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cbd as preventative medicine article top image, a closeup photo of various dark berries

Is CBD a preventative medicine? What does the science say?

There’s evidence it may help prevent disease and maintain health. Here’s how.

The idea of using CBD as preventative medicine is bourn out by many studies covering a host of various conditions. In this article we examine some of the evidence laid out in the book CBD: A Patient’s Guide to Medicinal Cannabis by Leonard Leinow & Juliana Birnbaum, as well as other sources, to assess what the science says so far.

Key points:

  • It’s now commonly understood that inflammation is at the root of many, if not most diseases.
  • CBD is a powerful anti-inflammatory and studies now indicate CBD may reduce the risk of cancer, metabolic disorders and neurodegenerative disease.
  • CBD has neuroprotective properties. Animal studies show small doses of cannabinoids can stimulate new nerve cell growth, even in aging brains.
  • CBD reduces the risk of age-related bone diseases like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis by blocking enzymes that attack bone-building compounds in the body.
  • CBD helps repair damaged skin when applied topically. CBD’s antioxidants properties are more powerful than vitamins C and E.
  • CBD promotes homeostasis; A.K.A. “balance”. The condition of optimal functioning for an organism’s internal systems. Homeostasis strongly promotes overall health.

Inflammation is causally linked to an alarming number of diseases

Though many in the medical and natural health professions suspected this for years, solid empirical proof that inflammation is the “root of all disease” only emerged in 2017. Part of the reason this idea has taken so long to prove is the extraordinary evidence it takes to show that inflammation—constant, low-level, immune-system activation —might be at the root of not just one disease, but dozens of them.

The study that proved the link, published by two cardiologists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, involved more than 10,000 patients in 39 countries. Initially, the study’s main goal was to look at a large population and determine whether an anti-inflammatory drug canakinumab lowered rates of cardiovascular disease while also lowering cholesterol. But with such a large study, the two clever cardiologists hoped to reap more from the data. So, additional tests were built into the trial. The additional tests investigated what effects canakinumab would have on illnesses with no causal relation to cardiovascular disease, including cancer, arthritis and gout.

The researchers expected the drug would reduce inflammation and have a broader positive effect, and they weren’t disappointed. Lung cancer mortality dropped by a whopping 77 percent. Incidences of arthritis and gout also fell significantly.

For years, medical experts have suspected a link between chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, asthma, gout, psoriasis, anemia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and low-grade, long-term inflammation. But it wasn’t until the large scale clinical trial of 2017 that hey had proof of the linkage. Now we know: our immune system’s chronic inflammatory responses can kill us over time.

cbd as preventative medicine article chart depicting inflammation's influence on autoimmune disease
Image from Northwest Restorative Medicine

CBD is a powerful anti-inflammatory

An in more ways than one. In fact, CBD expresses anti-inflammatory effects in a number of different ways. One of CBD’s methods of action mimics aspirin: by inhibiting our body’s production of inflammatory prostaglandins. Specifically, enzyme COX-2—the enzyme responsible for producing prostaglandins.

There are also animal studies that reveal that another way CBD combats inflammation is by reducing the production of inflammatory tumor necrosis factor (TNFα).

Another method of action for CBD  is stimulation of our PPARγ receptors. These are the receptors responsible for instructing our DNA to change which genes it expresses. PPARγ receptors are involved in two important processes: reducing the production of inflammatory molecules and increasing the production of antioxidants. Researchers believe PPARγ receptor modulation is why CBD may have potential for treating Alzheimer’s, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis and a host of other diseases and conditions too.

Learn more about CBD for pain and inflammation here.

CBD promotes homeostasis

How does CBD produces homeostatic effects? By interacting with the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS regulates all major bodily systems and uses a receptor network to modulate activity, dialing responses down where they are overactive. The receptor network responds to endocannabinoids—cannabinoids produced endogenously by our own bodies.

In a process called “retrograde signaling,” endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG travel from postsynaptic neurons to CB1 receptors located on the presynaptic terminal. Moving from the receptor to the transmitter, so to speak.

There, our endocannabinoids inhibit our presynaptic neurons from producing inflammatory effects—well, that’s the simplified version, anyway. Simply put, endocannabinoids are deployed by our endocannabinoid systems to dial down overactive responses, promoting the balance of homeostasis.

CBD works in an identical manner to our body’s own endocannabinoids. CBD is also a cannabinoid, so it can mimic our bodies’ endocannabinoids and bind to our CB1 and CB2 receptors, just like our own endocannabinoids do.

anti-inflammatory lifestyle graphicCBD also inhibits the breakdown of our own naturally-produced endocannabinoids. It does this by inhibiting the production of the enzyme  FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) whose job it is to break down endocannabinoids in our cells. By inhibiting FAAH, CBD boosts levels of 2-AG and anandamide in our bodies.

