Right now the coronavirus frenzy feels inescapable and ever present. And I’ve debated whether or not I wanted to contribute to that by writing yet another piece about how to handle it. But as I’ve watched it all unfold, there are few things that I want to say about it that I’m not really seeing said elsewhere. Namely, 1) an educated approach to using Cannabis during the coronavirus outbreak, and 2) a reframe that despite the real need for social distancing that we actually need connection and relationship more than ever.
Cannabis and the Coronavirus
First of all, Cannabis does not kill the coronavirus.
Yes, I know we all want this to be true, for a number of reasons. And there have been folks making these claims. But if we’re taking a mindful, holistic approach to this plant, it just doesn’t make sense to pretend that it does everything, especially when it comes to something like this.
Cannabis can absolutely be part of our practice right now,, but we need to have an honest understanding of what the plant can and cannot do for us. And right now, this is tricky, since we still have so much to learn about the interaction between our endocannabinoid system and our immune system.
Here’s what I know. Both cannabinoids and terpenes have antimicrobial properties, but there’s no direct evidence that consuming them will do anything to directly kill an active coronavirus infection.
It is possible that topical use as part of a hand sanitizer could have an effect (although there are cheaper ways to achieve this), but internal use is a different story.
We know that Cannabis is a potent anti-inflammatory, which can be incredibly helpful in autoimmune and other chronic inflammatory conditions. Here’s the thing, though — chronic inflammation is maladaptive and damaging, but acute inflammation is actually a really important part of mounting a response against a viral threat like coronavirus. In fact some have argued that the potent anti-inflammatory effect of cannabinoids might actually be contraindicated in acute viral infections, as it can compromise our body’s ability to respond effectively to the virus.
So does this mean we need to avoid Cannabis during all this? Not necessarily. It’s also been found, for example, that immunosuppression from Cannabis appears to be transient, and that our body can compensate by reducing CB2 receptor expression in the face of an active threat.
In fact, many researchers, including the folks over at Project CBD, consider Cannabis to be an immunomodulator, meaning that it can either upregulate or suppress our immune systems depending on what is needed. For example, even though it dampens immunity in the face of chronic inflammation, there’s evidence to suggest it can increase immune activity against cancerous cell growth, or when the immune system is compromised such as in HIV infections. This doesn’t say much about an immune response to a pathogen in a healthy individual, but it is suggestive that the relationship is not so cut and dry.
Additionally, if we consider the reasons many of us reach for this plant ally — reduced stress, better sleep, more joy and laughter — these are all indirect ways that when used mindfully and intentionally, Cannabis can actually improve the conditions that allow our immune system to work properly.
So what am I taking from this confusing mess of conflicting information? For me, the answer is moderation and intention.
I am personally working with low doses of full-spectrum THC and CBD at this time, and combining this usage with other immune supportive herbs and practices (like those below). Lower doses (also known as microdoses) have the effect of toning the endocannabinoid system, and full-spectrum medicine (meaning it contains all of the constituents present in the whole plant) make it less likely that unbalancing side effects will occur.
So I’m choosing to continue working with the plant intentionally to reduce my stress and increase my joy during this scary and uncertain time. My goal is to cultivate peace while also keeping my boundaries vigilant, and microdosing is a part of that strategy.
And if I were to start showing signs of an active infection, I would very likely stop working with Cannabis for the same reasons that Ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatories are being discouraged. We need to harness the body’s natural inflammatory processes in that moment (unless they are running out of control and could be damaging, such as during a cytokine storm), and so my strategy would likely shift to other directly antiviral herbs, and most importantly, medical attention.
But In addition to intentionally working with Cannabis to bring our bodies into balance, what else can we do during these uncertain times?
Cultivate connection and relationship
The general message we’ve received from those in authority lately, and the subsequent vibe in many of our communities, has been one of isolation, self-interested hoarding, and disconnection, not to mention an intense fear of nature (the virus representing the mysterious, powerful, and destructive aspect of nature).
It’s important to practice social distancing from other humans right now, but to also remember how even while doing this there are ways to stay in a mindful relationship with our communities, the plants, and the rest of nature. And sustaining these connections and relationships is how we will ultimately get through this and be stronger for it.
Bring other herbs into your routine.
Other herbalists have already written comprehensive essays on this topic, and I won’t try to recreate this here (I recommend looking at this article by 7Song, as well as this poetic one by Gail Faith Edwards). But to reiterate a concept that’s foundational to my work — when we increase the diversity of our environment, whether in our food, our medicine, our landscapes, or our communities, we become more resilient and more healthy. To that end, I rarely use herbs as “simples,” but rather strategically work with multiple herbs to increase the effectiveness of my efforts and help me feel connected to multiple plant allies.
Some of the herbs I’m personally working with right now (besides microdosed Cannabis) include immunomodulating herbs like elderberry, reishi, echinacea, astragalus, eleuthero, white pine, and licorice, as well as calming nervines and adaptogens such as ashwagandha, skullcap, kava, and milky oats (because I don’t know about you, but the news is frying my nerves right now). I’m working with these primarily as tinctures, but also cups of Breathe Easy and Throat Coat tea to improve the terrain of my mucous membranes most vulnerable to this pathogen.
With all the talk of isolation and quarantine, I’ve seen some people interpreting this as meaning we shouldn’t leave our houses. Not so! In fact, during the last major influenza outbreak in 1918, makeshift care centers incorporated sunlight and outdoor therapy as a major way to help heal affected individuals. Sunlight is antiviral, and also helps our bodies produce more Vitamin D which helps our immune systems function properly.
We are actually so blessed that this is hitting us here in the U.S. at this moment in time, when the sunlight is getting stronger every day, and when even here in central Vermont we’ve had several days in the 50s and 60s. Get out there people! Go for a hike, or just tromp around in your yard and dream of the seeds you’ll be planting soon.
And while you’re at it, go collect some white pine needles with which to brew tea. It’s an abundant immune boosting and bronchodilating herb you probably have in your own backyard, and wild harvesting it will not only support your body but increase your feelings of connection during this time of isolation.
Get Your Hands in the Dirt
Obviously closely related to the last point, this is something we can do for our health that often gets forgotten. And right now, depending on where you are, it will serve double duty as garden prep.
Yes, it’s important to practice sanitation and wash your hands all the freaking time to prevent the spread. But aseptic environments are also invitations for imbalance. Not only does nature abhors a vacuum, but damaged, overdried tissues are less healthy and resilient
Studies have actually shown that diverse microbiomes are actually a key part of our immunity, in addition to helping lift our moods (so key for all of us right now, especially those isolated in single-person households). When we play around in the dirt (assuming it’s “clean dirt”), we expose our bodies to beneficial microbes that both make us happier and more resilient in the face of pathogens.
These are uncertain times full of mystery, and we’re faced with incomplete information. The best we can do is practice good sanitation, stay informed, and keep ourselves emotionally balanced and grounded to the earth. And despite the disruption to our lives (or perhaps because of it) to make efforts to find the beauty and the blessings of this moment, which is asking us to slow down and turn our attention to our homes and our health, pieces of our lives that are so often neglected.
Take care and be well,