What is Lupus?
Lupus is an autoimmune, inflammatory, rheumatoid condition with no cause and largely differentiated symptoms case by case. It affects nearly 2 million people in the US, and it shares many similarities with other autoimmune and chronic conditions. The most common symptom of Lupus is a butterfly-shaped rash covering both cheeks and the bridge of the nose. Other symptoms can include fatigue, joint pain/stiffness, sensitivity and subsequent internal allergic reaction to sunlight, Raynaud’s condition (lack of bloodflow to the fingers and toes, resulting in a bluish color, and irregular bipolarity of symptoms (on and off periods).
Like other autoimmune and/or chronic conditions, lupus has no known cause and no truly effective treatment. The medical community knows of some genetic predispositions, and it’s more common in women and people of hispanic/african descent. There are more than 30 different genes that are involved in various ways with the pathogenesis of Lupus, and in certain combinations they also are involved in several other autoimmune disorders. Polymorphism is a feature of all 30 genes that are implicated.
Polymorphism is the name for genes that can be differ among individuals; species generally share around 99.8% of genes with one another, which is why species all look essentially the same; the remaining 0.2% are called polymorphic genes because they can vary by individual. For this reason, some people are not genetically predisposed to lupus while others have a severe form, and still others may have mild symptomatology.
How can CBD help those with Lupus?
The net effect of the genetic polymorphism which produces Lupus is believed to be an imbalance in both production and activation of immune T helper cells. Specifically, T cells are the foot soldiers of our immune system. They all start out the same, but then other immune cells or the presence of pathogens or injury can result in their “activation” into one of two different forms: Th1 or Th2. The h stands for helper because these cells “help” other immune cells to activate and resolve whatever issue caused the first activation of the cells.
Type 1 helper T cells
Th1 cells are the cells in our immune system which activate in response to cancer, bacterial pathogens, or viruses. They are aggressive and their defining characteristic is the synthesis and release of IFNγ, which is an interferon that promote the release of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and free radicals that degrade any living cell and most organic compounds. It also promotes the presence of the antigen presenting protein in B cells and wildly stimulates the activation of other T cells into type 1 cells.
IFNγ is notable because its overabundance is tied to many autoimmune disorders. Among its many roles, it alters the expression and transcription rates of 30 genes, the same 30 that are implicated in lupus. It is presumed that the polymorphism of these genes can lead to an imbalance between rates of activation of type 1 vs. type 2 T cells; when the genes cause more type 1 cells to be produced, this further alters the expression of the same genes, which can contribute to the timing of flare ups for individuals with lupus.
Type 1 T cells are reserved for serious battles with pathogens, and they don’t generally do much good for your overall system after their primary purpose of destroying unhealthy or foreign cells. When they become overactive, autoimmune disorders overwhelmingly result. Improper activation of Th1 cells is the same as if a shoplifter were fought with nuclear weapons; clearly the shoplifter did harm, but did not require such an overwhelming response.
Type 2 helper T cells
Th2 cells are our immune cells that respond to in allergic reactions or mild inflammatory responses. Like Th1 cells, these cells release a characteristic cytokine, IL-4, that results in a positive feedback loop for activation of more of the same kind of cells. The primary differences are that IL-4 doesn’t cause nearly as rapid a proliferation of activated cells, and its effect is much more localized. For example, skin hives are the result of acute local inflammation in response to an allergen or aggravant, produced primarily by Th2 cells responding to an allergen.
A notable characteristic among individuals with autoimmune disorders is a lower rate of allergic reactions to nontoxic things, like cats or peanuts. Recently, it was discovered that the presence of IFNγ, the effector hormone of Th1 cells, greatly reduces the activation of Th2 cells, which mediate these less serious allergic reactions. Doesn’t seem like much of a negative, but these are the same immune system cells which mediate the healing process and actually reduce the inflammatory activity of other immunomodulators.
Th2 cells are recruited to the site of injury not to promote inflammation, but to reduce it and both initiate and carry out the healing process by bringing nutrients and increasing proliferation of regenerative cells.
CBD is able to help many immune system related conditions because, first and foremost, it raises the threshold of activation of Th1 cells. This means it takes more energy to activate these destructive cells which cause more damage than good unless there is cancer or an aggressive infection. In individuals with immune disorders that commonly feature or are caused by excessive Th1 presence, the effect of CBD is to balance the presence of the cells with more of the cells and hormones that prevent their activation or initiate their deactivation. Furthermore CBD lowers the threshold of activation for Th2 cells.
CBD has actually been shown by several studies to suppress a vast number of proinflammatory genes that code for cytokines, their receptors, and even TNF signallers. Simultaneously, it increases the transcription of anti-proliferative hormones in activated T-cells, which trigger the activation of further cells. This is already more than any single pharmaceutical compound has been shown to accomplish, but CBD does much more. It enhances the activity of co-inhibitory chemokines in T-cells, which serve to regulate its activity based on the severity of the threat it’s responding to. Lastly, the antioxidant properties of CBD cause it to chemically degrade free radicals and ROS released by Th1 cells; it also raises the proliferation rates of the body’s own antioxidants and oxidative stress combatants.
Although CBD has helped many individuals find relief from autoimmune disorders like lupus for years, only recently was its multitude of effects to this end elucidated. With the discovery of the many different immune system effects that CBD causes, its application for the overall health of the immune system, is almost too good to be true. Every effect that it has seems to be a net positive for both our health and comfort, and the nature of this molecule and the other cannabinoids is truly still in its infancy, as every answer leads to 10 more questions; the only thing that resounds clearly is that CBD helps, period.