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Can cannabis help with lupus? Patients recommend it, but research is lacking

November 6, 2019
cannabis and illness, lupus and marijuana,
(Ponomariova_Maria/iStock)
Lupus is an autoimmune disease of inflammation. It can affect joints, skin, and even vital organs such as the brain and heart as the immune system attacks tissues and organs in the body. Symptoms of the disease can vary, and people experience them at different rates or severity. Some of the most common include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Joint pain
  • Stiffness and swelling
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headaches
  • Distinctive facial rash

The most common form of lupus is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) which affects multiple organs in the body.

We know that cannabis is widely used to relieve inflammation, so it makes sense that it would bring relief to those with lupus. But can it do more? How far can cannabis go as a treatment for lupus, and should it be discussed with your doctor? Let’s take a look at the current research.

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Living with lupus

The cause of lupus can be genetic, environmental, or a combination of both. A predisposition to the disease can lead to the possibility of it being triggered by things such as sunlight, infections, or certain medications such as ones for blood pressure, anti-seizure, and antibiotics. Most experience their first symptoms between the ages of 15 and 45.

According to a LupusCorner survey, 83% of the 381 people who reported using cannabis said they would recommend it to others. The same survey reports that 96% of people did not discuss cannabis with their doctor.

But lupus can be far more than just inflammation. The kidneys are the most at risk, with kidney failure being a leading cause of death associated with lupus. The brain and central nervous system can also be affected, creating side effects such as confusion, dizziness, headaches, behavior changes, vision issues, strokes, or seizures. Lupus can also cause anemia, blood clotting, and issues with the lungs, heart, and bones. Risk of heart attacks, cardiovascular disease, bone tissue death, as well as pneumonia and difficulty breathing increase. Lupus also lends itself to complications during pregnancy, and increases the risk of infections and possibly cancer.

With treatment, remission and controlling the disease is possible, but there is currently no cure. Currently, those diagnosed with lupus can look to prescription medications for relief, but many are also looking to cannabis.

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So far, there’s very little research that explores cannabis as a treatment for lupus. But there are a few relevant studies, and even more anecdotal evidence.

Although they do not address lupus specifically, there are several studies that examine cannabis’ effect on inflammation. As for studies directly related to cannabis for lupus? There’s currently no such noteworthy research.

According to a LupusCorner survey, 83% of the 381 people who reported using cannabis said they would recommend it to others. The same survey reports that 96% of people did not discuss cannabis with their doctor. This lack of physician involvement, along with the lack of research on the topic, means that people with lupus are pursuing cannabis as alternative medicine on their own accord or at the referral of friends.

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Using cannabis for lupus

Brianna Smith, 27, was diagnosed with lupus nephritis at the age of 25. It took four months of severe symptoms—such as nausea, mouth sores, extreme joint pain, and headaches—before she received her diagnosis, and the trials did not stop with identifying the disease. She describes her lupus as “out of control,” and was hospitalized twice during this time.

“Cannabis helped me out significantly with my pain and on an emotional level. I hit a real slump in the beginning stages of my diagnosis, and cannabis would make those periods feel okay.”
Brianna Smith, lupus fighter

“It got scary when I started experiencing neurological issues,” Smith said. “That’s when I began to use CBD oil. At this point in time I was only using oil [and not smoking] due to a lot of internal inflammation. I was unsure about whether or not smoking was okay for me. To this day, it’s still a question that I’m too afraid to ask my doctor.”

Smith lives in Texas, and thus medicates with cannabis without the guidance of a physician due to strict cannabis laws. She uses cannabis in conjunction with her prescribed medication to help curb their side effects.

In the beginning, she was on high doses of an immunosuppressant, a steroid, and another medication traditionally used to treat malaria. In addition, she was receiving a low dose of chemotherapy. She was suffering from a slew of side effects including extreme nausea, stomach pain, and headaches. She was prescribed more medicine for these symptoms, but in time was able to reduce her prescription intake by using cannabis instead.

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“Lupus patients take a lot of different toxic medications,” Smith said. “Cannabis helped significantly in alleviating the negative side effects of some of the medications.”

Today, Smith says she is healthy and “pretty much back to living a normal life.” In addition to cannabis, she also credits diet and exercise as her “saving grace.” She expresses gratitude for the ways in which cannabis helped her cope.

“Cannabis helped me out significantly with my pain and on an emotional level. I hit a real slump in the beginning stages of my diagnosis, and cannabis would make those periods feel okay at the moment. Of course, I would deal with these issues once I had the energy to cope,” Smith said.

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Smith isn’t alone in her experience—not by a long shot. While writing this article, many people with lupus came forward wanting to talk about their experience with cannabis.

Another lupus fighter, Melissa Tompkins, was diagnosed at 26 years old. She’s now 32 and continues on the road to recovery. She suffered kidney failure and was put on dialysis and six months of chemotherapy. She had been using cannabis recreationally for years prior, but after her diagnosis and treatment, that relationship with cannabis changed; she found it medicinally useful for combating nausea, anxiety, insomnia, and that it helped with “relaxation, when you are super worried and tense.”

“I don’t think I could deal with coming to dialysis three times a week if I wasn’t stoned,” says Tompkins, “[It] helps with the anxiety of sitting there wondering if I’m going to live another week or not.” Tompkins is currently waiting to be put on the list for a kidney transplant.

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Talking to your doctor about cannabis for lupus

When it comes to speaking with your physician regarding using cannabis for lupus, patients will have to decide their own comfort level when broaching the topic. Do you trust your doctor? Do you feel comfortable speaking with them frankly?

If deciding to take the plunge, patients can start with questions such as, “Would you be willing to research how cannabis may be able to help my symptoms?” It’s advisable to stick to the word “cannabis” and avoid terms like “marijuana” or “weed” when speaking with your doctor.

As for Smith’s question about a preferred method of delivery? Dr. Dustin Sulak, an expert in medical cannabis, noted, “Lupus is easily exacerbated by stress and sleep disturbance, two things that often improve with cannabis use in any delivery method. I’ve seen several patients with lupus use inhaled cannabis effectively, but the ideal method is usually oromucosal delivery [such as a tincture or lozenges] for baseline treatment, and inhaled for breakthrough symptoms.”

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Lupus, like most autoimmune diseases, is characterized not simply by one symptom, but many. Some are serious, like kidney failure, others are demoralizing, such as hair loss—but for many of the symptoms that affect daily quality of life, such as inflammation, anxiety, nausea, headaches, pain, and insomnia, cannabis may be able to help. 

Rae Lland's Bio Image

Rae Lland

Rae Lland is a freelance writer, journalist, and former editor for Weedist and The Leaf Online. With a focus on culture, music, health, and wellness, in addition to her work for Leafly, she has also been featured in numerous online cannabis publications as well as print editions of Cannabis Now Magazine. Follow her on Instagram @rae.lland

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