The active compounds in cannabis are not only responsible for the herb’s psychoactive effects. It is now understood that cannabinoids such as THC and CBD interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to produce various effects. Research is ongoing about utilising cannabis to treat chronic pain, improve memory function, sustain metabolic health, and regulate blood sugar, just to name a few potential applications.

Of particular interest is cannabis’ effect on the immune system. Cannabinoids are known as immunomodulators, which means they help regulate and influence the function of the immune system. Understanding how cannabis interacts with the immune system could open up many promising avenues to use the herb for the treatment of various health conditions.


Today, it is accepted that cannabinoids can alter the functioning of the immune system. Exactly how this happens and what it implies for the medical use of cannabis is still up for debate.

Preliminary studies have shown that cannabinoids can suppress the immune system by decreasing inflammation. Cannabis’ anti-inflammatory ability is a double-edged sword. This effect isn't always desirable, depending on the circumstances and the health condition in question. The reason for this is because inflammation in the body normally has a purpose. An inflammatory response acts as the body’s defence mechanism in case of infection or damage. It helps to trap harmful pathogens, isolate damaged parts of the body, and keep the infection from spreading further.

cannabis and immune system

In such cases, suppressing the natural immune response and decreasing inflammation therein could potentially make things worse. This caveat should be taken into account corning the anti-inflammatory benefits of cannabis.


Since a healthy immune system reacts with inflammation to fight infection, the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis may be of little benefit. However, at this point of research, it is still too early to say whether consuming cannabis with a healthy immune system would lead to any negative health effects.

With certain autoimmune disorders, an overactive (or weakened) immune system is often at the root. The result of an immune response that has gotten out of control can manifest in chronic inflammation, which we see with health conditions such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, and allergies. It stands to reason that the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis can be useful to treat these and other health conditions where the immune system plays a critical role.


Conditions like arthritis or multiple sclerosis involve an overactive immune system, but there are other conditions where the body’s immune functions may have declined and are too weak, as is the case with HIV/AIDS and cancer.

Despite cannabis having the ability to suppress the immune system in healthy individuals, recent research suggests that it can actually strengthen the immune response in individuals with a weakened immune system. Although more research is needed here, the preliminary results look promising.

cannabis and cancer


The immune system normally has the ability to let diseased cells know whether they should live or die. It can trigger cell-suicide in diseased cells, a process known as apoptosis. Cancer essentially involves diseased cells not responding to the call to self-destruct. This ultimately leads to the cells growing out of control.

According to early research, cannabis may have potential[1] as a treatment for cancer since it has been shown to trigger cell-suicide in cancer cells. Although to date, this research has only been conducted in lab environments. The research about using cannabis as a cancer treatment is currently ongoing.


A dysfunction in the immune system is an underlying cause for HIV/AIDS. In the case of AIDS, the virus has compromised the immune system. As a result, the body is unable to fight off infection. The ability of cannabis to strengthen a patient's immune response may therefore prove to be beneficial when it comes to treatment.

In regard to cannabis and HIV/AIDS, several studies have been conducted. One study in 2015 found that HIV-positive patients who consumed cannabis had lower viral loads[2] and a higher CD4 immune cell count as compared to a control group.

Likewise, an earlier study from 2003 found cannabis to raise the T-cell count in HIV patients. T-cells are an integral part of the immune response because they can destroy harmful pathogens. Studies on the effectiveness of cannabinoids for treating HIV/AIDS have been performed with patients who smoked cannabis and those who took the synthetic application of THC known as Dronabinol. While Dronabinol was shown to increase T-cell count, it wasn't quite as effective as cannabis.

medical cannabis immune system


It is believed that the immune system also plays an important role in neurodegenerative and neuroinflammatory conditions, such as head injuries, stroke, and cerebral ischemia (a condition where there is insufficient blood flow to the brain). In early studies, cannabis was shown to affect both neurogenesis and neurodegeneration - the new growth and degeneration of nervous tissue in the brain, respectively. These studies have, until now, only been performed using animal models. Yet again, this is an area in dire need of further research.


At this point of preliminary research involving cannabis’ effects on the immune system, it is still too early to make a general statement whether it is wholly “good” or “bad” for immune health. Indeed, it is unlikely to be solely one or the other. What is known today is that cannabis has the ability to “modulate” how the immune system functions, but its potential benefits or drawbacks are largely circumstantial.

And of course, there is the question of whether consuming cannabis for its anti-inflammatory properties would be of benefit to a healthy individual. Based on research, it looks as if the most promising application of cannabis in regard to the immune system is in helping to treat autoimmune disorders.

Those currently treating autoimmune disorders with cannabis would be advised to monitor their progress closely and to do so with the help of a qualified medical professional. It may well be that cannabis provides the relief that patients need; however, only time will tell exactly how its benefits work on the body. In the near-future, we will hopefully begin to discover more about the role cannabis plays in the health of the immune system and how it can be used to treat a truly wide spectrum of health conditions.

External Resources:
  1. Control of the cell survival/death decision by cannabinoids - PubMed
  2. Factors Related to Changes in CD4+ T-Cell Counts over Time in Patients Living with HIV/AIDS: A Multilevel Analysis
This content is for educational purposes only. The information provided is derived from research gathered from external sources.

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