By fighting chronic inflammation and promoting homeostasis, CBD lays the groundwork for the following benefits and more…

CBD vs. diabetes and obesity

Numerous studies support the idea that CBD reduces the risk of obesity and diabetes. A 2006 animal study showed CBD lowered the incidence of diabetes in lab rats. A 2015 Israeli-American biopharmaceutical collective began investigating the use of CBD for treating diabetes. Their stage 2 trials showed CBD helped the body convert white fat into weight-reducing brown fat. CBD also helped promote normal sugar metabolism and insulin production.

Multiple studies also show that regular cannabis users have a smaller waist circumferences, lower body mass index, and reduced risk of diabetes and obesity. Another report based on a survey of over 52,000 people published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2011,  showed cannabis users were one-third less likely to be obese. Interestingly, these results came despite the fact cannabis users tended to consume more calories per day. This may be due to THC’s stimulation of a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin increases appetite as well as the metabolization of carbohydrates.

In another study of over 4,600 test subjects, researchers found cannabis users’ fasting insulin levels were up to 16 percent lower than those who abstained from cannabis. Cannabis users also sported higher levels of HDL cholesterol, which protects against diabetes, as well as lower levels of insulin resistance.

Reducing insulin levels is important because excess insulin promotes the conversion of sugars into stored fat, and then leads to weight gain and obesity. Researchers are hopeful that CBD will someday provide breakthroughs for preventing obesity and type 2 diabetes.

CBD vs. cholesterol and cardiovascular disease

A big problem in the West, where inflammatory diets are the norm and many lack regular exercise, is atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is common in developed nations and increases the risk of stroke and heart disease. This condition involves a progressive depositing of fatty atherosclerotic plaques on arterial walls. Eventually, these develop into full-blown atherosclerotic lesions. The lesions are highly inflammatory.

As per our current understanding, atherosclerosis is a physical response to injuries in arterial walls caused by high blood pressure, excessive homocysteine (an amino acid) and high levels of infectious microbes.

Studies have shown that atherosclerotic lesion development is fueled by inflammatory agents released as a result of endocannabinoid signaling. This evidence suggests the endocannabinoid system plays a central role in atherogenesis—the production of fatty atherosclerotic plaques in arteries.

The human endocannabinoid system combats atherogenesis by deploying endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG to decrease inflammatory responses. The CB2 receptor can also be stimulated by plant-based cannabinoids like CBD. As a result, CBD is emerging as a strong candidate to combat and prevent atherosclerosis.

An animal study, this time in 2007, demonstrated CBD’s cardio-protective effects during heart attacks. Since then many more studies have emerged demonstrating how the human endocannabinoid system and its CB1 and CB2 receptors play important roles in cardiovascular health.

Another notable study from 2013 looked at 4,652 participants. It compared the effect of cannabis on the metabolic systems of non-users versus the metabolic systems of current and former users. What they found? Current users had higher levels of the “good cholesterol,” high-density lipoprotein (HDL-C) in their blood.

cbd as preventative medicine article image visualizing foods with good cholesterol
Sources of healthy fats.

Another 2013 example is a study of over 700 Canadian Inuit. This study also showed regular cannabis users enjoying higher levels of HDL-C and lower levels of “bad cholesterol,” LDL-C in their circulatory systems.

In 2014, researchers stated that cannabinoids had broad therapeutic potential. They wrote that the immunomodulatory capacity of cannabinoids was “well established” in science, and held great promise for conditions like atherosclerosis.

There’s a long way to go before the FDA, Health Canada, and others approve CBD and cannabinoids as a medical treatment for cardio-vascular conditions, but encouragingly, there is an increasing number of studies showing that CBD and cannabinoids hold promise for treating them. In fact, the FDA recently approved a landmark trial by a Canadian company founded by cardiovascular disease experts. The  company’s trial started investigating CBD’s potential for treating acute myocarditis and heart failure as of August 2020.

CBD may reduce the risk of cancer

The medical research community is highly interested in the question of whether CBD can help prevent cancers before they grow.

Way back in 1996, an animal study found that THC decreased both benign and hepatic adenoma tumors. Several other studies support the notion that THC can help prevent tumors and reduce them.

In 2012, a study conducted on animals induced with carcinogens found that those treated with CBD were less likely to develop colon cancer. In fact, there is a growing amount of solid evidence indicating that cannabinoids can, and do, reduce tumor growth in animal models of cancer.

