Living with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and other debilitating disorders can be an uphill battle. Autoimmune conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), differ from chronic issues like osteoarthritis, as they involve the immune system mistakenly attacking the body's own tissues, leading to chronic inflammation and potential damage to joints and other organs.
Some common autoimmune disorders include rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Graves' disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), celiac disease, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and Sjögren's syndrome, just to name a few. These conditions can affect any part of your body — from your brain to your toes, among others.
Conventional treatments for both inflammation and autoimmune disorders often rely on steroids and other immune-suppressing medications, but these solutions can cause unwanted side effects and can potentially weaken the immune system.
In recent years, medicinal cannabis (historically known as medical weed or medical marijuana, learn more about the importance of language here), has garnered increased attention within the medical community and among patients for its potential to alleviate the symptoms of autoimmune conditions and inflammatory disorders through a more natural approach.
Read on to explore how medical cannabis may offer relief for autoimmune conditions in some patients, understand the risks of natural medicine and learn about your options for accessing medicinal cannabis treatments in Australia.
What are autoimmune disorders?
Autoimmune disorders, also called autoimmune diseases, are a group of medical conditions in which the immune system, which is designed to protect the body from harmful invaders like bacteria and viruses, mistakenly targets and attacks the body's own healthy tissues and cells.
This immune system dysfunction results in chronic inflammation and tissue damage. Autoimmune disorders can affect virtually any organ or tissue in the body, leading to a wide variety of symptoms. Some people experience only mild symptoms, while others can have severe, life-altering, and sometimes permanent effects.
Autoimmune disorders are up to four times more likely in women than in men. While the reasons for this are uncertain, it's thought that hormones, environmental factors, or our microbiome might contribute.
Most autoimmune disorders are chronic, meaning they persist over a long period of time. Managing symptoms and preventing complications often requires ongoing treatment, active monitoring, and positive lifestyle adjustments.
Thankfully, research into autoimmune disorders has led to significant advancements in treatment options, including more selective immunosuppressive drugs, targeted biologic therapies, and tailored medicinal cannabis options that help modulate the immune system's response.
What causes autoimmune disorders?
While certain autoimmune conditions, such as Type 1 diabetes (predominantly genetic) or multiple sclerosis (potentially triggered by factors like the Epstein-Barr virus), have defined causes, it's not known why many other autoimmune diseases occur.
While the causes are not fully understood for some conditions, it’s generally believed that they may arise from a combination of genetic predisposition, environmental influences, and hormonal factors.
Autoimmune disorders may be caused by:
- Genetic Predisposition: There is often a genetic component to autoimmune diseases, meaning they tend to run in families. Specific genes may increase the susceptibility to developing autoimmune conditions.
- Environmental Triggers: Environmental factors such as infections, exposure to certain chemicals or pollutants, and even dietary factors may trigger or exacerbate autoimmune responses in genetically predisposed individuals.
- Hormonal Factors: Hormonal changes, particularly in women, can influence the development and severity of autoimmune disorders. For example, some autoimmune conditions may worsen during pregnancy or as a result of hormonal fluctuations.
- Immune System Dysregulation: These dysfunctions can lead to the immune system mistakenly identifying the body's own tissues as foreign invaders, initiating an autoimmune response.
- Complex Interactions: The development of autoimmune disorders is often the result of complex interactions between genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors. The exact mechanisms by which these factors interact to trigger autoimmunity are still an active area of research.
- Idiopathic: In some cases, the cause of autoimmune disorders remains idiopathic, meaning it is unknown or not yet fully understood. Despite significant advancements in autoimmune research, there are instances where the precise trigger for the development of these conditions cannot be identified
It's important to note that while these factors are associated with the development of autoimmune disorders, the precise cause can vary from person to person and from one autoimmune condition to another. Our immune system is constantly protecting us from a variety of risks, so there are a lot of steps and processes that can go wrong. Understanding these factors is crucial for advancing our knowledge of autoimmune diseases and improving treatment and prevention strategies.
