Lupus and Cannabis
Lupus refers to some diseases in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own normally functioning tissues. Some form of the disease afflicts an estimated 5 million people around the world, 90% of whom are women. Progress in treating Lupus has been startlingly slow. Here, we’ll explore the disease, how it’s typically treated, and how cannabis interacts with patients who suffer from the disease.
What is Lupus?
Lupus is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body mistakenly attacks and damages itself over time. While there are many forms of the disease, the most common form is called Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). SLE, like all forms of this disease, is unique in that each person’s symptoms can vary drastically. However, some serious complications to be on the lookout for include:
- High blood pressure in the lungs, causing difficulty breathing
- Inflammation of the kidneys, causing difficulty for the kidneys’ ability to filter blood
- Inflammation of the nervous system, causing a host of neurological problems including stroke
- Hardening of the arteries, increasing risk of heart attack
Aside from SLE, there are three other broad categories of the disease. Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus is a form of the disease that affects only the skin that manifests in raised and scaly rashes. Drug-induced Lupus Erythematosus occurs as a result of using certain prescription drugs. Similar to SLE, it is systemic, but differs in that it rarely affects major organ systems. Lastly, Neonatal Lupus is a condition that affects the babies of mother’s with this disease and is seldom long-lasting.
Treatment of Lupus revolves around managing flare-ups when they occur through the administration of drugs that suppress the immune system. Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) has been commonly used to treat Lupus for decades but comes with the nasty side effect of being toxic to the eyes. More recently, Belimumab was approved by the FDA for treating SLE, the first drug since HCQ in 1955. However, some researchers are concerned that the drug is only “marginally effective.” Given its hefty price-tag of $35,000 a year, marginal effectiveness leaves sufferers wanting for a cheaper, safer, and more effective form of treatment.
Cannabis Treatment For Lupus
As an autoimmune disease, the disease’s damage is done by causing inflammation when it is not needed. This results in damage to otherwise healthy tissue. Some cannabinoids, the chemicals found in cannabis, have been shown to combat inflammation effectively. By the nature of the disease, SLE can cause inflammation virtually anywhere in the body. When inflammation occurs in places like the heart, lungs, kidneys, or brain, quelling this inflammation becomes a gravely serious task. As a result, cannabis’s ability to mediate the inflammatory response is immensely helpful to anyone who suffers from lupus.
A Canadian survey found that many people self-medicate with cannabis for chronic, non-cancer related pain. Considering one of the first symptoms of Lupus is chronic joint pain, it stands to reason that cannabis helps with managing pain caused by inflammation of the joints. Keeping joint pain under control would allow patients more mobility and freedom to travel, exercise, or relax more comfortably.
Dr. Sean Breen, medical director of Medical Cannabis of Southern California, recommends to his patients with lupus that they use cannabis to alleviate various symptoms. One patient of his suffered from abdominal cramping, nausea, and joint pain; all side effects of other medication she was taking for her condition. Dr. Breen’s recommendation of vaporizing the plant and applying a topical cannabis-based cream purported to alleviate her symptoms substantially. Of course, her story is only one of a host of other patients Dr. Breen has helped with the use of cannabis.
The Lupus Foundation of America, the national charitable health organization for the fight against the disease, officially supports further scientific research on using medical marijuana to treat the disease. Given the cost and damaging side effects of other medications available to combat the disease, the foundation’s stance on this issue is entirely sensible. With cannabis’s relatively harmless side effects and low cost, cannabis-based medication could become the standard for treating lupus in the future.