CBD & Cytokine Storm: Can Cannabidiol Help with COVID-19?



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The Coronavirus pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down in the United States. Currently, there are tens of thousands of new cases being reported daily and probably far higher numbers than that going unreported. While many people are washing hands, wearing masks, and staying indoors to protect themselves and others, cases continue to rise. 

Without a more focused and universal response from the public and the government, people will continue becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus and experiencing symptoms which can range from a mild, dry cough to more serious conditions like pneumonia or Cytokine Storm.

In some rare good news for this pandemic, some cannabis consumers have reported that consuming CBD has lessened or even relieved the symptoms of Cytokine Storm. This could have a large impact on coronavirus recovery rates and health impacts in the future. 

What are Cytokines and Cytokine Storms?

While many recreational cannabis users may not be aware of the term ‘Cytokine Storm‘ or its associated symptoms, medical marijuana patients battling cancer or an autoimmune disorder are all too familiar with Cytokine Storm and its physical toll on the body.  Cytokines aren’t one specific protein or molecule produced in the body. The term covers a wide and loose collection of peptides, proteins, and glycoproteins. Each has a different form and may be created and released by entirely different cells.  

However, cytokines all serve the same basic function. Much like hormones, they work in the body to regulate and inspire a specific type of response from other cells. In the case of cytokines, that reaction is regulating the immune system’s response to inflammation and infection. Think of them as the immune system’s targeting computer. They aren’t the missiles being launched at the target, but they do pinpoint what should be destroyed. 

A graphic explaining how a Cytokine Storm occurs

A cytokine storm occurs when an uncontrollable number of cytokines are realeased. photo credit

In normal circumstances, the body releases a regulated amount of cytokines into the bloodstream when the immune system senses an infection or inflammation. These cytokines mass at the site and communicate to white blood cells what virus or cell to attack. When the infected or damaged cell is destroyed, the cytokines disperse and the destroyed cells are carried away as waste.

Unfortunately, sometimes the immune system can overreact and release too many cytokines into the blood too quickly because of an infection, autoimmune condition, or a new disease. This is a Cytokine Storm, which causes a severe allergic reaction that can become dangerous to a patient’s health. Basically, in this overreaction, the immune system starts attacking the body’s own cells instead of the virus. This can lead patients to experience a high fever, inflammation, severe fatigue, and nausea. In especially serious cases, known as hypercytokinemia, a Cytokine Storm can become life threatening, attacking so many cells that it causes organ failure in a patient. 

COVID-19 and Cytokine Storms

Because the COVID-19 virus is so new to the human body, some patient’s immune systems can overreact when trying to eradicate it from the body. Doctors and researchers have been detecting a higher level of cytokines in the bloodstream of patients who’ve had negative health outcomes from the virus. 

According to virologist Mukesh Kumar, COVID-19 follows the same behavior as any other virus. Its particles enter a cell, hack into the DNA, and turn that cell into a factory to produce more viruses. COVID-19 mainly hijacks lung cells as many respiratory viruses do. However, COVID-19 is different in that it reproduces much faster in lung cells. 

woman coughing

Cytokine storms are occurring more frequently in COVID-19 patients due to the fact that the virus is so new and spreads so quickly in the body. photo credit

Those infected cells send out distress signals to warn surrounding cells. Cytokines then mass to the infected cell and signal that the cell must be destroyed to slow the spread of more virus particles. Unfortunately, because COVID-19 spreads so quickly, a lot of lung cells are being signaled to be destroyed at the same time, which means the immune system is destroying a lot of lung tissue. This leads to respiratory issues like pneumonia that can starve the blood of oxygen, triggering organ failure and heart damage. As Mukesh Kumar puts it   

“Basically, most of your cells will die because of the cytokine storm. It eats away at the lung. They cannot recover…It seems to play a role in death in a large number of cases.”

While there are several drugs being tried to prevent Cytokine Storm and the damage it causes, scientists have yet to discover a silver bullet. In one study, a rheumatoid arthritis drug known to calm Cytokine Storm was associated with a 45% reduction in risk of death among COVID-19 patients on ventilators. However, studies are still being performed and researchers are seeking any and all options.

Cannabis and Treating Cytokine Storms

So what about CBD? Medical cannabis patients suffering from autoimmune disorders, compromised immune systems, cancer, and other health issues have discovered that CBD’s numerous health benefits can make an enormous difference in the severity of their symptoms. This includes lessening or stopping the effects of Cytokine Storm. Of course, as with most health claims about cannabis, this is all anecdotal. Marijuana’s federal classification as a Schedule 1 Narcotic means that studies regarding its medical benefits have been prohibitively difficult to organize since the 1930’s.

However, a preliminary study done by researchers at the University of Georgia has shown that CBD may have a positive effect on regulating Cytokine Storms. In the study, researchers gave patients a synthetic analogue of an RNA virus to simulate symptoms of a severe viral infection, which causes the Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) associated with Cytokine Storm in the lungs. 

In the study, the administered CBD did lessen the symptoms of ARDS and reduced the amount of cytokines present in the patient’s blood.

This suggests that administering CBD to patients infected with COVID-19 may help decrease the damage to their lungs by calming the Cytokine Storm. This in turn prevents delicate lung tissue from being destroyed as well as reduces the inflammation in the tissues already attacked.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The anti-inflammatory effects of cannabinoids have been studied over the years and the results have shown them to be significant. However, there have only been a handful of studies over the decades, and far too few have been done in a controlled laboratory setting in order for their results to be widely accepted. Because of this, most scientists are still wary of considering CBD and other cannabinoids medically beneficial. Therefore, the research remains in its infancy.

Promising Results Require More Study

So, is CBD the answer? As with everything related to COVID-19, and everything related to cannabinoid’s health benefits, more research has to be done. CBD is a cure-all for some people’s medical issues. However, every body interacts with cannabinoids like CBD and THC differently. Some may not receive any benefit at all, and thus it’d be a placebo at best. 

However, if you worry about being at risk of exposure to COVID-19 or worry about Cytokine Storm in general, taking extra steps to protect yourself can’t hurt. Precautionary measures like taking baby aspirin or CBD have little to no negative side effects so there’s no real downside. If nothing else, CBD’s stress relieving effects may help you deal with the craziness of every day right now. 

Hopefully, treatments to reverse or lessen the effects of Cytokine Storm and other harmful outcomes from the coronavirus will come soon. In the meantime, wear a mask, wash your hands, and stay safe.


Has CBD helped you or someone you know with Cytokine storms? Tell us about it in the comments!

Photo Credit: www.scientificanimations.com (license)

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