Is Marijuana a Natural Treatment for Malaria?

Tina Magrabi
Tina Magrabi - Content Writer

Oct 29 2021 - 4 min read

According to data from the World Health Organization, more than 400,000 people die of malaria every year around the world. Young children are the worst affected, with close to 70 percent of malaria fatalities in the age group under five years old. 

Malaria is caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. Malaria is not a virus or form of bacteria, but it frequently causes flu-like symptoms and high fever. Anemia and jaundice are other reported symptoms of malaria. 

There are two main types of malaria: simple or uncomplicated malaria and severe or complicated malaria. Severe malaria is more likely to be fatal but is still treatable in some cases. 

Could medical marijuana be a treatment option for malaria? While more research is crucial, cannabis has shown promise throughout history as a potential treatment for malaria parasites.

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How Is Malaria Treated?

Treatment for malaria depends on several factors, including the severity of the disease. There are many traditional treatments for malaria that doctors prescribe worldwide. 

Traditional Treatments for Malaria

People living in regions where malaria is prevalent take many preventative measures, such as mosquito nets. Furthermore, some prescription medications act as both preventative medicine and treatment of malaria. 

Here are some of the most common medications prescribed to treat and/or prevent the malaria parasite:

  • Artemisinin drugs: Effective combination therapy that successfully treats 90 percent of simple malaria cases 
  • Atovaquone: Able to both treat and prevent malaria by decreasing the proliferation of parasites in red blood cells
  • Chloroquine: Antiparasitic and immunosuppressive drug that may also treat liver infections
  • Doxycycline: Course of antibiotics given to prevent malaria before it strikes  
  • Mefloquine: Used to treat mild to moderate cases of malaria; sold under the brand name Lariam
  • Quinine: Antiparasitic medication that can kill the malaria parasite or prevent it from growing further

Like most prescription medications, these traditional malaria treatments often come with side effects. Nausea, itching, and rash are just a few of the side effects malaria patients may experience. For this reason, scientists have begun to explore natural malaria treatments with fewer side effects. 

One of the most significant breakthroughs in treating malaria is preventative medicine: a vaccine. The World Health Organization has officially recommended the first approved malaria vaccine for at-risk children globally. Testing began on the RTS,S malaria vaccine in 1987, but it wasn’t until 2021 that it finally received the green light. 

Currently, the vaccine’s efficacy is only at 30% for preventing severe malaria cases in children under five, but research and development are ongoing. If the vaccine is successful across major populations, traditional treatments for malaria could become a relic of the past.  

Natural Treatments for Malaria

Natural products frequently come with fewer side effects and, therefore, fewer risks than modern medications. Drug resistance is another downside of prescription medications and one that herbal remedies derived from plant species lack. 

While many people turn to home remedies to combat malaria, there may be safer herbal alternatives. Researchers have studied several herbal antimalarials to treat different species of the malaria parasite, notably P. falciparum.

One study revealed that the oil-based capsule, with the active ingredient sweet sagewort (Artemisia annua), was quicker and more effective at killing the parasite than the traditional medicine chloroquine. This finding could have significant implications for using other natural alternative treatments for malaria, including medical marijuana.

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Marijuana as a Natural Treatment for Malaria

Cannabis as a medicinal plant has been studied for its efficacy in treating many diseases, including incurable diseases like cancer. However, few studies indicate that cannabis could be an effective and safe plant-based medicine for malaria patients. Much deeper research through clinical trials is needed on cannabis and malaria. 

The History of Marijuana as a Malaria Treatment

The idea of using cannabis to treat malaria is not new. Chinese medical texts suggest that cannabis can be used to treat malaria, and many cultures in Africa and Asia have indicated cannabis as a herbal remedy for malaria. The many terpenes found in cannabis could also potentially be helpful as a natural insect repellent.

Anecdotal evidence from Zimbabwe suggests that cannabis could treat malaria. Traditional Zimbabwean and African healers have used cannabis to treat malaria and blackwater fever, a severe complication of malaria. 

Cannabis has also been used to treat malaria in traditional Indian medicine. Refreshing hemp-based beverages were administered to malaria patients dating back to the late nineteenth century. 

Medical marijuana has served as a natural remedy for malaria in other parts of Asia as well. Some Cambodians have smoked marijuana to treat malaria and to counteract pain and other symptoms.    

What the Research Says

There is some promising preclinical research suggesting that CBD and medical marijuana could be useful for the treatment of malaria because:

  • CBD has neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties. CBD could be of particular use for post-malarial infection care, where the chances of contracting neurological complications and cognitive impairments are high.
  • CBD and anandamide have been shown to increase the survival rate and rescue cognitive function in mice infected with cerebral malaria.
  • Terpenes and cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), alpha-pinene, and beta-caryophyllene have anti-inflammatory properties that could help treat pain. Terpenes could also be an interesting way of reducing the mosquito population, as they act as eco-friendly larvicides.
  • Cannabinoids can modulate the immune system and help reduce fever. Beta-caryophyllene could be particularly useful for treating malaria due to its pain-killing, anti-inflammatory, fever-reducing, and antiparasitic effects.
  • This study finds those specific receptors in the brain bind with cannabis, suggesting that marijuana could be used as a potential therapeutic strategy against cerebral malaria.

Is Marijuana a Natural Treatment for Malaria? The Bottom Line

There is little definitive evidence suggesting that cannabis is beneficial for treating malaria. Unfortunately, as malaria affects the poorest people in the world, there is also little incentive (i.e., not a massive amount of profit to be made) when it comes to alternative research therapies.

However, as cannabis is abundantly available and can be grown very effectively in equatorial climates – on top of the fact that parasites can’t readily form a resistance against cannabinoids –  its potential as an affordable alternative or adjunct to current therapies is enormous. 

Consult with a physician before using cannabis to treat malaria or any other disease. The doctors at Leafwell can help you apply for and start using a medical marijuana card immediately. Reach out and schedule your telehealth appointment today. 

Written by
Tina Magrabi
Tina Magrabi

Tina Magrabi is a writer and editor specializing in holistic health. She has written hundreds of articles for Weedmaps where she spearheaded the Ailments series on cannabis medicine. In addition, she has written extensively for the women's health blog, SafeBirthProject, as well as print publications including Destinations Magazine and Vero's Voice. Tina is a Yale University alumna and certified yoga instructor with a passion for the outdoors.

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