There’s a good chance most people have had a steroid prescription or over-the-counter steroid experience at some point in their lives. Steroids are often prescribed for inflammation, allergies, or even as a catchall treatment when a doctor is otherwise stuck when deciding how to treat their patient. Many who are treated with steroids see a sudden improvement, sometimes giving them false hope that they are cured, however that is just how powerful steroids work. They give the user immediate relief, especially in a very sick person. After a while, continued use of steroids to maintain that feeling of wellness has immediate and dangerous side effects. These side effects mean it is not meant to be a long-term solution to the problem and could in fact cause the patient more damage in the long run. Researchers have recently discovered, though, that CBD might be a better solution for long-term use with similar effects to steroids.
What are Steroids
In their natural form, steroids are hormones produced within the adrenal glands of the human body which have the ability to alleviate pain, especially arthritic pain. Once these steroid hormones were discovered in the body, scientists were able to replicate them by creating corticosteroid drugs like cortisone, hydrocortisone, and prednisone that closely imitate naturally produced steroids. The world went crazy for them. So much so that the lead researchers who discovered the steroid hormone and how it could be used as a pain reliever were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950.
However, the groundbreaking popularity of steroids meant they were overprescribed by a lot of physicians. In the early stages of steroid treatment, the long-term side effects were not yet known. Steroid patients found themselves dealing with side effects like glaucoma, cataracts, fluid retention, high blood pressure, mood swings, weight gain, diabetes, increased risk of infections, osteoporosis, suppressed adrenal glands function, thin skin, and slow wound healing.
Most patients even found themselves having withdrawal symptoms after steroid treatment, no matter how long the treatment was. The body is resilient, but when it becomes dependent on pharmaceutical steroids for comfort, it can start to change the physiology and adapt to that treatment. Steroid withdrawal symptoms include weakness, fatigue, decreased appetite, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and headaches.
As a result of these dangerous effects, doctors began using steroid treatment only as a short-term solution for specific medical problems. They became used primarily for immediate relief while a better long-term solution was investigated and added to the treatment plan. In general, short term use of steroids is considered safe and is routinely used for treating autoimmune disease flare ups.
Steroid Sparing Drugs
Because of the dangerous side effects and withdrawal symptoms of steroids, scientists around the world have been looking for effective ways of minimizing these dangers or avoiding them altogether. This has led them to research steroid sparing agents, otherwise known as steroid sparing drugs. These are defined as drugs that allow a patient to use lower doses of their prescribed steroids or even skip them completely, allowing the steroid sparing drugs to be relied upon as the sole treatment option. Most of these drugs were originally developed to prevent rejection after transplants, with some of the most popular steroid sparing drugs being cyclophosphamide, chlorambucil, methotrexate, and tacrolimus. While these drugs do not have the same dangerous side effects as steroids, they are not without their own issues. Many are commonly used as chemotherapy drugs and also come with uncomfortable side effects like diarrhea, hair loss, nausea, nail and skin problems, fatigue, abdominal bloating, UTIs, and mouth ulcers .
With even the mildest steroid sparing options still being majorly disruptive, it’s no wonder scientists have continued to search for safer options. That search is what led them to the possibility of using cannabidiol (CBD) as a more natural steroid sparing drug option. They theorize that CBD would have the ability to work just as well as other steroid sparers, but without any of the disruptive side effects. How is that possible? Before discussing the healing properties of CBD, let’s first understand how CBD makes its way around the human body.
The Endocannabinoid System
Before we get into how CBD can replace steroids, let’s first have a quick summary of how CBD and other cannabinoids interact with the human body. Cannabinoid access and alter the body through the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). This system is responsible for maintaining the body’s state of homeostasis by monitoring and adjusting its function as needed. If a disturbance happens in the body, the ECS will work to make sure everything remains at a stable and optimal level, correcting whatever imbalance first triggered its response. This is an important function of the human body because all internal systems need to be in a state of equilibrium to work effectively.
There are three primary elements that make up the endocannabinoid system:
- The endocannabinoids are chemical compounds the body naturally produces but are structurally similar to endocannabinoids, the chemical compounds found in cannabis.
- The cannabinoid receptors, which are found on the surface of cells throughout the body. Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids are both able to attach to these receptors allowing them to communicate with a variety of systems inside the body. This communication is what enables the ECS to detect and correct instability.
- Enzymes work to break down the cannabinoids and endocannabinoids after they’ve attached themselves to the receptors and after homeostasis has been achieved. At the core, enzymes are there to make sure the cannabinoids do not create an overcorrection once the risk has been effectively corrected.
Because cannabinoids are so molecularly similar to naturally produced endocannabinoids, the ECS is able to more easily interact with them, which provides humans with the psychoactive and medicinal properties cannabinoids are now known for. For example, the cannabinoid THC is able to attach itself to the CB1 receptor in the brain. The endocannabinoid anandamide is also able to activate the CB1 receptor, however because enzymes will break it down quickly, the effect is not as prolonged as with THC, in which the enzymes are unable to break down as quickly as anandamide. THC is also able to bind to the CB2 receptor, which opens up the possibility of THC having wide ranging effects.
CBD Instead of Steroids
Scientists already know that CBD has powerful anti-inflammatory  and immunosuppressive properties  and many patients suffering from autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s disease have had success when using CBD oil instead of steroids, so it’s no wonder they wanted to investigate the possibility of CBD as a steroid sparing drug.
Like most of the steroid sparing drugs on the market already, researchers first wanted to test how CBD could work as a treatment to help transplant patients reduce the change of organ rejection. One study in particular looked at how CBD could be used to prevent graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) in patients who were resistant to steroids. GVHD can often prove to be fatal to bone marrow transplant patients, so it would be no small feat for CBD to be an effective treatment.
The study found that nine out of the ten patients responded well to the CBD treatment; most of them responding completely to the treatment. The scientific team running the experiment concluded CBD either enhanced the effect of steroids or reduced the overall steroid usage while also managing to maintain or even improve the therapeutic effects of steroids .
Because of these promising results, more studies are currently underway to determine the effectiveness of CBD when treating Crohn’s disease  and autoimmune hepatitis . Both trials will have the participants shift their current steroid treatment to a daily dose of 300mg of CBD daily.
The results are already promising for CBD’s ability to act as either a replacement or an aid to those needing steroidal treatment, however the research is still in very early days and the community and industry will need to see a lot more evidence before a conclusion can be made about CBD’s ability to act as a steroid sparing agent. That means if a person were interested in replacing their current steroid treatment with CBD, they would need to speak with their doctor first and work out a detailed treatment plan, which would likely include a monitored and regulated schedule to reduce or adjust steroid treatment safely before adding in any CBD products.
If scientists can prove CBD to be a safer and equally effective treatment for transplant and autoimmune patients, many people suffering from discomfort or the long-term dangers of steroids could surely celebrate a victory and live a life without dangerous side effects.