Updated on January 5, 2020. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Most people understand multiple sclerosis as a condition that affects the central nervous system. But, the causes behind it are more complicated than that. MS involves issues with your immune system, as well as damage to different parts of the central nervous system in various cases.
While inflammation as its own symptom generally isn’t associated with multiple sclerosis, it’s the cause behind some of its symptoms. Luckily, we can use medical marijuana to reduce MS-related inflammation and the symptoms it causes.
Multiple sclerosis happens when your central nervous system, which includes body parts like the brain and spinal cord, gets damaged. But, how is that damage caused?
Multiple sclerosis is primarily an autoimmune disease rather than a neurological one. A person who has MS has an immune system that mistakenly attacks the fatty tissue that protects their nervous system. When an area of the central nervous system doesn’t have that protection, it gets damaged, affecting the body functions that area controls.
Once the nerves themselves become damaged, they form scar tissue, also known as sclerosis. The damage and scarring trigger nerve inflammation, which then causes even more damage. This process creates the physical aspects of multiple sclerosis, including pain, muscle spasms and issues with motor control.
So, reducing the inflammation you experience in your central nervous system is key to reducing physical symptoms and slowing the progression of MS. Less inflammation means less damage to your nerves, making it easier to manage your multiple sclerosis.
In the world of standard medicine, doctors use corticosteroids to soothe inflammation in MS patients. Since MS has no cure, physicians focus on minimizing its effects. Since inflammation is the cause behind some multiple sclerosis symptoms, doctors often go for corticosteroids first to reduce the frequency of MS attacks.
Corticosteroids work decently enough to help MS-related inflammation, but they can cause issues. These side effects include higher blood pressure, lower immune response, mood swings, insomnia and fluid retention. So, corticosteroids aren’t ideal for everyone.
The data we have about medical marijuana suggests we could use it as an anti-inflammatory agent. When you use weed medicine correctly, you only have to worry about minor, easy-to-manage side effects. With results similar to corticosteroids without the drawbacks, it’s a win-win situation.
Medical marijuana communicates with our bodies using our endocannabinoid system. Our bodies have receptors that react with cannabinoids, whether synthetic, from weed or made by the body. We have two types of cannabinoid receptors — the CB1 receptor and the CB2 receptor.
Each type of receptor occurs in its own part of the body. CB1 receptors work in the brain and central nervous system, sending messages related to cognitive and nerve functions. CB2 receptors are located in the immune system and communicate signals related to the immune response.
Medical marijuana activates the CB2 receptors to impact immune system functions like inflammation. Inflammation has the purpose of isolating dangerous substances, but when you have MS, you don’t want it occurring. CB2 receptors cause the cells they’re attached to release fewer cytokines, or the chemical that sends inflammation signals.
However, like with any other benefit of medical marijuana, researchers and doctors need to balance out the high that marijuana provides. Fortunately, preliminary studies indicate a substance in marijuana called beta-caryophyllene only activates the CB2 receptor, avoiding the high altogether.
Looking for more information? To learn more about inflammation and marijuana, read our blog post on the subject. Our disorder guide for multiple sclerosis can teach you about the other ways that medical marijuana can relieve MS symptoms.
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