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When it comes to cannabis, most attention centers around two parts of the plant: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component that produces the “high” sensation, and cannabidiol (CBD), the part typically used for medicinal purposes.

As you might already know, CBD enjoys a lot of popularity in the wellness field. It’s widely used as an alternative remedy for conditions ranging from nausea to chronic pain. Some people even find it helpful for easing mental health symptoms like anxiety.

Until 2018, it was difficult to get government approval to study CBD, so most of the research exploring its uses is quite new. One emerging area of study that’s gathered a lot of excitement? CBD’s antimicrobial traits.

As it turns out, CBD actually does a pretty good job killing bacteria — even some strains that are resistant to traditional antibiotics. Having a potential weapon against these supergerms could save a lot of lives.

Read on to learn what experts know about CBD’s ability to kill bacteria and what this means for you.

CBD can kill both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. Both types of bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics. However, Gram-positive bacteria usually prove much harder to kill because they have thicker protective membranes.

Gram-positive vs. Gram-negative bacteria

Why are bacteria called Gram-positive or Gram-negative?

The term comes from the Grams stain protocol, a method used to detect bacteria in tissue. Dye will stick to Gram-positive bacteria, coloring them bright violet. Gram-negative bacteria won’t hold the dye as well, so they will only show up as faint pink.

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According to a 2021 study, it takes very little CBD to kill most Gram-positive bacteria. CBD can even destroy species that have developed resistance to multiple drugs, such as:

Among the Gram-negative bacteria also studied, 20 species survived CBD exposure. This wasn’t too surprising, since scientists haven’t come up with any new classes of antibiotics to treat Gram-negative bacteria since 1962.

What the researchers did find surprising? CBD could kill four kinds of Gram-negative bacteria, all of which have a history of drug resistance and can be life-threatening:

Overall, CBD seems to show promise as a versatile antimicrobial agent.

That said, the researchers did reported numerous conflicts of interest, the main one being that the pharmaceutical company Botanix funded much of the study. Botanix makes a topical CBD formula that’s currently undergoing clinical trials.

However, other studies without conflicts of interest have reported similar findings. For example, a 2022 study found CBD can fight Salmonella typhimurium, a Gram-negative bacteria that attacks your stomach and intestines. Around 59 percent of salmonella infections resistant to ampicillin (a specialized antibiotic used to treat salmonella) involve the typhimurium strain.

CBD’s ability to fight bacteria is potentially a huge deal. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate 2.8 million people develop an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, and around 35,000 people die from these infections.

Cannabidiol appears to kill many of the more harmful bacteria species, including:

  • MRSA,which causes an estimated 323,700 hospital cases and 10,600 deaths per year
  • Clostridioidez difficile, which causes an estimated 223,900 hospital cases and 12,800 deaths per year
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes an estimated 900,000 people and kills 3,600 per year
  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which infects an estimated 550,000 people per year

These numbers come from the 2019 CDC report Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States.

MRSA, in particular, appears to have a much harder time mustering resistance against CBD than against antibiotics. The 2021 study measured drug resistance by growing MRSA in petri dishes and measuring the minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC), or amount of substance needed to kill all the bacteria in the dish.

The antibiotic daptomycin’s MIC increased 26-fold over 20 days of exposure. In other words, the MRSA bacteria developed so much drug resistance after 20 days that it took 26 times the original amount of daptomycin to kill it.

Meanwhile, cannabidiol’s MIC only increased by a factor of 1.5. Relatively speaking, MRSA barely developed any resistance against CBD.

CBD isn’t avoiding resistance just because it’s new to the bacteria battlefield. There’s something special about how CBD functions that makes it harder for bacteria to adapt.

Many drug-resistant bacteria defend themselves by preventing antibiotics from entering their cells. Common antibiotic-fighting tactics include:

  • changing their cell walls so the antibiotic can’t fit inside
  • creating enzymes to destroy the antibiotics
  • building pumps to flush the antibiotics out

Yet CBD doesn’t need to enter the bacteria to kill it. Instead, it attacks bacteria membranes, popping cells like microscopic water balloons. Bacteria cells don’t have defined organelles the way animal and plant cells do. Their innards are more like a soup that just spills out into the void, once something destroys the membrane keeping everything together.

But some traditional antibiotics, like penicillin, also kill bacteria by destroying their membranes. Further research may help experts determine which specific molecules CBD targets and why CBD appears more effective than antibiotics at breaking down certain kinds of bacterial membranes.

Despite this encouraging lab performance, CBD is far from ready to be used as antimicrobial treatment in the real world. This substance has a major weakness that keeps it from becoming a miracle drug: It binds to protein very easily.

When CBD enters your bloodstream, most of it will latch on to proteins in your plasma. CBD doesn’t kill human proteins like it does germs, but it does become “glued” to those cells. Only 10 to 14 percent of CBD will remain floating free and available to attack bacteria. Even if the CBD does reach the site of the infection, other tempting proteins might lure it away.

In a nutshell, taking cannabis or CBD oil most likely won’t help you fight off an infection. CBD spreads too much through the body to launch a targeted attack against bacteria. And you can’t exactly flood your system with CBD without risking an overdose.

But research continues

Scientists continue to study ways to take advantage of CBD’s bacteria-fighting potential. Possibilities include formulas to transport CBD directly to the bacteria in an infection, or synthetic CBD that ignores human proteins and focuses only on attacking bacteria.

Animal and human studies to date have found the most success with oral formulas. Rather than an injection, future CBD treatments may take the form of a nasal spray or pill.

In short, while CBD gummies can’t currently treat infection, it’s possible you could take an antimicrobial CBD gummy in the future.

You may not be able to harness CBD’s antimicrobial potential just yet. Still, you might notice some benefits when using CBD for pain or anxiety.

A few helpful reminders before you try CBD:

  • CBD can come in many forms: topical creams, vape pens, lozenges, and of course, edibles. All of these products have different potencies, so take care to follow the instructions for each specific product you use.
  • Federal law allows cannabis products containing at least 0.3 percent THC content. Products with higher THC levels are illegal in certain states, so check your local laws before buying.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate CBD products. If you have concerns about quality control, opt for products that have undergone third-party laboratory testing.

CBD has the ability to kill certain species of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Even so, it likely won’t replace antibiotics anytime soon.

Experts need to conduct more research to determine exactly how CBD functions in the human body before they can put it to use as a treatment for infections.

Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.