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Can Cannabis Help Eczema?

by Sarah Pritzker

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Cannabis is a promising alternative treatment for eczema, but perhaps not in the way you may think. Rather than using preparations derived from the cannabis plant, much of the research has focused on compounds similar to the cannabinoids produced by our bodies, known as endocannabinoids.

Studies show that topical products containing these cannabinoid-like substances are surprisingly effective at relieving various types of eczema and itching.

These findings underscore the critical role of a well-functioning endocannabinoid system in maintaining skin health. Moreover, emerging research suggests that malfunctions in this system contributes to eczema and many other skin disorders.

Research on eczema and cannabis

Topical preparations based on compounds related to our body’s cannabinoids can improve different types of eczema and itching. Here’s a look at the key findings.

  • One 2014 study looked at the effects of two endocannabinoid-like compounds, PEA and AEA, on 60 people with asteatotic eczema. These substances are produced by the body alongside endocannabinoids and can also be derived from other natural sources. Compared to standard cream, one infused with PEA/AEA resulted in significant improvements in itching, hydration, dryness, scaling, redness, and other measures of skin health.
  • A similar 2008 study involving 2,456 children and adults found that PEA cream significantly improved the symptoms of eczema. Study participants also reported better sleep, and 56% completely stopped using steroid creams. 
  • Meanwhile, a 2007 study of 43 children and adults with eczema compared the effects of steroid cream plus moisturizer to steroid cream plus a PEA cream. The participants applied both treatments on different sides of the body. The PEA treatment cleared up eczema faster than the steroid-only group and prolonged the time until a new eczema flare-up.
  • Another 2005 study compared the effects of dietary hemp seed oil (which doesn’t contain cannabinoids) or olive oil on eczema. The hemp seed oil treatment improved symptoms of eczema and increased body levels of essential fatty acids, while the olive oil did not.
  • Furthermore, a 2007 study reported that a PEA cream significantly reduced itching in nearly two-thirds (64%) of the 22 participants with lichenified eczema and other itch-related conditions. 

Finally, there’s anecdotal evidence from eczema sufferers who smoke cannabis, but the results are mixed. Some have reported an improvement of inflammation and other symptoms, others noted no significant effect, and some have reported increased itching.

CBD and Eczema

Cannabidiol (CBD) may also help with eczema.

One 2019 study looked at the effects of a topical CBD-infused ointment on 20 people with psoriasis, eczema, and scarring resulting from these conditions. They used the ointment daily for 90 days, resulting in the improvement of skin elasticity, hydration, psoriasis symptoms, scarring, blemishes, papules, pustules, and other measures of skin health

There’s also evidence from cell culture studies that CBD can affect the immune system responses involved in eczema.

Additionally, CBD is known to increase anandamide levels in the body. Since anandamide has been shown to reduce itching and has other beneficial skin effects, such as lowering inflammation, this suggests another way CBD can potentially alleviate symptoms of eczema. 

Aside from this, multiple studies show that CBD can reduce anxiety, depression, and sleep problems. These issues are more likely to occur in people with eczema and can also cause flare-ups and worsen existing symptoms.

How cannabis works on eczema

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) exists in all vertebrates and helps regulate crucial functions such as sleep, pain, and appetite. The human body produces its own cannabinoids, which modulate and activate its various functions, but as its name suggests, the endocannabinoid system can also be modulated and activated by cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Because the entire system was only discovered in the past 30 years, scientists still have much to learn about the myriad ways cannabis affects the human body.

The ECS is present throughout the body, including the skin. Research suggests that it plays an important role in skin health by regulating key processes, including inflammation, skin cell growth, proliferation (replication), and differentiation (changing from one type of cell to another). 

There’s also evidence that endocannabinoid system dysfunction may contribute to skin disorders such as eczema

This was illustrated by a 2007 mouse study of allergic contact dermatitis. Whereas healthy mice showed no signs of an allergic reaction to nickel, those without endocannabinoid receptors had an intense reaction characterized by scratching and skin ulceration. 

Similarly, mice missing one of the two cannabinoid receptors (CB1 or CB2) had a more severe reaction to an allergen than healthy mice. Furthermore, mice lacking the enzyme that breaks down the endocannabinoid anandamide had an even milder reaction. 

In addition, compounds that activated cannabinoid receptors reduced the allergic reaction, but those that blocked the receptors made it worse. 

The researchers concluded that “these results demonstrate a protective role of the ECS in contact allergy in the skin and suggest a target for therapeutic intervention.”

Meanwhile, the researchers of a 2006 study applied an irritant to the ears of mice to simulate irritant contact dermatitis. 

The resulting swelling was accompanied by a significant increase in levels of the endocannabinoid 2-AG. However, applying a compound that blocked the CB2 receptor decreased ear swelling. The scientists concluded that the CB2 receptor and 2-AG play an important role in the skin’s response to allergens and irritants.

Research also suggests that the endocannabinoid anandamide reduces itching, as demonstrated by a 2009 mouse study.

Combined with the endocannabinoid system’s regulation of stress and immune system function, two other processes involved in eczema, this evidence helps explain why cannabinoid-based topical products can be so effective.

Using cannabis for eczema

There’s great promising evidence that cannabinoid-based preparations can relieve eczema, but what’s the best way to use them? There’s no evidence that smoking cannabis or using pure tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has any benefits for eczema.

Instead, the main option supported by clinical research is topical products containing palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) and other endocannabinoid-like compounds. 

Topical CBD products, which are more widely available, can also be used, but there’s less research evidence available. The option with the least evidence is adding hemp seed oil to your daily diet.

