Even at the end of 2020, one year after the first case of COVID-19 was discovered, the world is still firmly in the grips of the SARS-CoV-2 “coronavirus.” Aside from the steady news flow about various COVID-19 vaccines, there are still various rumors floating around online that claim CBD could be a potential cure for the virus.
Is it all just nonsense, or is there really something to it? Today we’ll look together at the current status of the research and bring order to the chaos surrounding CBD and COVID-19.
How does COVID-19 affect the body?
In the first months of the pandemic, the big question was how exactly the SARS-CoV-2 virus penetrated the body and damaged various vital organs. Researchers now know that the COVID-19 virus enters human cells through the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, also known as “ACE2.” It’s a protein that’s found on the surface of many types of cells and tissues — including the lungs, heart, blood vessels, kidneys, liver and gastrointestinal tract — and, simply put, is responsible for regulating cell functions.
One of the important functions of ACE2 is regulating angiotensin II (ANG II), which promotes strong blood vessel constriction. However, ANG II can also increase cell inflammation and cell death in the lung’s alveoli, which are critical to bringing oxygen into the body, which is why ACE2 helps to reduce these adverse effects of ANG II. When the SARS-CoV-2 virus binds to ACE2, the virus “inhibits” or prevents ACE2 from controlling signaling of ANG II between cells, which means more ANG II is available and its effects are intensified. This overactivity of the inflammatory processes in the bodies of COVID-19 patients likely contributes to damage, especially in the lungs and heart.
CBD may reduce COVID-19 lung damage
When it comes to COVID-19, quite possibly the most intriguing aspect of CBD are its anti-inflammatory effects. A study by researchers at Augusta University in Georgia suggests that CBD may help with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a dangerous symptom of COVID-19 caused by an overactive inflammatory response in the lungs, known as "cytokine storm". The study's authors state that “there is currently no definitive cure for ARDS other than supportive care, demonstrating the urgent need for creative and effective therapeutic modalities to treat this complex condition.”
However, it’s important to note that this study from Augusta University was conducted in mice, not humans. The researchers used a synthetic RNA segment to induce ARDS-like symptoms similar to those of severe COVID-19 and found that blood oxygen saturation reduced by 10% and caused significant lung damage. After treatment with CBD, the symptoms in these mice were "totally or partially reversed" and returned to normal levels.
The study's data "support the hypothesis that CBD's anti-inflammatory function may decrease the cytokine storm and mitigate the effects of excessive inflammation.” "It is plausible that CBD can be used as a therapeutic candidate in the treatment of various inflammatory diseases, including COVID-19 and other virus-induced ARDS," added the study's authors. Of course, they further point out that "obviously more studies are needed to expand and validate this therapeutic strategy."
Can Cannabis Mouthwash Protect Against A Coronavirus Infection?
A Canada-based research duo believes that a specific cultivar of cannabis could be a potentially valuable tool in the fight against COVID-19.
Olga and Igor Kovalchuk have been developing and testing novel cultivars of cannabis for years with the aim of developing one that will help fight cancer and inflammation. Ever since COVID-19 came on the scene, the duo has been focused on developing a cultivar that could make people less susceptible to a coronavirus infection.
Their preclinical study brings us back to ACE2, suggesting that a cultivar of cannabis with a particularly high CBD content could be used to control the formation of ACE2 in the target tissue. According to their hypothesis, the CBD extract would be used to decrease the levels of ACE2 gene expression and essentially temporarily shut the cells’ doors to the virus.
Unfortunately, the proposed mechanism is currently only a theory. They write, “while our most effective extracts require further large-scale validation, our study is crucial for the future analysis of the effects of medical cannabis on COVID-19. The extracts of our most successful and novel high CBD C. sativa lines, pending further investigation, may become a useful and safe addition to the treatment of COVID-19 as an adjunct therapy.” If the researchers are able to prove their hypothesis, their next step would be to develop a medicinal product with this cannabis cultivar—the researchers suggest a mouthwash. Until then, however, the theory remains nothing more than an interesting and unusual idea.
Some research in this area has focused on cannabinoids’ and terpenes’ ability to cushion the immune system overreaction to the virus without suppressing it. Initial results of a study currently being conducted by terpene maker Eybna and Israeli cannabis research and development company CannaSoul Analytics seem to suggest that the combination of terpenes and cannabinoids is up to two times more effective at reducing inflammation caused by COVID-19 reduce than the corticosteroid dexamethasone. The study is looking at a terpene formula called NT-VRL™, which was developed by Eybna to treat the inflammatory disease that some COVID-19 patients present as a nascent cytokine storm. Their formulation contains 30 different terpenes, which are potential anti-inflammatory substances and are generally considered safe to consume. While CBD alone inhibits about 75% of the cytokines on average, the terpenes hit an 80% inhibition, suggesting that Eybna's terpene blend may be even more effective than CBD at inhibiting inflammation.
Data scientist Nadav Eyal, co-founder and CEO of Eybna, explains in a Forbes article that the company used “biological data mining, data processing and formulation design” to develop a “formulation effectively targeting specific health conditions” such as cytokine storms, which are tied to the ARDS symptoms in severe cases of COVID-19. He claims this method of development “is opening a new world for synergistically-effective natural formulations — holding therapeutic capabilities in which single Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients will have difficulties to match.”
Another new approach currently being explored in Israel is a potential cell therapy in which CBD-loaded exosomes (small vesicles released by cells) are used to treat COVID-19 patients. According to the developers, the aim of this technology is "to target both the central nervous system and COVID-19 indications.” By targeting certain damaged organs such as infected lung cells, CBD-loaded exosomes have the potential to provide highly synergistic anti-inflammatory effects.
What the studies DON’T say
So what does all this research mean for us as consumers? On the one hand, the various studies prove, once again, that the cannabis plant has enormous yet still barely explored potential. On the other hand, the research gives us hope that in the near future we might not only have a vaccine against COVID-19, but maybe also one or more promising new treatment approaches.
It’s very important to emphasize, however, that none of the studies discussed in this article have been carried out directly on humans and that by no means has CBD been proven or approved for the treatment of COVID-19. Even if a few studies provide us with some optimism, there’s currently no scientifically proven knowledge about whether or not CBD can actually help treat COVID-19.
As such, no one should treat themselves with CBD based on the results of these few studies. Doctors also expressly advise against using CBD on your own for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19. Anyone who has already tested positive for the virus should seek medical advice immediately and not start any self-experiments.
Here’s how CBD might really help
The problem with the coronavirus is not just the disease itself, but also the stress it causes and the fear of getting infected or losing your job. We are currently living in extremely uncertain times. Many people have not seen their families, friends and colleagues for weeks or months and often experience previously unknown levels of loneliness.
To keep your nerves in check during these times, a healthy routine is essential and this is exactly where CBD might be a great resource. Perhaps a daily dose of CBD could become an anchor that gives you peace of mind and serenity. In conjunction with a healthy sleep rhythm, good diet and meditation, CBD can help you keep stress at bay and stay physically and mentally healthy.