Does Cannabis Treat Lupus?

By Gooey Rabinski | October 21, 2015

Lupus, also known as Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, is an autoimmune disorder that results in sometimes severe inflammation, swelling, pain (typically from tissue damage), and other harm to a variety of body parts. This condition is a chronic disease, meaning there is no known cure. It occurs when a patient’s confused, hyperactive immune system attacks their tissues and organs. Inflammation and swelling caused by lupus can affect many different body systems, including one’s joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.

It is estimated that 1.5-2 million Americans have some form of lupus, which is more common than muscular dystrophy and leukemia. Those of African, Asian, and Native American descent are more likely to develop the disease than Caucasians. Ninety percent of people diagnosed with the ailment are women, with only one in ten sufferers being men. Unlike diseases related to aging, such as Alzheimer’s, this autoimmune condition typically affects younger people, mostly women between the ages of 14 and 45.

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Lupus is difficult to diagnose based on the fact that it mimics other ailments. The most common sign of lupus, but one that occurs only in some sufferers, is a facial rash that resembles the wings of a butterfly across the nose and cheeks. In severe cases, the disease can result in strokes and intense headaches. One 17-year-old lupus patient reported suffering two strokes and constant pain and was diagnosed with depression, insomnia, and anxiety as a result of her condition.

Lupus Symptoms

Symptoms of lupus include extreme fatigue, painful or swollen joints, fever, nausea, chest pain, anemia (low red blood cell count), sensitivity to light, hair loss, ulcers in the mouth or nose, and the tell-tale butterfly rash. Unfortunately, the symptoms of lupus vary widely among sufferers, making diagnosis more difficult for both patients and physicians. According to the Mayo Clinic:

“No two cases of lupus are exactly alike. Signs and symptoms may come on suddenly or develop slowly, may be mild or severe, and may be temporary or permanent.”

Roughly two-thirds of those with lupus develop a type of skin disease called cutaneous lupus erythematosus. Lupus patients often experience rashes or sores (lesions) on sun-exposed areas of their bodies, such as their face, neck, and arms. “[Forty to] 70 percent of people with lupus will find that their disease is made worse by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight or artificial light,” reports the Lupus Foundation of America.

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Another form of lupus-related skin disease is cutaneous lupus erythematosus, also known as chronic cutaneous lupus or, more commonly, discoid lupus. It appears in the form of disk-shaped lesions on the scalp, face, and sometimes other parts of the body. About 10 percent of those with discoid lupus later develop the disease in other organs (the SLE variety; see below).

Several Versions of Lupus

There are several varieties of this chronic, painful disease:

  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): The most common form of lupus, this variety is characterized by unusual antibodies in the blood. SLE afflicts the entire body, with a focus on skin, joints, organs, and blood vessels. It results in swelling, extreme pain, and nausea, among other symptoms. While exact causes of SLE are unknown, it is believed to sometimes be triggered by heredity, viruses, and ultraviolet light. Although “SLE” is sometimes used as a synonym for lupus, it is only one type of the disease.
  • Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus (CLE): A type of lupus that affects only the skin. One source characterized the onset of CLE: “Unsightly red scaly patches develop, which leave postinflammatory pigmentation and white scars. It may be localised or widespread.”
  • Lupus Nephritis: A form of lupus that results in inflammation of the kidneys. Symptoms include swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet. Less often, swelling in the face or hands will occur. Except for these symptoms, this type of lupus affects only the kidneys.
  • Drug-Induced Lupus: This variety, temporary in nature, is caused by certain categories of pharmaceutical drugs, including a family of anticonvulsants called hydantoins that is commonly prescribed to epileptic children. Other causes of lupus-like symptoms include the anti-psychotic drug chlorpromazine (sold under the brand name Thorazine) and a popular blood pressure medication called hydralazine (sold as Apresoline). Symptoms typically abate after a patient ceases consumption of the drug that caused them. More than 400 drugs can cause drug-induced lupus. Fortunately, the kidneys and central nervous system are rarely affected by this type of the disease.
  • Neonatal Lupus: A relatively rare form of the condition that strikes, at birth, the infant children of women who have lupus. Infants with this variant may develop congenital heart block, liver disease, or experience problems with blood clotting. Wrote one medical source: “The symptoms associated with neonatal lupus, with the exception of congenital heart block, usually resolve within the first several months of life.”

Cannabis Efficacy

Cannabis is effective against lupus for several reasons. Many of the anti-inflammatory benefits it delivers are closely related to the relief gained by rheumatoid arthritis sufferers who medicate with the herb. Chiefly, marijuana is a very effective analgesic (pain killer) and anti-inflammatory agent. Because the inflammation associated with lupus can produce considerable pain in the hands and knees, cannabis can both treat the source of the symptom — the inflammation and swelling — while also decreasing one of the main symptoms — pain.

Some lupus patients report gaining the most efficacy from their symptoms from strains and extracts of cannabis that are high in the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD (cannabidiol). Others claim relief from juicing the leaves of cannabis plants, with CBD-rich strains being indicated as more therapeutic. Most strains and concentrates of cannabis are extremely effective at dealing with the nausea experienced by some lupus patients. Those suffering from insomnia should consider smoking or vaporizing a potent indica before sleep.

