medica (65-70 CE), describes cannabis as a treatment for inflammation, joint pain, and upset stomachs [3].

The cannabis plant has had a complicated relationship with the law in more recent decades, largely due to the psychoactive nature of THC, which limits its use in many medical research studies. And as more scientific findings emerge about the safety and potential benefits of these compounds, the use of this plant is becoming more mainstream. Especially the non-psychoactive variety of the plant, hemp, and its constituent like CBD, CBG, and CBN.

How Do Cannabinoids Work?

There has been increased interest in cannabinoids in recent years due to their potential therapeutic effects.

Cannabinoids primarily interact with the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is responsible for maintaining homeostasis or balance in the body. This system consists of cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body and enzymes that break down cannabinoids.

Cannabinoids can be produced naturally by the body (endocannabinoid) or obtained from cannabis plants (phytocannabinoids). 

Some cannabinoids are psychoactive, producing a "high" sensation, while others are not. The effects of cannabinoids depend on their molecular shape—which determines what receptors it binds to—the number of cannabinoids present, and how it interacts with other chemicals in the body.

What Is SARS-CoV-2?

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease).

It was first identified in December 2019 and has since spread rapidly worldwide due to its high infection rate, as the virus can lie undetected for a long time in an infected individual.

SARS-CoV-2 spreads when an infected person exhales respiratory droplets that contain the virus. People can breathe in the virus particles or it can land in their eyes, nose, or mouth, infecting epithelial cells.

Scientific American published a detailed visual explanation of how SARS-CoV-2 infects human cells. Once the viral spike protein enters the body, it replicates itself inside the human epithelial cells bursts out of the cell, destroying the cell, and infects more cells.

The immune system kicks in to fight off the invading viral cells and clean up the infected cells, but it overreacts, leading to a wide range of symptoms, including inflammation that can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARSD).

Symptoms of COVID-19 can vary in individuals, but the typical clinical symptoms according to the CDC include:

  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Most people who contract the virus may experience mild to moderate symptoms and recover without special treatment, but some individuals can experience more severe symptoms such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Lung complications (pneumonia, respiratory distress)
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty waking up

Those who have symptoms should self-isolate and seek medical consultation from their doctor.

What Is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a life-threatening condition when the lungs become inflamed and fill with fluid (pneumonia), and the organ starts to fail. The main symptoms of ARDS are difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, and chest tightness.

Treatment for ARDS depends on the underlying cause but may include oxygen therapy, mechanical ventilation, and medications to relieve inflammation. With prompt treatment, most people with ARDS recover fully. However, ARDS can be fatal. Early recognition and treatment of ARDS are critical for the best possible outcome.

Pro-inflammatory markers triggered by severe COVID-19 infection can lead to lung complications like pneumonia and ARSD (lung failure). This condition can be fatal, and those who survive ARDS and COVID-19 may have lasting damage to their lungs.

Does Cannabis Protect Against Covid-19 In Human Cells?

Does Cannabis Protect Against Covid-19 In Human Cells?

There are no CBDa, CBGa, or any cannabis products approved by the CDC or the FDA that can cure, treat, or block infection from COVID-19.

Researchers at Oregon State University investigated two cannabinoid acids abundant in the hemp plant, cannabigerolic acid (CBGa) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDa), which can bind to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. It's these crown-like spike shapes that give the coronavirus its name.

CBGa and CBDa essentially gum-up the receptors on the spike proteins, obstructing SARS-CoV-2 from entering replicating in host cells—a critical step in infection [3]

It's important to highlight that this observation was done in test tubes and computer run simulations—not on living organisms, which may produce different outcomes as more systems are involved in a viral infection like the immune response.

They also used the Alpha variant of the virus—Delta and Omicron were not used in this study. 

The researchers incubated live SARS-CoV-2 virus particles with CBGa, CBGa, and a control compound (with no active ingredients). Vero E6 cells were then infected with these viruses with the presence of cannabinoid acids or the control. A stain-test is then used to detect the presence of viral RNA (infection) within the cells. 

