Is Cannabis The Next Treatment for Lyme Disease?

Health Anna Wilcox 6/27/2018
engorged tick biting mans arm
Lyme disease affects 300,000 people in the U.S. each year.

There’s one old condition that has been increasingly making headlines in the health and wellness sphere: Lyme disease.

Affecting 300,000 Americans each year, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that occurs following a deer tick bite.

The bacteria in question is the illustrious B. burgdorferi.

While two to four-week treatment with antibiotics is the standard and necessary protocol to treat the disease and reduce symptoms, the side effects of Lyme disease can hang around for a while. 

Those that fail to receive prompt treatment for Lyme disease or who do not receive enough treatment for the condition may experience lasting symptoms. When symptoms of Lyme disease persist beyond the standard course of treatment, a patient may be diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease, persistent Lyme disease, or post-treatment Lyme disease.

While chronic Lyme disease is a topic of hot debate in scientific communities, medical professionals and patients alike are left with serious questions about how to deal with recurring symptoms after a B. burgdorferi infection.

Cannabis as antibiotic

medical cannabis options
Cannabis is a potent antibiotic.

When patients show up in a clinic with continued symptoms after contracting Lyme disease, medical professionals often face difficult decisions.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control have warned that extended antibiotic treatment for those with chronic Lyme disease, treatment lasting longer than the standard protocol or greater than dosage needed to clear the initial infection, produces a heightened risk of developing a potentially life-threatening illness. 

Why? At least one-half of all cells in the human body are bacterial.

Taking extended courses antibiotics has the potential to wreak havoc on the delicate microbial ecosystem vital for our overall health and wellbeing.

The CDC writes, "studies have not shown that such treatments [extended antibiotic treatments] lead to substantial long-term improvement for patients, and they can be harmful." 

The harms the CDC suggests include an increased risk of sepsis, osteomyelitis, Clostridium difficile colitis, and paraspinal abscess. All of which are serious infections that can become life-threatening if not properly treated. 

They continue, "patients, clinicians, and public health practitioners should be aware that treatments for chronic Lyme disease can carry serious risks." 

So, is there an alternative?

To be clear, there have been no studies examining the effects of cannabis or cannabis compounds on the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

However, early preclinical investigations have found that multiple compounds in the cannabis plant present potent antibacterial properties which are distinct from traditional antibiotics.

In fact, cannabis compounds, including cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), have such strong antibiotics that they have successfully killed Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the lab.

The MRSA superbug is a severe bacterial infection that is resistant to conventional antibiotics.

Other preclinical research has discovered that treatment with synthetic cannabinoids interferes with bacterial quorum sensing, which is a method bacteria use to communicate with each other.

In this recent research published in BMC Microbiology, cannabinoid treatment interrupted signals emitted by the Vibrio harveyi bacteria.

However, b. Burgdoferi utilizes the same sensing pathways to infect hosts.

In addition, research on the effects of CBD with a different microbe, Plasmodium falciparum, has discovered that the natural cannabis compound may protect against neurological damage from the parasite.

Plasmodium falciparum is one of the deadly parasites responsible for malaria.

In the lab, mice treated with CBD after exposure to the parasite saw reduced brain inflammation and increased levels of a protein known as BDNF.

This protein is in part responsible for the growth of new connections between brain cells.  

While every bacteria, parasite, fungus, and virus is unique, the potential of cannabis for the treatment of bacterial and microbial diseases is well worth exploring.

Should some of the herb’s antibacterial properties prove to be effective for the Lyme disease bacteria after clinical trial, the plant may be a useful tool to incorporate into Lyme treatment. Yet, it's far too soon to say whether or not these antibiotic properties are relevant to the disease. 

For the time being, however, it is always recommended to follow the guidance of a trusted medical professional regarding the necessary antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease. 

Cannabis for Lyme Disease Symptoms

While the verdict is out on whether or not cannabis can act as an antibiotic in Lyme disease, there is less doubt that the herb can help with Lyme disease symptoms.

As an infection, Lyme disease causes many symptoms similar to the flu.

These include fatigue, extreme muscle ache and joint pain, and changes in mood.

Lyme disease is also characterized by a bull’s eye rash that spreads from the infection site.

Should you ever see such a rash, it is important to get to a medical professional as soon as possible.

