HIV has been with us since the beginning of the twentieth century, even though the first human case in the US was reported in 1981. In all this time, a definite cure is yet to be found, even though science is showing some promising results. Among the areas being looked at is the use of cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant to manage the symptoms of HIV and AIDS as well as to halt disease progression. Here we look at the effects of one particular cannabinoid called cannabidiol (CBD) on HIV/AIDS.
Overview of HIV/ AIDS
HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus, is a condition where the immune system’s CD4 cells are attacked and destroyed by the HIV virus leading to a compromised immune status. When this happens, the body becomes progressively unable to combat diseases and infections, leading to what is known as full-blown AIDS.
At this point, the CD4 cells may fall below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. You will commonly hear the term CD4 count being mentioned in HIV circles, this just indicates how severely the immune system has been affected and the extent to which the body can fight off opportunistic infections. The viral load refers to the amount of the virus detected in the blood of the HIV patient. Antiretroviral (ARV) therapy aims at reducing the viral load and boosting the CD4 count.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) and Immunity
The ECS was discovered in the 1990s by scientists seeking to understand how cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) are able to exert therapeutic effects in the human body. With this discovery, scientists have now been able to understand how the ECS is able to maintain homeostasis through interactions between endocannabinoids and cannabinoids receptors (CB1 and CB2). CB1 receptors are predominantly found in the central nervous system while CB2 receptors are found peripherally and modulate immune function.
CBD does not have affinity for either the CB1 or CB2 receptors; however it indirectly acts on the immune cells through the CB2 receptors to influence immune function. CBD has been cited as an immunosuppressant because of how it interacts with the ECS to blunt out over stimulation of the immune system and suppress T cell function. This is very helpful in treating auto immune disease, but how does this correlate to HIV/ AIDS?
CBD HIV/AIDS Symptom control
Marijuana has been accepted as a reliable option for the treatment of HIV/ AIDS symptoms. Some of these symptoms are directly related to the disease while others are related to ARVs. Most commonly, the symptoms include: neuropathic pain, cachexia and mood disorders.
CBD is a known mood elevator and may be used by patients to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression. When combined with THC and other compounds found in cannabis, the effect produced is more powerful and durable. This is as a result of the entourage effect. Also, CBD is able to camouflage the intoxicating effects of THC so that marijuana treatment is better tolerated by HIV patients.
CBD and Immunosuppression
A study published in the European Journal of Immunology showed that smoking marijuana can suppress the body’s immune functions. Another study conducted by the Michigan State University, department of pharmacology also showed similar findings; this study investigated the action of CBD on T cell function. The results confirmed that CBD suppresses immunity and T cell function through various mechanisms.
However, other reports indicate that CBD actually modulates immune function which is different from suppressing immune function. A study conducted by Virginia State University showed that cannabis has a positive effect in boosting CD4 cell count. A previous study conducted by Louisiana State University showed similar results in primates with the simian virus. However, this has been attributed to THC and not directly to CBD.
Another study conducted by the University of Florida, department of epidemiology showed a correlation between suppression of HIV viral load and marijuana use. However, further research needs to be carried out to give clear statistical evidence for the same.
The future of CBD use in HIV Treatment
The world is slowly accepting CBD as a potential treatment for a number of medical conditions. Perhaps the milestone achievement for CBD has been the approval of a CBD based drug, Epidiolex, for the treatment of severe forms of childhood epilepsy.
Research in the area of cannabis use for treating HIV symptoms has also advanced. CBD based products are being offered to HIV patients to help in easing away their pain, anxiety, and other HIV related symptoms.
In the future, we hope to see more research being carried out to investigate the use of CBD in reducing the HIV viral load, improving CD4 count and boosting immunity.
A lot needs to be clarified regarding how CBD influences immunity. If CBD shows immunosuppressant effects consistently, then this may rule out any potential gains achieved in symptom control. In this case it may be advisable to stick to other safer therapies for symptom control.
But should CBD show positive effects in boosting immunity, this will offer the much needed hope in the treatment of HIV and AIDS.