A 2015 study, looking at humans this time, reviewed the medical records of over 84,000 male Californians. This study found that cannabis users who did not smoke tobacco had bladder cancer incidence rates 45% below the norm.

There’s still much to learn, but studies are piling up. Research is now zeroing in on matching cannabinoid profiles—certain arrangements and proportions of various cannabinoids that may go into a medicine—to specific conditions.

Given the complexity of the human endocannabinoid system, plus the fact that there are over 100 other cannabinoids beyond CBD and THC (not to mention individual physiological responses people have to cannabinoids) to investigate, it may be some time before we have the scientific understanding to prescribe cannabinoids in a medically-approved way for the legion of conditions CBD is thought to help with.

However, with an ever-increasing number of studies demonstrating the antitumor effects of cannabinoids, cancer patients are sure to enjoy more options for treating and preventing cancer in the future.

Cannabinoids promote brain health

Another serious avenue of research is into the neuroprotective properties of cannabinoids. Cannabinoids may help protect the brain from damage and keep it healthy by removing damaged cells and improving mitochondria performance.

Another way CBD may protect the brain is by reducing glutamate toxicity. CBD achieves this by virtue of being a powerful anti-oxidant—a property shared by many other cannabinoids. The problem with extra glutamate is that it over-stimulates brain cells, causing them to fire excessively, leading to cell damage, even death. CBD promotes balanced glutamate levels and dials down over-activity in nerve cells.

cbd as preventative medicine article image depicting brain health with stylish image of brain and stethoscope
Image from Getty Images

As we’ve mentioned, CBD is also a powerful anti-inflammatory, and produces protective anti-inflammatory effects in the brain.

Another promising area of study: CBD and neurogenesis. As we age, our production of new brain cells slows down markedly. To maintain brain health and ward off the onset of degenerative diseases, we need a constant stream of new brain cells produced. A 2008 animal study showed that low doses of CBD and cannabinoids promoted neurogenesis, even in aging animal brains.

There are also indications CBD may help prevent other diseases of the brain and nervous system like Alzheimer’s and neuropathy.

With further research, it’s very well possible that CBD becomes a regularly-prescribed therapy for these conditions in the future.

CBD is a preventative against bone diseases

The key to preventing age-related bone diseases like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis lies in maintaining bone health over time. What we’ve been learning is that cannabinoids promote bone metabolism—the cycle whereby our old bone material is refurbished with new material. We need to maintain a renewal rate of about 10% a year to maintain strong, healthy bones.

CBD contributes to bone health by blocking enzymes that attack our body’s naturally-produced bone-building compounds. What’s more, CBD promotes bone-cell growth. It speeds the healing of broken bones, and heals them back stronger by promoting the development of stronger fracture callus. Studies have shown that bones heal back 35-50% stronger in those treated with CBD compared to those healing without.

CBD heals and protects skin

Humans have been using cannabis topically for wound healing in both animals and people for thousands of years. The practice spanned  cultures across the globe. Interestingly, our skin is home to the greatest concentration of CB2 receptors in our bodies. Additionally, CBD is a more powerful anti-oxidant than vitamins E or C. When applied topically, CBD can repair skin damaged by free radicals like pollutants and UV rays.

CB2 receptors in the skin play a part in the regulation of oil production in our sebaceous glands. Over-active sebaceous glands are linked to numerous skin ailments like acne and psoriasis. Many people now use CBD ointments, serums and lotions to combat these conditions.

Topical CBD products are even being used to treat skin cancer. There are now a number of well-documented cases of people curing both carcinoma and melanoma-type cancers with topical CBD and THC products. Another benefit of topicals? THC applied topically won’t get you high.

Learn more about CBD for skin health here.

CBD shows promise as a preventative medicine, but we need more science.

Research into CBD has exploded since it was legalized in the US and Canada in 2018. Thousands of studies are now underway researching CBD and cannabis medicine. The aim is to build up our understanding so that we can maximize the effectiveness of cannabis medicine for the host of conditions it may help us deal with.

For now, we rely primarily on animal studies. We still need far more research on humans in order to prescribe cannabis medicine with the precision medical science requires.

CBD does appear to be a powerful preventative. The science isn’t conclusive on that yet, but there’s no reason not to believe it won’t be soon. As a powerful anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and homeostasis-promoter, CBD acts in both preventative and anti-aging capacities that help maintain optimal health.

This article is a reduction of articles on homeopathy, articles by Jonathan Shaw at Harvard Magazine, and CBD: A Patient’s Guide to Medicinal Cannabis by Leonard Leinow & Juliana Birnbaum (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2017), and other research.

Learn more about CBD

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