Without proper treatment, the infection can spread and potentially cause long-term symptoms and damage to the nervous system.

However, while consumers wait for symptoms to pass, here are a few ways that cannabis may help Lyme disease:

1. Inflammation

young woman massaging her painful knee
Cannabis has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Inflammation is a major contributor to symptoms of Lyme disease.

Not only does the disease cause a substantial amount of pain, but the rampant inflammation caused by the infection can affect multiple organs and bodily systems.

Controlling inflammation may ease many of the symptoms of Lyme disease.

It is now well-established in preclinical research that cannabis has potential as a potent, natural anti-inflammatory.

In fact, the herb works in a similar manner to some anti-inflammatory drugs, like acetaminophen, which is commonly marketed as Tylenol.

Compounds in the plant have also demonstrated success in reducing inflammation in animal models of infectious disease. 

For example, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation found that non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD) successfully reduced inflammation in rodents experiencing sepsis, which is a life-threatening inflammation reaction that can occur after a bacterial infection.   

Cannabis, however, does not come with the severe side effects associated with continuous use of anti-inflammatories, like gastrointestinal bleeding.

Though, it is important to note that the research on cannabis for inflammation is still in preclinical phases and has not been thoroughly tested in humans.

Those interested in using cannabis effectively for inflammation control are strongly advised to work with a medical professional. 

2. Fatigue

woman lying on sofa having headache
The right cannabis strain can give you a boost of energy.

Like with any infection, strong feelings of fatigue and malaise accompany Lyme disease.

While cannabis oft-stereotyped as a sedative, some cultivars of the herb are quite energizing.

High CBD plants, for example, are expected to increase energy rather than cause excess sedation when taken in small to moderate doses.

Certain cultivars with high levels of the terpene aroma molecules limonene and pinene are also thought to promote mental invigoration.

Limonene is present in strains with a potent lemon citrus scent. Pinene provides a sharp pine-like aroma to certain cultivars.

3. Pain

Lyme disease is no joke.

This serious infection can cause arthritis, shooting pains in the limbs, and extreme muscle stiffness and tension.

Not only is cannabis expected to be a potent anti-inflammatory, but there is some research that suggests that THC can act as a muscle relaxant.

THC is the primary psychoactive in the plant.

Other compounds in the plant are also thought to have muscle relaxant properties, including the terpene myrcene.

Myrcene is an aroma molecule that gives some cannabis varieties a sedative effect and musky aroma.

The combination of these effects may make cannabis a useful tool for easing muscle stiffness and inflammatory joint pain. 

4. Sleep disturbances

man unable to sleep
Cannabis just might be one of the best sleep aids out there.

While some types of cannabis can promote alertness and fight fatigue, others may help patients with Lyme disease catch up on some much-needed rest.

The pain, stiffness, and other symptoms of Lyme can make it difficult to stay asleep.

Some consumers experience bouts of insomnia while others may find themselves waking frequently through the night due to their symptoms.

Cannabis has been used as a sleep aid for millennia, potentially allowing consumers to extend the amount of time they spend in deep sleep.

Deep sleep is the restorative stage of the sleep cycle when the body does the majority of heavy repair work.  

This could be a natural alternative to pharmaceutical sleep aids for Lyme patients.

5. Mood

Depression, the flu, and Lyme disease have one important thing in common: inflammation.

Lyme disease has a reputation for causing depression and other mood changes. This is perhaps in part due to the infection’s effect on the nervous system.

However, the rampant inflammation caused by bacterial infection in Lyme disease is also speculated to be a culprit behind mood changes after a tick bite.

It is well-known that low to moderate does of cannabis can improve mood and cause sensations of bliss in some individuals.

As potentially potent anti-inflammatories and neuroprotective agents, cannabis medicines may also help patients with Lyme manage psychiatric symptoms associated with the disease.

6. Nausea and vomiting

Lyme disease is not always associated with nausea and vomiting.

However, some patients may experience these difficult symptoms.

Cannabis has a long history as an antiemetic.

Today, synthetic cannabis-like drugs are currently prescribed to cancer patients to quell nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

These same anti-nausea properties may be useful for patients with Lyme.

Notice of correction: This article was updated on 07/13/2018 to include language that more clearly highlights the fact that the antibacterial properties of cannabis have not been tested for Lyme disease

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