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Can Cannabis Help Lyme Disease?

by Emily Earlenbaugh, PhD

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Dec 19, 2019

Cannabis is often touted as a potential breakthrough or treatment for Lyme disease, but the research is still too limited to make firm conclusions about its efficacy. 

While there is preliminary evidence suggesting a connection between Lyme disease and the endocannabinoid system, we don’t have any research specifically investigating medical marijuana use for Lyme disease. 

Still, medical marijuana has been shown to help with many of the symptoms associated with chronic Lyme disease, such as pain, inflammation, anxiety, and depression.  

How Cannabis Works With Lyme Disease

The endocannabinoid system, present all over the human body and which is activated both by naturally occurring cannabinoids and those produced by medical marijuana, is responsible for maintaining internal homeostasis. It is made up of three parts; endocannabinoids (natural chemicals produced by our body), cannabinoid receptors such as CB1 and CB2 (which are activated by endocannabinoids), and enzymes (which metabolize and clear cannabinoids from our system).   

This system modulates many of our important bodily functions, such as pain, mood, energy, sleep, inflammation, and immune response. Usually this works seamlessly, with our endocannabinoids activating the receptors to keep things in homeostasis. But when this system is out of balance, it can lead to disruptions and imbalances.

When it comes to treating Lyme disease, we have limited evidence that the disease may cause changes in the endocannabinoid system. In a study on the metabolic profile of Lyme disease, researchers found that those with Lyme disease had elevated levels of two molecules that interact with the endocannabinoid system. One of those molecules, palmitoyl ethanolamide (PEA), which has anti-inflammatory effects, doesn’t interact directly with CB1 or CB2, but it does enhance anandamide activity — one of the major endocannabinoids. 

We also know that the endocannabinoid system has a huge influence on some of the symptoms associated with Lyme disease — from regulating pain, suppressing inflammatory responses, and the regulation of depression and anxiety.

Given these factors, it’s possible that medical marijuana use could aid in treating the symptoms of Lyme disease. 

 

Medical Studies on Cannabis and Lyme Disease

While there is preliminary evidence that the endocannabinoid system is related to the expression of Lyme disease, this doesn’t necessarily mean that cannabis can help treat the condition. No research has been conducted on Lyme disease patients to evaluate whether medical marijuana might help treat it.

Still, those who argue that medical marijuana might help with Lyme disease point to several well-known aspects of the plant, such as its antibacterial properties and ability to reduce pain, inflammation, anxiety, and depression, as evidence that it may help. 

All five major cannabinoids, THC, CBD, CBG, CBC and CBN have been shown to be potent against a variety of resistant strains of MRSA, a difficult-to-treat bacterial infection. While no tests have examined whether any of these cannabinoids might work against the bacterial infection in Lyme disease, it is something that future research should look into. 

Cannabinoids like THC and CBD are also potent anti-inflammatory agents. While medical marijuana hasn’t been evaluated for relief of the inflammation in Lyme disease, it has been studied in other inflammatory conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and colitis. In all of these conditions, cannabinoids were able to reduce inflammation, leading to an improvement in the disease’s symptoms (and sometimes its progression). 

Cannabis is also a potent pain killer — particularly for patients with chronic pain. A 2017 meta-analysis and systematic review on cannabis literature reviewed research on medical marijuana for multiple types of chronic pain, including neuropathy (which can occur in Lyme disease). The authors reported that there is substantial evidence that medical marijuana is an effective treatment for all types of chronic pain. 

Cannabis can also help with anxiety. Studies show that cannabis intake can actually cause blunted stress reactions for those undergoing stressful stimuli.

Medical marijuana has also helped some with depression. In one review of the literature, researchers found nine studies on using cannabis for depression and seven of these studies showed medical marijuana use led to improvements in depression symptoms

So, while the evidence to support cannabis’ use as a treatment for Lyme disease is extremely scarce, some research does point to cannabis’ ability to treat some of the symptoms that come up in Lyme diseases, such as pain, inflammation, anxiety, and depression. 

Still, since this evidence comes from research on other conditions, more research is needed to see whether these benefits from cannabis will impact those with Lyme disease in the same way they have impacted those with other conditions. Nonetheless, there is a good reason for scientists investigate further and see whether medical marijuana can help. 

 

Side effects

Despite the positive potential for cannabis treating the symptoms of Lyme disease, medical marijuana comes with a wide array of potential side effects that can impact treatment. 

Cannabis Side Effects

We don’t have any direct studies on Lyme disease, but side-effects for medical marijuana are generally mild and can include symptoms like light-headedness, mild difficulties in concentration and memory, tachycardia, dry mouth, nausea, and fatigue. 

 

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 Lyme Disease

Overview

Lyme disease, also called Lyme borreliosis, is a bacterial infection that is spread by infected ticks. Ticks usually live in grassy and wooded areas, so you’re more likely to get Lyme disease if you spend a lot of time in these places. They can be found across the US, in northern and central Europe — particularly in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia, and Lithuania, and in the UK — particularly in Scotland, and grassy and wooded areas of southern England. 