Challenges of Conventional Treatments for Autoimmune Disorders
Traditional medications have proven beneficial in managing symptoms and preventing complications linked to autoimmune disorders, however, they can also come with some drawbacks, including health risks, limitations, and varying efficacy levels.
One common, initial, symptom-based treatment approach involves nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or aspirin. These can effectively reduce pain and inflammation but may also lead to side effects like gastrointestinal issues and bleeding. Prolonged NSAID use can even result in more serious complications such as gastric ulcers and cardiovascular problems.
Corticosteroids, potent anti-inflammatory drugs, are another option. While effective at suppressing inflammation, they can bring about unwelcome effects like weight gain, mood swings, and immune system suppression with prolonged usage. This is why corticosteroids are commonly prescribed in 'burst' to reduce side effects.
Other immunosuppressive medications, often prescribed for autoimmune disorders, can help reduce inflammation but may affect the body's ability to fend off certain types of infections.
Given these challenges, there's a growing interest in exploring complementary and natural therapies like medicinal cannabis, dietary adjustments, herbal supplements, or other lifestyle changes as complementary therapies for managing symptoms of autoimmune disorders while minimising potential risks associated with conventional treatments.
Medicinal Cannabis and Autoimmune Conditions
Medicinal cannabis is gaining attention as a natural alternative for symptoms of autoimmune disorders, with increasing interest in its ability to modulate the immune system's inflammatory responses, reduce symptoms, and enhance the quality of life for those living with autoimmune conditions marked by chronic inflammation.
Here are some autoimmune disorders where medicinal cannabis may offer therapeutic benefits for some patients:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune inflammatory ailment primarily impacting joints, results in pain, swelling, and joint damage. Medicinal cannabis, CBD (cannabidiol), applied to the skin or ingested/inhaled may offer rheumatoid arthritis relief by reducing pain and joint inflammation.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Conditions such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, both forms of IBD, cause inflammation in the digestive tract, leading to symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and weight loss. Medical cannabis, notably cannabinoids CBD and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), shows promise in managing IBD symptoms for some patients.
- Psoriasis: Psoriasis is characterised by thick, red, scaly skin patches due to inflammation. Patients may find relief from topical medical cannabis-based products, such as creams or ointments containing CBD or THC, which may be able to help reduce skin inflammation.
- Other Dermatological Conditions: Skin conditions like eczema (atopic dermatitis) and hidradenitis suppurativa involve chronic inflammation. Topical medical cannabis-based products, particularly those with CBD, may play a role in alleviating skin inflammation and improving symptoms.
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS): Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune neuroinflammatory disease affecting the central nervous system. Medicinal cannabis, particularly oral medications containing THC and CBD, has been explored for its potential in managing symptoms. These medications may help manage MS symptoms such as pain, muscle spasms, and spasticity in some patients.
- Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, SLE): Some research has explored the potential of medical cannabis to manage symptoms associated with lupus, such as pain, inflammation, and joint stiffness. However, more research is needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of cannabis in managing SLE.
- Sjögren's Syndrome: Medical cannabis, particularly CBD, has some anecdotal evidence of its ability to potentially reduce inflammation and alleviate symptoms associated with Sjögren's syndrome, such as dry eyes and mouth. However, more research is needed to confirm its benefits.
Remember: the efficacy of medicinal cannabis in addressing symptoms of autoimmune disorders can vary from person to person. Before starting on any natural therapies, it's important to talk to a knowledgeable healthcare professional to weigh the risks and benefits of medicinal cannabis for your condition and health needs.
How Can Medicinal Cannabis Impact Autoimmune Conditions?
Medicinal cannabis, specifically its active compounds such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), interacts with the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS), which plays an important role in regulating various bodily processes, including the immune system.
Although exactly how medicinal cannabis helps treat autoimmune disorders is not fully understood, it is thought to potentially help manage symptoms due to:
- Anti-Inflammatory Effects: Both CBD and THC have demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties. In immune disorders characterised by chronic inflammation, such as autoimmune diseases, this anti-inflammatory action can help reduce the immune system's overactive response, which is often responsible for tissue damage and symptoms.
