Researchers are learning more about cannabis’ effect on COVID-19. Photo credit: Bukhta Yurii.
Now more than ever, researchers are studying how COVID-19 is impacting certain demographics more aggressively than others. Exhausting all causes, a conversation arises about if cannabis users may be at greater risk for breakthrough COVID-19 infections.
Although the root causation of these breakthroughs is up for debate, a study in the World Psychiatry journal shows that those with substance use disorders (SUDs) are disproportionately suffering from breakthrough COVID-19 infections, even after getting the vaccine.
The study’s researchers consider how SUDs can lead to compromised immune systems, which limits the body’s ability to fight off viruses. However, this only creates additional avenues for researching how cannabis directly affects the body.
Cannabis is better known for alleviating physical ailments and also emotional stress. Nonetheless, this study shows that after the Delta variant spread, people who experts diagnosed with cannabis use disorder (CUD) are 7.8% more likely to have a breakthrough COVID-19 infection; even with the vaccine. This is in comparison to only 3.6% of breakthroughs in the non-SUD cohort. In other words, those with CUD were 4.2% more likely to have a breakthrough infection.
This significant number draws further speculation about whether cannabis negatively impacts the immune system along with how comorbidities contribute to immunocompromisation.
The Comorbidity Conversation
The study explains, “SUDs are often associated with multiple comorbid conditions that are known risk factors for severe outcomes of COVID-19 infection, including cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, immune, hematological, pulmonary, metabolic, oncological, hepatic, renal, infectious, neurological and psychiatric diseases.”
Merriam-Webster defines comorbidity as the collaborative existence of independent medical conditions. When combined, these factors can contribute to underlying issues. Therefore, the study examines behavioral, medical and socioeconomic variables. Although the research did not identify such variables during the study; they can go back afterwards to assess how these external factors supplement breakthrough COVID-19 cases.
“Breakthrough and non-breakthrough cohorts were propensity-score matched for demographics, adverse socioeconomic determinants of health, comorbid medical conditions, and vaccine types,” the study confirms.
After accounting for all variables, results show that subjects with CUD have the second highest risk for breakthrough COVID-19 infections. This is only second to cocaine use disorder.
However, researchers observe, “matching for adverse socioeconomic determinants of health and comorbid medical conditions removed the differences in breakthrough infection between SUD and non-SUD populations, suggesting that the increased risk in SUD patients was driven by their high prevalence of a diverse set of comorbidities.”
Therefore, after eliminating individual differences, the discrepancy between SUD and non-SUD cohorts disappears. This leads the researchers to believe that comorbidities, such as behavior and pulmonary and immune system deficiency, claim partial responsibility in causing breakthrough COVID-19 infections. In other words, cannabis was not to blame for the increased risk of breakthrough COVID cases.
Cannabis: Helpful or Harmful?
It shouldn’t go unnoticed that this study specifically focuses on diagnosed CUD cases rather than cannabis consumers as a whole. Nevertheless, NORML, a non profit public-interest and advocacy group, looks at the World Psychiatry study from a new perspective.
“Those subjects with this clinical diagnosis represent a very small and distinct subset of the cannabis consuming community and it is possible that they may possess certain behavioral traits or characteristics that place them at higher risk,” NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano says.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that 9.3% of adult cannabis users qualified for CUD in 2017.
Additionally, Armentano notes that results from the World Psychiatry journal poses more questions than it provides answers.
Cannabis curiosity has skyrocketed since legalization. As a result, cannabis-focused research investigates whether the flower itself weakens the immune system or helps it to fight viruses.
Eybna, a global technology and cannabis research company, finds that properties of cannabis can actually assist in managing COVID-19 symptoms. Laura Arman, a journalist for Emerald, previously addressed the company’s research. Eybna’s study shows that CBD with terpenes has potential to reduce inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s first response to viruses like COVID-19.
Therefore, the company designed a terpene formula that has effective anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. Arman writes, “Eybna has developed and manufactured a proprietary, patented terpene formulation called NT-VRL. It includes terpenes like beta caryophyllene, eucalyptol, and citral.”
Calming the Cytokine Storm
“Eybna found that the combination of NT-VRL and CBD is more effective in reducing cytokine storms than CBD alone. Consequently, NT-VRL exhibited stronger anti-inflammatory and antiviral activities when combined with CBD,” she reports.
Cytokine storms are the body’s response to pathogens. Arman explains, “when our body senses pathogens, they produce cytokines to recruit other cells of the immune system to fight the pathogen. But sometimes, the production of cytokines is excessive and uncontrolled. Scientists call this a “cytokine storm.””
Furthermore, scientists in Canada from Pathway Research Inc., University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge also discuss how terpenes in certain strains of cannabis prove to be highly effective anti-inflammatory agents.
For example, University of Lethbridge researcher and epigenetics pioneer, Dr. Igor Kovalchuk, tells Forbes, “we strongly believe in the full-spectrum, entourage-based effects. Likely, there are secondary (minor cannabinoids) and terpenes that contribute, and we write in the paper that one of such terpenes could be caryophyllene.”
Likewise, Eybna’s research also recognizes how terpenes can assist the body’s response when fighting viruses.
Evidently, properties of cannabis such as CBD and terpenes help the body fight viruses through targeting cytokine build ups. Researchers continue to investigate how cannabis calms cytokine storms in order to eliminate the ideology that consuming the flower causes breakthrough COVID-19 infections. In order to do so, they must also further examine how comorbidities propagate false narratives about cannabis compromising the immune system.
In the meantime, cannabis research is still evolving. Therefore, it’s only a matter of time before researchers uncover breakthroughs about the plant and its effects on human health.