You may have read recently that weed might be a natural antidote to the coronavirus.
The buzz took off last month, when researchers at the University of Chicago published findings from a laboratory experiment on rodents that suggested CBD — a compound in cannabis — may block the coronavirus from replicating in cells. And so came the headlines claiming that weed could prevent or treat COVID.
But scientists who study the ways cannabis interacts with pathogens, our cells and the immune system say understanding the impact cannabis has on SARS-CoV-2 is not so simple.
COVID-19 is a complex disease, and cannabis is a complex plant. Different compounds in the plant — like THC and CBD — have vastly different effects that, for the most part, aren’t well understood. And even though certain compounds derived from cannabis have shown success against SARS-CoV-2 in lab experiments, those findings don’t necessarily translate to humans in the real world. Robust clinical trials haven’t yet been done to clearly understand the dosing and the mechanisms of action in the human body.
It’s promising, and the growing body of research suggests certain compounds in cannabis have antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects that could be helpful tools in the arsenal against COVID, according to Susan Trapp, a research scientist at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Arizona.
“But this is by no means a prevention at this point,” Trapp told HuffPost.
Could CBD prevent COVID?
It’s important to first recognize that CBD — a compound in the cannabis plant — and THC — a psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — are very different chemicals that happen to come from the same plant. When exploring whether cannabis has any impact on COVID, it’s crucial to discern whether we’re talking about CBD or THC.
“THC and CBD have very, very broadly different effects,” Daniele Piomelli, the director of the University of California Irvine Center of Cannabis, said. If you lump THC and CBD together, people might get the wrong idea that smoking pot or taking edibles might protect them from COVID.
A number of lab studies have now shown that CBD could have antiviral properties. We also know that COVID can trigger an intense inflammatory response in the body. Also clear: CBD has some strong anti-inflammatory effects.
The data suggests that CBD is both antiviral and anti-inflammatory — an uncommon combination. But before people start taking CBD for COVID, we need a lot more data to understand how lab findings translate to humans, Trapp said.
What about THC?
THC is a very different story. THC actually has immunosuppressant effects, and previous research has shown it can reduce the ability of the immune system to attack bacterial and viral pathogens, according to Piomelli. What we don’t know, however, is whether THC would also be an immunosuppressant with COVID-19.
Plus, THC, when smoked, can damage the cells in the respiratory tract, which isn’t a great thing when you’re dealing with a virus that infects these airways.
THC does have some anti-inflammatory effects with certain health conditions, but not as much as CBD. “THC is a much better analgesic [pain reliever] than it is an anti-inflammatory compound,” Piomelli said.
Additionally, because THC and CBD can bind to the same receptors, it’s possible that THC could inhibit CBD’s antiviral effects, according to Trapp.
It’s worth noting that, in general, research on THC and its health effects is slim. THC is classified by the U.S. government as a Schedule 1 drug, which makes it extremely hard for researchers to secure funding.
The takeaway: Don’t think weed is going to protect you against COVID right now
Even though CBD may have some antiviral properties, scientists who study the effects of cannabis do not recommend using weed — in any form — in an effort to prevent or treat COVID.
Piomelli’s message to those who are eager to explore how weed interacts with the coronavirus: “Be careful.”
The science is in the very early stages, and there are still many unknowns about cannabis use and COVID.
Additionally, cannabis is poorly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and using CBD is not so easy.
“The doses — the amounts one would have to ingest of CBD — to have any of the effects we’re talking about are really large,” Piomelli said. Ingesting a few milligrams of CBD would have little to no effect — it would take hundreds of milligrams a day to see any of the effects that studies have reported.
For one, it’d be expensive — and difficult — to get your hands on that much CBD. And though CBD is a fairly safe compound, ingesting that much on a daily basis could lead to health complications. It could potentially damage the liver, which would be hard at work trying to break down and clear the toxins from your system.
Piomelli said that ingesting high amounts of CBD also could inhibit the effectiveness of other medications (like blood thinners or blood pressure drugs). All these medications and drugs would make the liver work harder — and you could develop problems with the liver or have problems with the other medications.
“You’re adults, do whatever you think is good for you, but at least be careful — monitor yourself, and be smart about it,” Piomelli said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.