Cannabis and Alternative Therapies for Inflammation: A Quick Reference

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Jan 23, 2024
Last updated:
Jan 23, 2024

Inflammation is a normal bodily function that is part of the body's defence mechanism. Inflammation occurs when your immune system sends out cells to fight bacteria or heal an injury. 

It isn’t usually a cause for concern, but when inflammation persists or becomes chronic, it can negatively affect your quality of life. Chronic inflammation can also be a sign that you have a condition that needs treatment. 

Certain lifestyle choices can either reduce or increase inflammation,  as well as increase your likelihood of developing inflammatory diseases, such as diabetes (e.g a sedentary lifestyle, smoking). There are  many mainstream medications for inflammation (e.g non-steroidal anti-inflammatories), but medical cannabis is gaining popularity for the treatment of inflammatory pain. 

Whether medical cannabis is a viable treatment option for inflammation isn’t yet certain, but researchers have found some positive results in recent studies. 

First, it’s useful to understand what inflammation is exactly, how it’s traditionally treated and lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of developing chronic inflammation. 

What Is Inflammation?

When you injure yourself, the body creates an inflammatory response  as a way of protecting, and eventually healing, the injury site. Inflammation typically consists of increased blood flow to the affected area, redness, warmth, pain and swelling. It’s a normal bodily function, but inflammation can become a problem if it persists. 

Chronic inflammation might be the result of an underlying health condition or the presence of something harmful that the body can’t heal or get rid of. 

There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation can occur due to injury, foreign material in the body or after exposure to noxious compounds. It also tends to appear quickly and last for a few days, whereas chronic inflammation lasts for months or even years.

Chronic inflammation can result from or be associated with:

  • the body being unable to eliminate an infectious organism (fungi, parasites etc.)
  • repeatedly inhaling or being exposed to irritants such as silica dust
  • autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • autoinflammatory disorders, where systems in the body meant to regulate inflammation instead cause excessive inflammation
  • repeatedly experiencing acute inflammation
  • cancer
  • heart disorders 
  • stroke 
  • diabetes

Some of the risk factors for chronic inflammation include:

  • age – as we get older the body tends to release more inflammatory molecules
  • obesity 
  • a diet with too much saturated fat, trans-fats and/or refined sugar 
  • smoking
  • low sex hormones (testosterone and oestrogen)
  • excessive alcohol consumption
  • poor sleep 
  • stress

What Are Some Traditional Inflammation Treatment Options?

Dietary and lifestyle changes can reduce inflammation and the risk of inflammatory diseases, as can certain medications. Limiting your intake of certain proinflammatory foods and drinks, such as soft drinks and foods high in saturated and trans fats, is a good place to start. Replacing these with fruits, vegetables, nuts and fibre-rich foods may also reduce inflammation. 

Physical exercise has also been shown to reduce proinflammatory molecules in the body, as well as leading to weight loss which may also help reduce inflammation. 

For adults, the recommended amount of exercise per week is 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate physical activity or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous physical activity. Speak with your doctor if you struggle to get enough exercise — for some people, especially those with chronic conditions, getting enough exercise can be challenging. 

Finally, there are several traditional medications that doctors might prescribe to help manage inflammation. These can include corticosteroids, statins, metformin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).

Does Medical Cannabis Reduce Inflammation?

Since CB2 receptors were discovered in the immune cells there has been increased research into medical cannabis as a potential chronic inflammation remedy. While the research is still in the early stages, there have been some promising results. 

There’s some evidence that modifying the endocannabinoid system may be able to help manage pain associated with arthritis, an inflammatory condition that can cause joint pain. A 2021 review of the evidence showed that targeting the CB2 receptors with cannabinoids may cause a reduction in pain and inflammation. The studies were mostly preclinical, however, and used special cannabinoid formulations. Whether the results apply to other medical cannabis forms needs to be studied further. 

Another recent review notes the potential anti-inflammatory action of CBD due to its affinity for the CB2 receptors. The authors emphasise that more research is needed, however, as the current evidence is based mostly on in-vitro (not in a live test subject) or animal studies. 

This means we can’t say with confidence that medical cannabis is able to significantly reduce inflammation, but further research may uncover more about the potential anti-inflammatory properties of medical cannabis.  

Seeking Treatment For Chronic Inflammation

If you’re experiencing persistent pain, swelling, stiffness, fatigue, skin rashes or fever, speak with your doctor. Any of these symptoms might be the result of inflammation, and may need treatment if they persist for more than a few days. 

Although there isn’t quite enough evidence to prove that medical cannabis is a viable treatment for inflammation, your doctor may still prescribe it if you’re eligible and they think it will benefit you. 

If you’re interested in medical cannabis, you can book an appointment with your healthcare provider or a medical cannabis clinic to discuss your options. To be eligible for medical cannabis, you need to have tried some conventional treatments first and found them to be ineffective or that they caused unmanageable side effects. 

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