Psoriasis isn’t just a rash that the Kardashians have struggled with on national television. The autoimmune disorder, which affects roughly 7.5 million Americans, can be debilitating. For people with psoriasis, the body overproduces skin cells that develop into painful, itchy and often embarrassing rashes. In addition, swelling from inflamed skin can lead to joint damage. But like many other autoimmune disorders, such as arthritis and type 1 diabetes, both researchers and afflicted individuals are starting to examine whether or not cannabis can help.
Melissa Hallbeck has a special place in her heart for those living with psoriasis. The 41-year-old from Chicago, Illinois spent seven years working with the American Academy of Dermatology, where she frequently collaborated with the National Psoriasis Foundation, but it wasn’t until her husband was diagnosed with psoriasis that things truly hit home.
“[The psoriasis] made such a big impact on our lives and was keeping him from doing so many daily activities that he used to do,” Hallbeck says, explaining that the psoriasis on her husband’s hands caused him such embarrassment that he wore gloves to work and such pain that he couldn’t bathe their 1-year-old son.
Despite Hallbeck’s access to some of the best dermatologists in the country, none of the conventional treatments available — including expensive pharmaceuticals and topical medication — seemed to work.
“Finally, I said I’d had it,” says Hallbeck. “So I said, ‘That’s it. We’re trying this whether you like it or not.’” Then, she gave her husband cannabis oil and after a week of putting the cannabis oil on the affected skin, her husband’s skin was almost completely clear. “It was unbelievable,” Hallbeck says.
Dr. Bodo Schneider of Pied Pfeifer Compassionate Care Clinic in Ann Arbor, Michigan, often touts the powers of cannabis topicals in treating psoriasis. Schneider used to practice medicine in Illinois, where he met Hallbeck, who told him about her oil recipe.
“Cannabis, through the cannabinoid CBD, has the properties of being both an anti-inflammatory and an autoimmune inhibitor,” he explains. “Anecdotally, we have found that it is very effective at treating both chronic and acute cases of psoriatic rashes.”
In addition to helping regulate the immune system, a 2013 study published in the online peer-reviewed journal PeerJ found that the endocannabinoid system may be responsible for the body’s regulation and creation of keratinocytes, a type of skin cell. In their study, researchers called for the further exploration of cannabinoids in treating several different conditions related to the production of keratinocytes, including psoriasis.
There are currently plenty of treatment options for psoriasis — though no cure. However, many medications for psoriasis have serious long-term side effects, including osteoporosis, ruptured veins, psychosis and certain types of cancers.
“Drugs like Humira and Enbrel are really immunosuppressive so the patient is at higher risk for infectious disease,” says Schneider. “Cannabis is a natural alternative and when it works, it’s more effective — it’s faster, it’s more complete and people are seeing symptoms reduced far more rapidly than with the use of other medications.”
For patients making their own cannabis topicals, Schneider recommends using olive oil as a base since it absorbs into the skin easily. He suggests a 1:1 ratio of CBD and THC, adding that cannabis will not interfere with the efficacy of other treatment methods, including the commonly prescribed UV light therapy, and that using the plant topically will not produce a psychotropic effect.
In states where cannabis has been legalized for medical use, psoriasis is not typically included as a qualifying condition. Patients wishing to try it must either live in a state where doctors have the ability to prescribe the medicine for conditions not yet listed if they’re “greatly affecting quality of life,” or obtain it for a different qualifying condition.
“There is such a critical need for further studies on psoriasis and cannabis,” says Hallbeck. “We need a medicine that heals the skin without harmful side effects. This condition disrupts people’s lives on so many levels and often leads to self-esteem issues, so I look forward to finally seeing these patients find relief.”
Originally published in print edition of Cannabis Now.