There’s been a lot of talk about how, and whether, cannabis can be used in place of antibiotics. Centuries of natural medicine traditions tell us ‘yes’ already, but now the Western medicine world is finally catching up. New research highlights how cannabis antibiotics are a likely and reasonable answer to the issue of disease-resistant bacteria.
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Let’s go back in time first
There are tons of natural medicine traditions that have existed on the planet through the history of man. Two of the more well-known, which are still in existence today, are Ayurvedic medicine out of India, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) out of China. In Ayurveda, medical cannabis was used since 1000 b.c., with one of the reasons being as an antibiotic. This included topical use for skin infections, as well as for ailments like tuberculosis. Imagine that, information was figured out 1000 years before Jesus was supposed to have walked the earth, and researchers of today are only now catching up? Perhaps we should look at history more often.
When it comes to Traditional Chinese Medicine and cannabis, there’s a striking lack of information published, and not because it doesn’t exist. While most sites cite the lack of translation to Western languages for the void in information, this explanation sounds suspect. This is a popular topic, it goes against logic to assume that no one has bothered to translate for the English speaking world.
My guess is that as the pre-eminent natural medicine tradition, it bodes better for Western medicine practitioners to keep this information out as it tends to threaten the pharmaceutical industry (highlighted by this very article and the use of a natural medicine to combat bacterial infections). It is understood that cannabis has been written on within the medical tradition for at least 1800 years, and that all parts of the plant were used. Some publications say that hemp has been cultivated in China for as many as 4000 years. Again, there seems to be a block in getting this information to the Western world. You can draw your own conclusions as to why.
Starting anywhere from 1000-4000 years ago, cannabis started being used in medical applications, which have been fully written about in detail throughout history. And one of those applications was using cannabis antibiotics. In today’s world of growing use and over-use of antibiotics, which has led to large and escalating problems with antibiotic resistance, it seems like paying a little more attention to what was gleaned from history, might be exactly what we need.
Western medicine finally catching up
It’s almost funny to think that we’ve technically had this information for thousands of years, and yet most people are wholly unaware, because they aren’t made aware, by the medical world. And instead of paying attention to history, the Western medicine world constantly tries to rewrite it, except that this most recent rewriting only goes to back up what natural medicine has been saying all this time: cannabis can be used in place of antibiotics.
How did Western medicine finally catch up? Through a study showing that CBD can kill gram-negative bacteria. Gram-negative bacteria are bacteria strains most relevant to antibiotic resistance. They are identified – and separated from gram-positive bacteria – by the composition of the inner cell membrane and the cell wall, which are pushed together between an inner membrane and an outer membrane.
The outer membrane is not seen in gram-positive bacteria, and it is this outer membrane that keeps antibiotics from penetrating. Another issue with gram-negative bacteria and antibiotics is that, even if the antibiotics penetrate the cell, the bacteria can expel these antibiotics through an internal pump system, making it that much harder to eradicate them. The two different types of bacteria can be told apart from each other using the Gram stain test. Gram-negative bacteria will not retain the color from the stain test.
What does antibiotic resistance mean?
It means, quite literally, a resistance to the use of antibiotics. However, how it came to be this way, is less obvious. There are a couple issues in particular that led to this current crisis. One is the general overuse of antibiotics, which can be seen in the over-prescription of them when not really necessary, as well as the prescription for antibiotics when the culprit is not bacterial – sometimes for viral infections and other issues that do not require, nor benefit from, antibiotics. The other main issue is the implementation of antibiotics in our food supply. This pertains primarily to animal products, which has meant a massive intake of antibiotics in farm animals, This is generally associated with large corporations that run factory farms to raise animals, where the animals are kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
What this leads to is a change in the bacterium which allows it to resist the antibiotic, effectively making the antibiotic useless. When thinking of large-scale, deadly, and/or fast-spreading diseases, this creates a general inability to control it spreading, or to help those who have been infected. At least by Western medicine standards. This part is important, as measures have been taken for centuries – and today – that do not require antibiotics. Luckily now, with new research to back it up for those who don’t trust or know their history, it seems to be accepted, or nearly accepted, within the medical community that CBD can be used to kill bacteria, even when it is resistant to antibiotics.
In January of 2021, a study was released that investigated the antimicrobial abilities of cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD is known as the primary non-psychoactive cannabinoid of the cannabis plant, and as such has been accepted more in medicine than its psychoactive counterpart THC. In this study, CBD was tested with both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. Gram-positive bacteria are easier to treat as they don’t resist antibiotics as easily, and CBD was confirmed in the study to treat gram-positive bacteria.
When it comes to gram-negative bacteria, where significantly less research has been done, the study authors tested it against pathogens not tested with CBD before, like the following: Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Clostridioides difficile. The study authors concluded that cannabidiol has “excellent activity against biofilms, little propensity to induce resistance, and topical in vivo efficacy.”
How does CBD do it? It is thought that the main mode of action is through the disruption of the outer membrane, the part that separates gram-positive from gram-negative bacteria, and which allows for the resistance of bacteria. CBD can actually break through biofilms of this kind, allowing entrance into the cell. This study marks the first time that CBD has been used to kill gram-negative bacteria subsets in a study, including a pathogen considered to be an urgent threat – Neisseria gonorrhoeae, known to most simply as gonorrhea. All of this indicates that CBD, itself, could create a new class of cannabis antibiotics.
What are biofilms, and why isn’t cannabis resistant to antibiotics?
A biofilm is a “community of micro-organisms irreversibly attached to a surface and encased in an EPS (extracellular polymeric substance), with increased resistance to host cellular and chemical responses.” It can be thought of like a very strong form of plastic wrap that a cell has covering it, which doesn’t allow for the penetration of medications. It acts as a barrier between the microbe and the world around, allowing it to grow without interference. Biofilms can be within the body (where they are substantially harder to deal with without hurting the human body), or outside it on surfaces like medical equipment, pipes, aquatic systems, and many other places. The ability for the bacteria to live in these places and go undisturbed, allows for the spread of them, which can be especially damaging in medical settings.
The question of why CBD doesn’t become resistant becomes a bigger discussion point. Essentially, plant compounds are very complicated, more so than antibiotics, which are very simple. The more complicated, the harder for microbes to get a handle on them. Plants used for medicine have secondary metabolites which make them even more complicated, and introduce alkaloids, flavonoids, tannins, and terpenes, which add to the complexity, while often having their own antimicrobial properties.
If you’ll notice, I said ‘plants’, not ‘cannabis’, and that’s because cannabis is not even close to being the first plant to be established as capable of fighting biofilms. This can be seen in studies like this 2012 investigation into how a number of essential oils can influence biofilms of Staphylococcus aureus. The study found that the essential oils of cassia, red thyme and Peru balsam showed the best results for getting rid of Staphylococcus aureus biofilms, proving more effective than most antibiotics.
The study authors indicated that red thyme and cassia were not tested against MRSA biofilms at that point, but that the essential oils of tea tree, thyme, and peppermint had been, and had already shown to be effective against MRSA biofilms. Basically, the same thing being looked into now with cannabis, was already established with other plants at least eight years ago.
This study from 2019 – as another example – investigated these potentials in the essential oils of cinnamon, marjoram, and thyme, with cinnamon and thyme showing the best inhibitory results.
Watching Western medicine trying to catch up to Eastern medicine is kind of like watching paint dry, or grass grow. For those of us coming from the natural medicine standpoint, it’s a long, frustrating process, with a lot of mishaps, holdups, and misunderstandings. But luckily, things eventually get through, and now, thousands of years after it was established that cannabis antibiotics are effective, it looks like Western medicine is finally taking the bait.
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