Psoriasis is a chronic condition that affects over 125 million people worldwide, including about 8 million Americans.
This mysterious skin disorder has several forms, but a rapid buildup of too many new cells on the surface of the skin is what causes all types of psoriasis.
Standard psoriasis treatments can have serious side effects, but research shows that cannabis compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) can slow the growth of the young skin cells that cause typical psoriasis symptoms like scaly, red patches on various parts of the body.
What Is Psoriasis?
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder. It’s one of many health conditions in which the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy cells and tissues.
Normally, the immune system works to protect the body from injuries and invaders like viruses and bacteria. But in autoimmune disorders, the body’s fighters—T-cells and other white blood cells called neutrophils—are maladaptive, meaning they target healthy cells instead of actual threats to the body.
In psoriasis, this maladaptive immune system response stimulates abnormal growth in a specific kind of skin cell called a keratinocyte. These cells make up more than 90% of the cells in the epidermis, the outer layer of skin.
Keratinocytes form deep in the skin’s inner layer, also called the basal layer, and they normally work to heal the skin after an injury and provide protection from threats such as infection and the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.
The normal life cycle of a keratinocyte covers several weeks:
- First, new cells form in the basal layer.
- Then, they migrate through intermediate skin layers to the surface, where they eventually flake off as dead cells.
But when a person has psoriasis, the T-cells and other cells of the immune system go into overdrive, and the cycle accelerates.
When overactive immune cells target healthy skin cells instead of damaged or infected ones, the life cycle of keratinocytes happens in the course of days, not weeks.
T-cells and neutrophils stimulate these new keratinocytes and they form very quickly, as if to heal a wound or to fight a virus. As they build up, these new keratinocytes are constantly pushed to the surface, where they create the silvery, scaly patches that are the most visible symptom of psoriasis.
This isn’t the only symptom of psoriasis, though. Other symptoms can include:
- Dry, cracked skin that can bleed
- Itching, burning or sore skin
- Thick, ridged or pitted nails
- Flushed, red areas on the skin
- Stiff and swollen joints
- Depression and anxiety
It’s possible to have multiple psoriasis symptoms, or to experience isolated episodes when symptoms flare up. And different types of psoriasis cause different combinations of symptoms, too.
Typical kinds of psoriasis include:
- Plaque psoriasis: This manifests with the typical symptoms of scaly red patches on the skin.
- Nail psoriasis This kind of psoriasis affects the finger and toenails.
- Inverse psoriasis The main symptoms of inverse psoriasis causes smooth red patches of inflamed skin.
- Pustular psoriasis: This is a relatively rare variety of psoriasis that causes large, pus-filled eruptions.
- Erythrodermic psoriasis: Sufferers of erythrodermic psoriasis deal with a red, peeling rash that covers the body.
- Psoriatic arthritis: Along with skin inflammation and scaling, psoriatic arthritis also causes swollen, stiff joints.
What Causes Psoriasis?
It’s not entirely clear what causes psoriasis, and it can affect anyone at just about any age. But scientists have discovered some connections between psoriasis and factors including:
- Viral or bacterial infections that can trigger abnormal immune responses
- Other autoimmune diseases such as Parkinson’s disease
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Type 2 diabetes
Psoriasis is also associated with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Pharmaceuticals for Psoriasis Have a Range of Side Effects
Currently, there’s no cure for psoriasis, so standard treatments for the condition are aimed at relieving symptoms such as skin redness and scaling. But these treatments can have a range of mild to severe side effects:
- Topical corticosteroids relieve inflammation but can cause thinning of the skin.
- Topical retinoids reduce inflammation but they also cause sun sensitivity and some retinoids also raise the risk of birth defects.
- Calcineurin inhibitors reduce inflammation but can also raise the risk of skin cancer and lymphoma with long-term use.
- Coal tar reduces scaling and inflammation but can also irritate the skin and stain clothing and bedding.
- Immunosuppressant drugs such as Methotrexate and Cyclosporine damp down overactive immune functioning but can damage the liver and kidneys.
How Can Cannabis Relieve Psoriasis Symptoms?
The cannabis plant contains over one hundred different compounds and terpenes that can activate receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). ECS receptors are found in nearly all tissues and organs, and this system’s responsible for regulating a long list of essential systems.
ECS receptors respond to natural cannabinoids produced by the body and also to the many compounds in cannabis itself—and that unique relationship explains why cannabis may help relieve psoriasis symptoms more effectively than pharmaceuticals can.
The many layers of the skin contain abundant amounts of ECS receptors. Since 2007, research has shown that some cannabis compounds can slow the abnormally rapid growth of some keratinocytes, the skin cells that cause the scaling and redness of psoriasis. These cannabinoids include:
Research also reveals that CBD can work with many of the body’s subsystems to:
- Reduce inflammation
- Regulate immune system responses
- Relieve pain
This makes CBD an effective treatment for the redness, itching and irritation of a psoriasis outbreak.
Cannabis can also relieve the anxiety and depression that can accompany psoriasis as well as the stiffness and soreness of arthritis. By working on the body’s ECS, cannabis can relieve the physical and emotional symptoms of psoriasis without many of the side effects of prescription medications.
How to Use Cannabis to Help Ease Psoriasis Symptoms
Cannabis can help psoriasis in a variety of ways:
- You can apply topical cannabis preparations such as balms and creams directly to psoriasis flare-ups on the skin to soothe irritation and reduce scaly patches.
- Cannabis tinctures and edibles can help to balance the immune system from the inside out and reduce depression and anxiety.
- Smoking or vaping marijuana can help to promote relaxation and reduce pain associated with psoriasis.
Scientists are still working to understand the causes of psoriasis. But research is showing that cannabis works with the body’s own systems to relieve a range of psoriasis symptoms without the risk of serious side effects.
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