It’s estimated that over 8,000 people were diagnosed with Lyme disease in the UK in 2019, and around 85,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported in Europe every year. However, it’s thought that many more cases go undiagnosed. Every year, 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported in the US. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention warns that tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease are increasing, and in Europe, changes in climate are causing disease-bearing ticks to spread to new areas.

Symptoms

Lyme disease produces different symptoms at different stages of the illness. Just after you’ve been bitten by an infected tick, you might not see any symptoms. Some people notice a rash, called erythema migrans, radiating out from the tick bite, looking like a bullseye. It’s normally not itchy, but it can feel warm, and it lasts up to 30 days. Two in three people who develop Lyme disease get this rash.

Some people also get early flu-like symptoms, like fever, muscle and joint pain, chills, tiredness, and neck stiffness. 

More symptoms appear as the disease progresses. You might see these symptoms a few weeks or months after you were infected, but it can sometimes take several months or even a few years before they appear. Common later symptoms of Lyme disease include:

  • Erythema migrans rash appearing on other parts of your body.
  • Painful, swollen joints from inflammatory arthritis. It’s most likely to affect the knees, but it can move from one joint to another.
  • Problems with your nervous system that cause numb or painful legs, partial paralysis on one side of your face (Bell’s palsy), memory loss, or difficulty concentrating. 

There are also other less common, but very serious, symptoms of Lyme disease: 

  • Heart issues, including the inflammation of your heart muscle (myocarditis), inflammation in the sac around the heart (pericarditis), an irregular heartbeat, or heart failure.
  • Meningitis, due to an inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can cause a severe headache, stiff neck, and sensitivity to light.
  • Inflammation in other parts of the body, like the eyes, or the liver (hepatitis).

A few people with Lyme disease end up developing post-infectious Lyme disease. This is a long-term syndrome with symptoms that are similar to fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). 

Recently, there’s been a rise in claims of cases of “chronic Lyme disease” particularly across the US, which is not the same as post-infectious Lyme disease. Chronic Lyme disease refers to long-term symptoms like tiredness, and aches and pains in the muscles and joints. Usually, people with chronic Lyme disease haven’t been diagnosed with Lyme disease itself. Scientists and medical experts disagree about whether chronic Lyme disease is a separate condition, or if the symptoms are caused by one or more other undiagnosed issues. Regardless, it can significantly impact one’s life leading to chronic pain, fatigue, mood problems and ultimately may lead to disability.

When to see a doctor

Lyme disease is treatable in its early stages, but it can be serious or even fatal if left untreated. That’s why it’s very important to go to your doctor as soon as you suspect you might have Lyme disease. Early treatment can help prevent long term consequences of infection and disease.   

If you’ve been bitten by a tick, or you think you might have been bitten by a tick, and you experience any of the symptoms of Lyme disease, visit your doctor. You should go to the doctor even if your symptoms go away, because Lyme disease can lie dormant for months, or even years, before appearing again to cause serious health issues. 

Diagnosis

Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose because many of the symptoms are similar to other conditions, including common colds and flu. The rash is distinctive and helps to identify Lyme disease, but you might not have the rash or it could have already disappeared, unnoticed. Your doctor will ask you about your medical history, and whether you recently spent time in a tick-infested area.

There are 2 types of blood tests used to confirm Lyme disease, but these aren’t very reliable in the first few weeks because it takes time for your body to produce the antibodies that show up in the blood tests. 

If your blood tests are negative, but you have symptoms of Lyme disease and you were recently bitten by a tick, or in an area where you could have been bitten by a tick, your doctor will probably start treatment anyway and retest you a few weeks later to confirm the diagnosis.

The blood tests for Lyme disease are Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test and Western blot test. Usually, if the first test comes up positive, you’ll then do the second test as well, because the ELISA test often produces false positives. 

Causes

Lyme disease is spread by infected ticks. You can’t catch it from contact with someone who has Lyme disease. Only infected ticks spread Lyme disease, so you’re not guaranteed to get Lyme disease just because you were bitten by a tick, but there’s no way to know which ticks are infected and which are not. You’ll also be more likely to catch Lyme disease if the tick stays attached to your skin for a long time, like 36 to 48 hours. 

Treatment

Lyme disease is treatable, but if it goes unnoticed, it could cause severe symptoms that may not be treatable, so it’s important to catch it early. 

Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics, in pill or IV form. If you’re prescribed a course of antibiotics for Lyme disease, you should make sure to finish the course, even if your symptoms disappear before the end. 

If you have severe symptoms, especially those that involve your central nervous system, you might get intravenous antibiotic injections. These antibiotics are given over a period of 14 or 28 days, and they can cause side effects like diarrhea or a lower white blood cell count.

Prevention is very important for Lyme disease. If you’re walking or riding in tick-infested areas, wear long sleeves, tuck long pants into your socks, and apply insect repellent to exposed skin at the beginning of the day. At the end of the day, check your whole body for ticks so that you can spot them and remove them before they have time to infect you with Lyme disease. You should also check pets, especially dogs, regularly to make sure that they aren’t bringing ticks into your home. 

Although antibiotics are the only proven treatment for Lyme disease, some people try alternative treatments to help with the fatigue and tiredness of post-infectious Lyme disease. Herbal remedies and natural supplements can sometimes help ease the symptoms of chronic Lyme disease.

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