Heavy or even moderate drinking causes maladaptions in humans, ranging from cardiovascular disease to cirrhosis. Underlying many of these ill effects is alcohol’s ability to amplify inflammation. But the immune system is immensely complex, and “inflammation” is a catch-all term that accounts for most degenerative and age-related disease, so it is important to distinguish the specific molecules promoting inflammation. Interleukins are a class of proteins that orchestrate the movement of immune cells – most, but not all, increase inflammation. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder investigated interleukin levels of people with an alcohol use disorder. Drinking was associated with increases in interleukin 6, but the association was ameliorated in cannabis users. This protection seems particularly important, since interleukin 6 is also associated with the intensity of cravings for alcohol. Cannabis users had lower levels of another interleukin (1β) as well. These two compounds are also implicated in traumatic brain injury, and play a role in brain function and synaptic plasticity. Such pathways undoubtedly influence the effects long-term cannabis and alcohol use. Unfortunately, the authors make questionable statistical choices: “Given the exploratory nature of this work, we did not correct for multiple tests.” It is all the more important to make this correction in exploratory research or, better yet, not use the phrase statistically significant when the statistics are inappropriate. It will be necessary for future research to replicate this protective effect of cannabis in heavy drinkers.
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