Nonetheless, more research needs to be done to figure out the ideal formulation and dose of cannabis and cannabinoids to treat eczema.

Side effects

None of the major human studies of cannabinoid-based topical preparations for eczema have reported any serious side effects. In fact, the only mention of a side effect was mild skin stinging in two children noted in a 2007 study.

This is likely because topical cannabinoids cannot penetrate deep enough into the skin to reach the bloodstream. 

Similarly, the only study of dietary hemp seed oil did not report any negative effects.

Cannabis Side Effects

Disclaimer

The Cannigma content is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult with an experienced medical professional with a background in cannabis before beginning treatment.

About Eczema

Overview

Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is a common condition that makes your skin red and itchy. It’s called atopic because it belongs to a group of conditions that are affected by allergens, like hayfever and asthma. Many people who have eczema commonly also have other allergies. 

Eczema is chronic, which means that it remains with us, though it may come and go at different times. Most often, it can be treated with creams, medications, and self-care measures to relieve the itching and prevent it from getting worse. Like many other chronic conditions, eczema can have periods when it gets worse, called flare-ups, and periods when it’s less bothersome.

Eczema almost always appears first during childhood, affecting up to 15-20% of children, but most people grow out of it. Around 15 million Americans, or 1-3% of adults in industrialized nations, have eczema, and it affects both men and women equally. Eczema has increased in recent years and is more common in industrialized countries, so it’s thought that pollution and increased hygiene play a part as well as genetic conditions.

Symptoms

The main symptom of eczema is itchy skin (pruritus) which usually develops into a rash. It can occur anywhere on the body, but the most common places are:

  • Hands (especially the fingers)
  • The insides of the elbows and behind the knees
  • The face and eyelids
  • Ankles and wrists
  • In the folds of skin on the neck
  • Face and scalp

 

The affected skin can be dry, red, scaly, cracked, and/or swollen. Sometimes it develops small, raised bumps which leak fluid and then crust over when you scratch them, but scratching makes them more painful. The inflamed skin can change color, becoming red on people with lighter skin, and dark brown, purplish, or grey on darker skin. 

Complications

Eczema is commonly found with other conditions, including:

    • Asthma and hay fever, which appear in over 50% of children with atopic eczema.
    • Other allergies. It’s thought that eczema breaks the skin barrier, making it easier for allergens to penetrate and create sensitivity.
    • Bacterial and viral skin infections that appear in sores and cracked skin that’s been scratched open. 
    • Neurodermatitis (lichen simplex chronicus), which is when you develop a habit of scratching itchy skin and continue even when the rash has disappeared. Eventually the skin changes color and gets thick and leathery. 
    • Allergic contact dermatitis.
    • Sleep problems because your sleep is affected by your itchy eczema. 

 

 

Diagnosis

To diagnose eczema, your doctor will usually look at the patches on your skin and ask about your medical history, including whether you have a family history of allergies, asthma, and/or hayfever.

Causes

Eczema isn’t contagious. The skin doesn’t retain enough moisture, so it becomes dry and irritable very easily. The immune system and its reaction to allergens, and foreign bodies also plays a significant role. When you have eczema, your skin is more affected by environmental triggers like irritants and allergens. 

The main risk factor for developing eczema is having a family history of eczema, asthma, hayfever, and/or allergies. Some research has found that children who grow up with siblings and/or a family pet are less likely to develop eczema, causing researchers to think that there may be a link between too much cleanliness and the condition.

Some common triggers that cause eczema to flare up include:

  • Contact with irritants, like harsh soaps and detergents, bubble bath, and some cosmetics
  • Cold, dry weather
  • Allergens like damp, house dust mites, pet fur, pollen, and mold
  • Skin contact with certain fabrics like wool or synthetic fibers
  • Food allergens including cows’ milk, peanuts, eggs, soy, and wheat
  • Hormonal changes, like during pregnancy and at certain points in your menstrual cycle

Treatment 

It can take a long time and some trial and error to get your eczema under control.

When you have eczema, you should take steps to prevent it from flaring up by:

  • Avoiding common triggers.
  • Keeping your skin moisturized.
  • Identifying and avoiding your own triggers.
  • Reducing the length of your baths and showers, and using water that’s warm but not hot
  • Trying a bleach bath, which can reduce the amount of bacteria on the skin. A bleach bath requires ½ a cup of household bleach for a 40-gallon bathtub. Soak for 10 minutes, no more than twice a week. Talk to a doctor before trying this at home.
  • Avoiding scratching itchy patches of skin, which makes them worse.

Medications 

Apart from taking preventative action, the main treatment for eczema is by using medication. Common medications can include:

  • Topical creams and ointments to reduce itchiness and help your skin recover, including corticosteroids, tacrolimus (Protopic), and pimecrolimus (Elidel).
  • Antibiotic creams or oral antibiotics to fight infection if your skin is cracked, infected, or inflamed. 
  • Antihistamines to help control severe itchiness.
  • Oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone, are sometimes prescribed for short-term use against severe eczema.
  • Emollients that reduce water loss, cover it with a protective film, and have mild anti-inflammatory properties. 

 

Therapy

Some people find that their eczema improves when they use light therapy, which exposes the skin to controlled amounts of natural sunlight, or to artificial UVA or narrow-band UVB rays. 

Wet dressings or special bodysuits are an intensive treatment for severe atopic dermatitis that involve wrapping the area with topical corticosteroids and wet bandages. It’s time- and labor-consuming, but can be effective for people with severe and/or extensive eczema.

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