EducationA detailed guide on cannabinoids and inflammation

A detailed guide on cannabinoids and inflammation

6 min read

Sam North

A detailed guide on cannabinoids and inflammation

Cannabinoids are chemicals found in medical cannabis. The two best-known – and most potent – are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the main psychoactive chemical contained in cannabis. Ingesting or inhaling THC can produce a powerful ‘high’ and bring on a feeling of euphoria. It can also have a significant effect on many of the body’s vital functions, including inflammatory and pain responses. Products containing high levels of THC are illegal in the UK (except for medical purposes) and many other countries around the world.


Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t produce a ‘high’. However, it does offer many of the same potential therapeutic benefits as THC, including pain relief, reduced anxiety, and reduced inflammation. CBD is legal in the UK and can be found in a number of products including creams, lotions, vapes, drops, capsules, and edibles. Most of the CBD that’s sold in the UK is derived from hemp, a cousin of cannabis, rather than cannabis itself.

Cannabinoids are important compounds because they interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a vast network of receptors spread throughout the body. Only discovered in 1988, the ECS plays an integral role in regulating many of our most essential bodily functions, including learning and memory, emotional processing, sleep, temperature control, pain control, immune and inflammatory responses, and appetite.

By interacting with the ECS, cannabinoids can affect some of these processes, potentially unlocking a world of new therapies and treatments. As the inflammatory response is likely controlled by the ECS, this could be one area where cannabinoids may have a real impact.

How cannabinoids affect inflammation

According to a study published in 2009, cannabinoids are potent anti-inflammatory agents that “exert their effects through the induction of apoptosis, inhibition of cell proliferation, suppression of cytokine production and the induction of T-regulatory cells (Tregs)”. In other words, they work with our body’s own anti-inflammatory systems to reduce inflammation.

Cannabinoids are able to do this because they’re very similar to the endocannabinoids that naturally occur within the body. Endocannabinoids are lipid-based neurotransmitters that bind to our cannabinoid receptors. These, in turn, send messages to the ECS and regulate our bodily functions.

Like our naturally-occurring endocannabinoids, the cannabinoids contained in cannabis can interact with the receptors in the ECS. THC is known to bind with cannabinoid receptors, while CBD is thought to extend the life cycle of naturally occurring endocannabinoids, allowing them to produce more beneficial effects.

A number of studies have found that people who take cannabis – a plant known to contain high levels of cannabinoids – have lower levels of each biomarker of systemic inflammation. However, these studies relied on self-reported cannabis administration and many of the findings were imprecise. More research into the specific links between THC, CBD, and the body’s anti-inflammatory responses is required to definitively prove a connection.

Types of cannabinoids that can help with inflammation

So, do cannabinoids reduce inflammation? Anecdotal evidence and early research suggest that cannabinoids may certainly help to ease chronic and acute inflammation around the body. However, more clinical studies are needed to fully understand the link between cannabinoids and inflammation before scientists can say for certain how these compounds impact our bodily responses.

According to the research that’s currently available, the best cannabinoid for inflammation is probably CBD. A 2020 review suggested that CBD may provide anti-oxidative effects because of its specific molecular structure. This means that it could have anti-inflammatory benefits for conditions that can result from oxidative stress.

Another review, published in 2017, found that CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties may help with a number of conditions including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • General pain
  • Inflammatory conditions
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases
  • Cardiovascular diseases

THC may also help to reduce inflammation by binding to cannabinoid receptors in the ECS. However, products containing high levels of THC are currently illegal in the UK for over the counter sales, although products containing THC can be prescribed.

Medical cannabis is now prescribed in some rare instances on the NHS. At the moment, it’s largely administeredto treat children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilepsy, adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy, and people with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by Multiple sclerosis (MS). Certain medical cannabis strains and products contain THC, and it’s likely that the cannabinoid is one of the active ingredients working to improve symptoms for people with these conditions. However, more research is needed to confirm this link and to understand exactly how THC affects the body.

How cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system

As we’ve already seen, the endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is crucial when it comes to regulating the inflammatory response. The cannabinoid molecules in cannabis are very similar to the endocannabinoids produced in the human body. It’s these endocannabinoids that stimulate the ECS and tell it how to regulate bodily functions, including:

  • Learning and memory
  • Emotional processing
  • Sleep
  • Temperature control
  • Pain control
  • Inflammatory and immune responses
  • Appetite

When we ingest cannabinoids, like CBD and THC, they interact with the ECS. Scientists are still carrying out research to better understand what these interactions look like, but it’s thought  THC binds to receptors in the ECS, while CBD helps to prolong the reactions between naturally occurring endocannabinoids and their receptors. These interactions can help to enhance the anti-inflammatory response and promote a number of beneficial bodily reactions.

The ECS itself was only discovered in 1988, as a result, we still don’t fully understand its role in regulating and controlling vital bodily responses. As more research is carried out into this vast network of receptors, our understanding of the ECS and its unique role in the human body will grow. As a result, it’s likely that treatments which focus on enhancing and promoting the ECS and its responses will be developed in larger numbers.

Combining cannabinoids with other inflammation management techniques

As research into the application of cannabinoids for treating inflammation is still in its early days, supplements containing the compounds are generally taken as a complementary treatment, in combination with more traditional inflammation medications. If you’re considering administering cannabinoids to treat inflammation, it’s important to talk to your doctor to ensure they won’t negatively interact with any of your existing prescriptions.


Early research suggests the strong possibility that cannabinoids can help to ease inflammation and promote the body’s anti-inflammatory responses. The link between cannabinoids and the ECS appears key to these anti-inflammatory powers, with cannabinoids able to interact with this key signalling network in a number of potentially beneficial ways.

As using cannabinoid supplements and medical cannabis has so far been shown to have very few severe side effects, these treatments could offer a real alternative to people suffering from a range of chronic diseases.

If you’re thinking about using CBD or any other cannabinoids to treat inflammation, it’s essential to consult a doctor before you begin.

Releaf is committed to helping you access the benefits of a medical cannabis service. Our monthly packages are tailored to your cannabis prescription, and we offer specialist consultations for medical cannabis and a unique medical cannabis card for protection. 

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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