How CBD’s Anxiolytic Effects Can Help Strengthen Your Immune System
by Claudia S. Copeland, Ph.D.
COVID-19 is a pandemic the likes of which we’ve not seen since the 1918 Spanish flu. Everyone is anxious about it, and on multiple levels — fear of the disease itself, fear of not being able to pay our bills and fear of what kind of world we’re going to come back to after we crawl out of our homes to rebuild our social and economic lives. Compounding all this anxiety is isolation which deprives us of social support, a key source of comfort and fortification.
Anxiety is particularly dangerous at this time precisely because it can weaken our ability to fight what we fear. Besides its paralyzing psychological effects, anxiety weakens the immune system’s very ability to stave off infection — at a time when it is more important than ever to keep it in top shape. A key step toward strengthening immunity is lowering our anxiety. One of the easiest ways to get anxiety under control is the soft-spoken but powerful cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD).
How The Immune System Works To Defend Against Viruses
Before talking about how to build up your immune system, it’s important to get an appreciation for the complex nature of the immune response to viruses. Defense against viruses occurs in two main stages: non-specific (general) and adaptive (specific to the infecting virus). Each of these employs a diverse force of cellular and protein elements that work together in multifaceted interactions.
In the first stage, a rapid-response team that includes proteins collectively called interferon, as well as several types of non-specific cells, attack the invaders. Interferon blocks viral replication and also aids in communication between immune cells. These include cells like natural killer cells which eat infected cells, and facilitators like mast cells which respond to damaged cells by helping rush other immune elements to the scene of the infection.
What happens physiologically is a process called inflammation — a swollen mass of first-responder immune elements that crowd around the infection and fight off a poorly understood enemy as best they can. (This is an important first response to an invader, but it should be brief. If it continues over time, it becomes an unhealthy state called chronic inflammation.)
While the rapid response team tries to neutralize the threat as best they can, a second, slower and more deliberate team gathers information on the specific characteristics of the invader. This precision-response team is led by cells called lymphocytes which come in two types: T lymphocytes and B lymphocytes (a.k.a. T cells and B cells). The B lymphocytes go through a process of training and specialization that results in their being able to recognize and respond to a particular invader — for example, the SARS CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 disease. Once these B cell subspecialists are trained, they go out into the bloodstream and release virus-fighting proteins called antibodies that are specifically targeted to the invader. Meanwhile, the T cells — a diverse team of specialists that each have their own roles (such as helping the B cells) activating cell-eaters like macrophages which kill virus-infected cells directly and are trained to recognize the virus. Together, the T cells and B cells lead an incredibly complex, multifaceted approach that includes both cells and non-cellular elements like the diverse immune proteins called cytokines.
As complicated as this may seem, it’s a shallow overview. In reality, the immune system is a staggeringly complex, dynamic system with thousands of elements working together in a coordinated response to neutralize an enemy while exerting minimal collateral damage to the body. It’s a delicate dance that, if not perfectly balanced, can result in either an inadequate defense against the infectious invader or harm to the body. For example, autoimmune disorders and allergic reactions, or — as in the case of the immune overreaction known as a cytokine storm — severe consequences and even death.
How Anxiety Can Weaken Immune Function
The immune system is itself a component of the larger, dynamic system of whole-body physiology. The body, of course, has to do a lot more than just fight off infections: it needs to balance basic, daily needs like eating and drinking, as well as long-term species-level needs like making babies with short-term emergency needs like fighting off an attacker or escaping a dangerous situation. Since they are immediately life-threatening, emergency needs have to take precedence over other needs. To rapidly re-allocate most of the body’s resources toward surviving a dire threat, chemicals like adrenalin switch the body into short-term survival mode. Then, once the threat has passed, the body is supposed to go back to the peacetime state.
In nature, the fight-or-flight system only kicks in when we need to temporarily redirect our energy to deal with an immediate threat. In modern life, though, psychological pressures tend to put us in this state for too much of the time. What this feels like is stress, and, in its extreme form, anxiety. If we are constantly in a state of stress, it can lead to chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, impair our memory and ability to think and weaken key aspects of our immune system increasing our susceptibility to infectious diseases.
CBD As A Way To Lower Anxiety
So, when thinking about how to strengthen the immune system, one overarching way is to lower stress and anxiety. The best way to do this for the long term is lifestyle practices like meditation, physical exercise and cognitive therapy approaches. These practices are very effective and are emotionally (and spiritually) strengthening beyond just relieving anxiety. However, they require discipline and commitment and exert their benefits over time. If you want to lower your anxiety in the short term and want to do so without prescription pharmaceuticals, nature has provided a highly effective solution: CBD.
Unlike prescription drugs for anxiety like valium or barbiturates, CBD will not make you “high” — it will not leave you feeling drugged or groggy, will not interfere with work and does not lead to addiction. As such, it requires no prescription and is perfectly legal to buy over the counter. A strong body of preclinical evidence for CBD as an anxiolytic has led to a growing body of human studies on the benefits of CBD for reducing anxiety. For example, a recent large case series found that CBD rapidly and stably decreased anxiety scores. Large, controlled clinical trials (in which one group gets the CBD while another gets a placebo) are needed to support these observational results, but smaller, controlled trials have been conducted. In one example, a controlled study of people with severe social anxiety, socially anxious subjects pretreated with CBD showed significantly lowered anxiety, cognitive impairment and discomfort when given a public speaking task, compared with socially anxious subjects treated with placebo. In fact, the levels of anxiety, cognitive impairment, and discomfort in the CBD group were so low they were comparable to those of healthy, non-anxious controls.
Brain imaging studies provide additional evidence that CBD reduces anxiety in humans and that this response is centered in the parahippocampal gyrus and hippocampus — two areas of the brain associated with mediating fear and anxiety. Mechanistically, CBD binds to two anxiety-related receptors: CB1R receptors and 5-HT1A receptors (the latter being targets of prescription anxiolytics like buspirone). While the effects via 5-HT1A receptors are purely anxiolytic, the effects via CB1R receptors are more complex. It appears that low-level stimulation of these receptors is anxiolytic while high-dose stimulation can actually cause anxiety. So, when using CBD for anxiety, slow and steady is the best way to go.
CBD, Anxiety, Immunity and COVID-19
COVID-19 infection manifests in vastly different ways in different people. For the majority of infected people, symptoms are mild to moderate or they are asymptomatic. At the same time, nearly 100 percent of those who finally succumb to COVID-19 are those with pre-existing health conditions including ones that indirectly affect immune function such as obesity.
Because chronic anxiety weakens immune function and because the pandemic itself is likely to increase anxiety, CBD’s anxiolytic properties can help you strengthen your immune function by bringing anxiety down to a healthy level. (But remember — lifestyle practices like meditation and daily exercise are important for long-term health; CBD should support healthy lifestyle practices, not substitute for them.) Considering the myriad of positive health benefits of CBD — from mental health to seizure prevention — and its low level of negative effects, CBD is an easy way to mitigate pandemic-induced anxiety and its potential disruption of immune function.
Dr. C.S Copeland holds a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology from Tulane University and a B.A. in neuropsychology from the University of California at San Diego. She has been a scientific writer, editor and translator since 2008.