The fact that lupus sufferers gain the greatest relief from cannabis strains high in CBD is no surprise. The disease affects the immune system, the areas of the body in which the greatest number of CB2 receptors are found. CB2 receptors are the microscopic chemical parking spaces located throughout the body that feature what researchers label a “high binding affinity” for the CBD cannabinoid molecule. THC, the cannabinoid most responsible for the psychoactive effect of cannabis that’s so great for depression and PTSD, binds with a different cannabinoid receptor, CB1, which is found mostly in the brain and nervous system.

Topicals and Side Effects

Because so many lupus patients suffer from skin conditions, the use of cannabis topicals is one of the most effective treatments for varieties and symptoms of this disease that affect the epidermis. This is especially true based on the stigma of highly visible skin conditions in western cultures that value physical beauty. Topicals and the improvement of skin quality is also an approach that considers psychological, emotional, and self-esteem issues, especially in young and middle aged women typically afflicted with lupus.

Conventional pharmaceutical treatments from lupus include steroids and immunosuppressants, such as methotrexate. In some patients, methotrexate can cause pulmonary fibrosis, among many other negative and severe side effects. Many drugs used to treat lupus also result in extreme nausea and abdominal cramping.

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Cannabis, on the contrary, conveys no severe or negative side effects, unless one considers an improved mood, an appetite, and better sleep undesired results of one’s medicine. Given the extreme efficacy of cannabis for inflammation and pain, especially top-shelf strains high in CBD — and the almost complete lack of negative side effects from the herb — one must question the moral and ethical validity of the anti-cannabis stance of the medical establishment.

In some cases, chemotherapy (and, specifically, a pharmaceutical drug called cyclophosphamide [Cytoxan] that is also used to treat cancer) is used to treat patients suffering from lupus. This avenue of therapy brings a slew of negative and controversial side effects to lupus patients, including severe nausea and vomiting, hair loss, lack of energy, and depression, among many others.

Qualifying Condition in Limited States

Lupus patients can gain significant benefit from the herb, but only where medical cannabis is both legal and lupus is a qualifying condition. This includes:

  • Alaska (under pain, nausea)
  • Arizona (under pain, nausea)
  • Illinois (lupus specified)
  • California (under severe nausea or by doctor recommendation)
  • Colorado (under severe nausea, severe pain)
  • Delaware (under intractable nausea)
  • Hawaii (pain, nausea)
  • Maine (chronic pain, severe nausea)
  • Maryland (severe nausea)
  • Michigan (severe and chronic pain, severe nausea)
  • Montana (chronic pain)
  • Nevada (severe nausea, severe pain)
  • New Hampshire (severe pain, severe nausea)
  • New Mexico (severe chronic pain, intractable nausea)
  • Oregon (severe pain, severe nausea)
  • Rhode Island (chronic pain, severe nausea)

States with medical cannabis laws on the books that do not allow lupus or its common symptoms of nausea and pain as qualifying conditions include Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. Many states do not cover lupus because they have only single-condition medical cannabis laws in force, most of which cover intractable epilepsy or seizure disorders. These states include Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Unfortunately, Illinois is the only state to explicitly list lupus as a qualifying condition (among, to its credit, more than 40 other conditions).

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Obviously, lupus patients in states like Delaware and Maine, who may not suffer from nausea, do not qualify to legally obtain and use medical cannabis to treat their condition. Despite the severity of this disease, millions of sufferers in the prime of their lives, even those in states with otherwise robust medical cannabis laws covering conditions like cancer and HIV/AIDS, are unable to gain safe, legal access to cannabis to effectively treat both their core condition, its severe symptoms, and many of the negative side effects of their pharmaceutical drugs.

Best Strains for Lupus

Although serious research and human trials are severely lacking for how cannabis can help those with lupus, much research has revealed the effectiveness of cannabis in dealing with the primary symptoms of inflammation and pain. As mentioned, strains high in CBD have been shown to provide the best relief, both for the disease and also the side effects of the pharmaceutical drugs most commonly prescribed for it.

The following strains are not only known for being high in CBD, but also are varieties of solid quality that deliver significant medical benefits, specifically for lupus patients.

  • Island Sweet Skunk: A “functional” sativa strain that is often high in CBD and ideal for daytime use. This strain leaves users with cerebral relaxation and is clear headed, calming, and delivers the ability to be creative and focus. This strain is good for pain and stress relief.
  • Critical Mass: An indica-dom hybrid strain that is often high in both THC and CBD. This strain produces strong body relaxation and is a good strain for those who desire an ample dose of THC with their CBD, which is especially good for dealing with the depression that commonly results from severe diseases like lupus.
  • Mandarin Kush: A high CBD strain known for its pain relieving qualities. This example of the art of cannabis breeding may leave users feeling relaxation that results in sleepiness, pain relief, and appetite stimulation.
  • Harlequin: A mild sativa-dom hybrid that is higher in CBD than many others. It leaves users feeling mellow, with mild relaxation of both body and mind, but can also be used during waking hours or work and won’t ruin one’s ability to focus. Harlequin is best for treating symptoms such as anxiety and headaches. This strain is also an one of the better strains for cancer.
  • Harlequin x Sour Tsunami: An extremely potent CBD-rich sativa hybrid featuring a CBD count twenty times higher than its THC content, making it ideal for pain relief without psychoactive or euphoric side effects. Patients suffering from inflammation will be especially pleased with the efficacy of Harle-Tsu.

Photo credit: tuasaude.com.

Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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