If the cells are stained, the virus was able to successfully enter infect the cell and replicate copies of itself. If the cells remain unstained, the virus was blocked from penetrating the cell wall. 

The cells that were treated with CBDa and CBGa didn't present any staining, which means SARS-CoV-2 wasn't able to take hold of its potential host. 

The research summary says that further trials are needed, but it shows promise to complement vaccines and mask measures against covid in the future.

Are Cannabinoids Dangerous?

Cannabinoids aren't found to be inherently dangerous, even in high doses. One cannabinoid, THC, is responsible for most of the controversy surrounding cannabis' legal status.

THC is the main psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana plants. While it's been found to have therapeutic uses, its psychoactive nature and propensity for substance abuse make it undesirable for most people.

CBD is the other main cannabinoid in marijuana and hemp plants, which doesn't have psychoactive effects and is sold online and in stores as dietary supplements to support various wellness goals.

The World Health Organization recognizes hemp-derived CBD as safe and well-tolerated with no public risk for abuse and recognizes its potential for treating epilepsy. 

CBD is generally a safe compound, but some people may have adverse effects with CBD, such as changes in appetite, lethargy, headaches, and upset stomachs. However, this showed no significant differences from placebo treatment groups on human trials [4].

What Does This Mean For The Future Of Cannabinoids?

The study published by Oregon State University is exciting, but it's nowhere near proof that hemp extracts should be used to treat infection from Covid-19.

The study found that certain cannabinoid compounds interact with the coronavirus spoke protein, acting like cell entry inhibitors, preventing it from latching on to host cells.

One of the main research areas for cannabidiol and other hemp compounds is their potential anti-inflammatory properties.

In many preliminary trials, cannabidiol modulates inflammatory markers that can produce an over-reaction of the immune system [5]. Since inflammation is at the root of many chronic and acute diseases, this opens many opportunities for exploring CBD and other cannabinoids for supporting inflammatory-based conditions and protecting against infection and replication cycle of viral variants of COVID-19 alongside vaccination efforts.

The Takeaway: Cannabinoids, Health Sciences, And COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, health officials are scrambling to find treatments and therapies that can help stem the tide of the virus. One potential avenue for treatment is raw cannabinoids, the active compounds found in cannabis plants.

Preliminary research suggests that cannabinoids may have antiviral properties and could help to protect cells from damage. 

This isn't a green light to light up a joint or use CBD oils are your only prevention of the coronavirus. 

More research is needed to determine if cannabinoids represent a viable treatment option for COVID-19 or other viruses. Health officials and scientists must work together to explore all potential avenues for treatment as the world confronts this global health emergency.

Resources:

  1. Burstein, S. H. (2014). The cannabinoid acids, analogs, and endogenous counterparts. Bioorganic & medicinal chemistry, 22(10), 2830-2843.
  2. Butrica, J. L. (2002). The medical use of cannabis among the Greeks and Romans. Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, 2(2), 51-70.
  3. van Breemen, R. B., Muchiri, R. N., Bates, T. A., Weinstein, J. B., Leier, H. C., Farley, S., & Tafesse, F. G. (2022). Cannabinoids Block Cellular Entry of SARS-CoV-2 and the Emerging Variants. Journal of Natural Products.
  4. Boggs, D. L., Surti, T., Gupta, A., Gupta, S., Niciu, M., Pittman, B., ... & Ranganathan, M. (2018). The effects of cannabidiol (CBD) on cognition and symptoms in outpatients with chronic schizophrenia a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Psychopharmacology, 235(7), 1923-1932.
  5. Rajan, T. S., Giacoppo, S., Iori, R., De Nicola, G. R., Grassi, G., Pollastro, F., ... & Mazzon, E. (2016). Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of a combination of cannabidiol and moringin in LPS-stimulated macrophages. Fitoterapia, 112, 104-115.

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