Marijuana for Lupus: Is It Effective?

The marijuana industry is rapidly evolving. Medical cannabis is on its way to becoming widely accepted in the U.S., and most state medical marijuana programs now offer treatment options for dozens of different diseases and ailments.

In the modern era, cannabis is now a practical option for addressing numerous mental and physical challenges. Furthermore, cannabis research is progressing in programs across the globe in search of providing an alternative option for a variety of illnesses.

What about using marijuana for lupus? Is this a legitimate, practical option for the hundreds of thousands of people with lupus across the U.S.? Let’s take a closer look in our complete and updated guide on cannabis for lupus.

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What Is Lupus?

Lupus refers to an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation. It happens when the immune system of the body attacks otherwise healthy, properly functioning tissues. The disease affects roughly five million people around the world, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. Progress on the treatment of lupus has been minimal, given the complex and varying autoimmune nature of the condition.

Defining Lupus

Lupus is a long-term autoimmune disease wherein the body attacks and damages its own healthy tissue. The complexity of the condition has resulted in some referring to lupus as “the disease of 1,000 faces.”

Primary lupus symptoms include inflammation, swelling, and damage to the kidneys, blood, heart, and lungs. The most common form of lupus is known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). With SLE, symptoms can vary drastically from one individual to another. Other forms of lupus include:

  • Subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus
  • Drug-induced lupus
  • Discoid lupus erythematosus

Lupus Risk Factors & Symptoms

There are several risk factors to consider when it comes to the potential onset of lupus. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Hormones: Females are up to nine times more likely to develop lupus than males. Scientists now believe there is a possible link between estrogen and lupus.
  • Genetics: The chance of acquiring the illness increases if a first or second-degree relative has it.
  • Race/ethnicity: African-Americans are up to three times more likely to develop lupus than Caucasians
  • Environmental triggers: Possible triggers include smoking, excess exposure to sunlight, and severe viral infections.

The list of lupus symptoms includes, but is not limited to:

  • A loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen glands of lymph nodes
  • Pain or swelling in muscles or joints
  • Headaches or fever
  • Arthritis
  • Skin rashes
  • Swelling around the eyes or legs
  • Unusual hair loss
  • Mouth ulcers

Additionally, lupus can affect several body systems, including the:

  • Lungs: Inflammation can develop in the lining of the chest cavity (a condition called pleuritis).
  • Kidneys: An estimated one-third of lupus patients develop inflammation of the kidneys.
  • Blood: Lupus can cause conditions such as thrombocytopenia and anemia.
  • Central Nervous System: Lupus occasionally negatively impacts the central nervous system. Symptoms can include vision abnormalities, dizziness, depression, seizures, and more.
  • Heart: Inflammation of the heart may result in endocarditis or myocarditis.
  • Blood Vessels: Blood vessels could become inflamed (a condition called vasculitis), potentially affecting blood circulation.

Conventional Lupus Treatments

The treatment of lupus often involves the management and control of flare-ups as they appear. Mostly, this involves using drugs that suppress the human immune system. Doctors commonly prescribe hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), a drug that is used to treat malaria.

Another commonly-prescribed lupus medication is belimumab, which received FDA-approval back in March of 2011. While this drug can be effective for some individuals, there are ongoing doubts as to its broad-scale efficacy. Furthermore, a weight-based dosing regimen for belimumab can cost up to $35,000 a year (a single intravenous powder injection (120mg) costs $443, while a 400mg vial costs $1,477). For those lacking premium healthcare insurance coverage, these costs are largely prohibitive.

That said, conventional lupus treatments have greatly improved the quality of life for thousands of sufferers.

In the past, patients with lupus often had a life expectancy of just five years. Improved medication and treatment options have significantly increased the average lupus lifespan. Now, effective therapy can manage the condition to the point where one can live a relatively healthy and active life.

However, prescription lupus medications often come with a barrage of dangerous side effects. For this reason, some have been looking at cannabis for lupus as a viable alternative option.

Marijuana for Lupus: A Viable Alternative?

The discussion surrounding marijuana for lupus is particularly applicable when considering instances of the disease that are drug-induced. Drug-induced lupus erythematosus is a condition that is triggered by an adverse reaction to certain prescription medications. Some of these medications include:

lupus and marijuana

  • Quinidine
  • Hydralazine
  • Procainamide
  • Minocycline
  • TNF alpha-inhibitors (i.e., etanercept, infliximab, adalimumab)
  • Isoniazid

In a research study on the influence of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) on lupus erythematosus (SLE), data offered promise in terms of the potential development of a “cannabis-based medicine as [an] immune-modulating agent.” Researchers noted that “alterations of the eCB system in SLE patients” represented the “first step toward understanding the role of the endocannabinoid system” in lupus erythematosus.

However, despite the prevalence of the condition, quality clinical data on the effects of marijuana for lupus is still largely lacking. There are, however, studies relating to how cannabis may be able to potentially improve lupus symptoms via the anti-inflammatory properties of phytochemicals like terpenes and cannabinoids. This is relevant because a condition such as SLE can result in inflammation almost anywhere in the body.

One study in particular from 2009 suggests that the cannabinoid compound ajulemic acid (AjA) may have value for the “treatment of joint inflammation in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), [as well as] rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis.”

Additionally, many U.S. states that offer legal, medical marijuana programs include lupus in their list of patient qualifying conditions. Illinois, New Hampshire, Hawaii, and others all list lupus as an acceptable condition for a medical cannabis card’s potential issuance.

Furthermore, one of the main symptoms of lupus is chronic pain in the joints. In this regard, medical marijuana may be able to offer extensive support in terms of pain relief. There have been several studies over the years, highlighting the potential for cannabis to offer natural and practical solutions for chronic joint pain.

Final Thoughts about Cannabis and Lupus

The Lupus Foundation of America (LFA) is a national charitable organization involved in improving access to education about the disease. They now support continued scientific research on the use of medical cannabis to treat lupus. This is promising news, as even though there are a number of drugs on the market to help treat lupus symptoms, many of them are cost-prohibitive and potentially dangerous in terms of side effects.

As a result, it is no surprise to learn that some patients are turning to the prospect of using medical marijuana for lupus. However, it is important for patients to understand that cannabis can only help in terms of addressing the painful inflammatory symptoms of lupus; there is no clear evidence suggesting that cannabis can actually help cure the disease itself.

If possible, try to speak with your doctor about the use of medical marijuana as a treatment for lupus symptoms. Cannabis can offer valuable improvements in terms of the overall quality of life for people with lupus, and for this reason, it is an avenue worth looking into.