The vast population of viruses, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria that live inside of every person is astounding. To put things in perspective, the human microbiome includes as many cells as the entire human body. The system contains 1,000 different species of bacteria, and one hundred more times more genetic material than the human genome.
Current peer reviewed studies suggest that the ECS serves as a sort of bridge between the body and the bacteria living in our biome, including the brain, relaying signals back and forth in a symbiotic relationship – but chronic imbalance or impairment of the gut microbiome can be detrimental to physical and psychological health.
The balance and make up of our delicate microbiome depends on more than diet alone, and the plethora of bacteria there do more than break down food. They also serve to regulate the epithelial barrier. The epithelial barrier is a protective lining the interior of the gastrointestinal tract.
“The epithelial barrier is very crucial to maintaining what we call homeostasis, or the normal body’s functions,” Sharkey says. “The control of that fine lining is extremely carefully managed by the body. We have developed as mammals this very intricate control system, which prevents damage or quickly repairs damage, to prevent further erosion of our bodies. The bacteria we have in our gut contributes to that system. And it seems that the ECS is an important control element.”
The University of South Carolina has a cannabinoid science lab led by Prakash Nagarkatti. Nagarkatti and his team are currently pioneering investigations into the ECS, the gut microbiome, and disease. They may even have discovered a clue for treating one of the most harmful complications of COVID-19 in some patients.
Frontiers in Pharmacology, a journal with a study done in June, 2020 explored this ECS manipulation by administering THC to mice affected with a form of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). The results were astounding-Nagarkatti and colleagues demonstrated that the application of THC completely healed the ARDS in the laboratory mice.
“We have a mouse model of ARDS, where we inject Staphylococcal enterotoxin B [a bacterial toxin], and the mice die within four or five days because of cytokine storm and ARDS in the lungs,” Nagarkatti says. “And we found that if you give THC, it cures the mice. They are just running around healthy. That was amazing.”
Nagarkatti admits that his team doesn’t know exactly how it happens, but it’s clear that it involves the microbiome. “What we found was that THC was changing the gut microbiome, as well as the microbiome in the lungs, and there were similar changes in the gut as well as in the lungs, and then on top of that, when we transplanted the fecal material from the cannabinoid-injected mice into the normal mice, even they became resistant to the ARDS or cytokine storm.”
“Though this was demonstrated in mice and is therefore not directly transferable to humans – or COVID-19, for that matter – this is perhaps the first evidence that cannabinoids’ alteration of the gut microbiome can play a role in suppressing the systemic inflammation seen in a cytokine storm,” Nagarkatti says.
Inflammation is the underlying cause of everything, not only autoimmune disease but cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, PTSD, Alzheimer’s, obesity, cancers, COVID-19,” Nagarkatti says. “You name it and there is inflammation.”
While the molecular mechanisms still need to be worked out, the ECS plays an important role in modulating inflammation through gut microbiota.
Nagarkatti reports: “THC alters the microbiome in the gut in a way that seems to be beneficial in suppressing inflammation because bacteria that are favored by THC or cannabinoids seem to produce short-chain fatty acids that suppress inflammation.”
There is a never-ending list of therapeutic applications of CBD and THC that are related to their anti-inflammatory benefits. But that’s not the whole story. The interplay between cannabinoids, your immune system, and microbiome is complex, adaptive, and multifaceted. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of possible applications of CBD and THC in clinical trials to help mitigate the symptoms of disease. The future of plant medicine is bright; there is no future for pharmaceutical companies who will crumble beneath the weight of the truth.