- Immunomodulation: Medicinal cannabis compounds can modulate the immune system, meaning they have the ability to either enhance or suppress immune responses. In autoimmune disorders where the immune system is attacking healthy tissues, the immunosuppressive properties of certain cannabinoids may help reduce this harmful immune activity.
- Pain Management: Many individuals with autoimmune disorders experience pain as a prominent symptom. Medical cannabis, particularly THC, can provide pain relief by acting on pain receptors in the brain and nervous system. By reducing pain perception, it can improve the quality of life for individuals with autoimmune conditions.
- Neuroprotection: In some autoimmune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, the immune system attacks the central nervous system. Medicinal cannabis compounds, particularly THC and CBD, have been studied for their potential neuroprotective effects. It may help preserve nerve function and reduce symptoms like muscle spasms and spasticity (as a secondary treatment).
- Reduction of Anxiety and Stress: Chronic stress and anxiety can exacerbate autoimmune symptoms and trigger immune responses. CBD, in particular, has anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) properties and may help individuals with autoimmune disorders manage stress, potentially leading to better disease management.
While medicinal cannabis may offer therapeutic benefits for some people, it may also have side effects and interactions with other medications. As such, it should be used under medical supervision and guidance.
Possible Risks of Medical Cannabis for Autoimmune Disorders
While not everyone will experience adverse effects, it's important to be aware of potential risks associated with medical cannabis for autoimmune disorders:
- Cognitive Effects: Depending on the compounds present and their concentrations, medical cannabis might lead to cognitive effects, including impaired memory and concentration.
- Interactions and Side Effects: Just like any medication, medical cannabis could interact with other medications you're taking. Side effects, though side effects are generally uncommon, still warrant careful consideration.
- Psychoactive Effects of THC: The intoxicating nature of THC may not be appropriate for people with certain mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
A comprehensive discussion with an expert medical professional can help you navigate possible risks and make an informed decision about whether medical cannabis could be right for you.
The Wrap Up
Living with autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, presents persistent challenges that require effective, long-term management. While conventional treatments, like NSAIDs, corticosteroids, and biologics can provide relief, they can still come with side effects like peptic ulcers, weight gain and mood swings. There is a need for complementary therapies, such as medicinal cannabis, to help manage autoimmune symptoms.
Autoimmune Conditions, FAQs:
Does rheumatoid arthritis make you tired?
Yes, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can often lead to fatigue. The chronic inflammation and pain associated with RA can be physically and mentally draining, causing persistent tiredness and a lack of energy. Additionally, the immune system's overactivity in RA can contribute to feelings of fatigue.
Some RA medications, such as methotrexate, which is commonly prescribed, can also cause fatigue as a side effect. In some cases, individuals with RA may explore alternative treatments like medicinal cannabis to manage pain and fatigue, as it has shown potential in alleviating these symptoms in some patients.
Is methotrexate the best treatment for rheumatoid arthritis?
Methotrexate is commonly used as a first-line treatment for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and is often considered one of the most effective disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) for RA. However, whether it is the "best" treatment for a particular individual with RA depends on various factors, including the severity of the disease, the individual's medical history, their response to the medication, and any potential side effects.
RA is a complex condition, and treatment plans are typically tailored to each patient's specific needs. Some individuals with RA may not respond well to methotrexate alone or may experience severe side effects. In such cases, rheumatologists may explore other DMARDs, medicinal cannabis, or biologic medications, often in combination with methotrexate or as alternatives.
Ultimately, the choice of the "best" treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is a decision made by a healthcare provider in consultation with the patient, taking into consideration the individual's unique circumstances and preferences.
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The information on this website is provided for educational and informational purposes only and not intended for use as medical advice. Polln is not promoting the use of medicinal cannabis. Medicinal cannabis in Australia is scheduled medication and regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Details about medicinal cannabis as a scheduled drug can be found on their website. If you would like to explore medicinal cannabis for your chronic condition, please consult with a doctor.
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