Medicinal marijuana is well known for being effective at easing symptoms in HIV/AIDS sufferers. Its analgesic and anti-emetic effects are just a few reasons why so many HIV patients report using cannabis. But indirect effects, like promoting a healthy appetite can also be helpful. How does it do all this? Here’s what the research so far tells us.
HIV/AIDS refers to a group of conditions caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Around 37.9 million people worldwide are infected with HIV in 2018, with nearly 39,000 people in the US alone was diagnosed with it in 2017. AIDS has caused approximately 32 million deaths since the start of the epidemic, and roughly a 770,000 people died from it in 2018.
There are many symptoms and health problems that can arise with HIV/AIDS. Thus, there’s an enormous need for not only viable cures, but treatments to ease symptoms. While it’s no cure, cannabis has been shown to be extremely effective at treating several important symptoms of HIV/AIDS.
1. THC can help increase appetite
A 2005 survey conducted on 523 HIV-positive patients found that 143 (27%) of the respondents used cannabis to manage their symptoms. An overwhelming 97% of them reported that they experienced improvements in appetite.
In 2007, a double-blind study was conducted examining the effects of smoked cannabis and oral dronabinol (a synthetic form of THC). This study found that both cannabis and dronabinol increased caloric intake compared to placebo, in a dose-dependent manner in HIV-positive cannabis users.
Recent research (2018) says that cannabis vapour (used to simulate how people commonly consume cannabis) results in more frequent meals, although they’re smaller. When used on lab rats, it triggered them to eat, even though they had already eaten recently. So it’s believed to somehow trick the brain’s appetite sensors into sensing hunger.
In the 2017 study, food consumption averaged 404 kcal across the board, but dronabinol and cannabis caused a significant shift in distribution of nutrient intake. When given a placebo, patients derived 51% of their nutrients from carbohydrates, 36% from fat, and 13% from protein. But when given either dronabinol or cannabis, this changed:
- Dronabinol – Fat consumption increased to 40% and carbohydrate consumption decreased.
- Cannabis – Protein consumption dropped to 11% while fat consumption tended to increase.
When given high doses of cannabis and dronabinol, patients experienced significant increases in body weight, too. Under placebo conditions, the respondents’ mean weight was 77.5 kg; after four days of cannabis, patients gained 1.1 kg, and after four days of dronabinol, patients gained 1.2 kg.
2. Help ease nausea with cannabis
Nausea is a common symptom of HIV infection, and as the disease progresses, the causes of the nausea can become increasingly complex. Nausea may arise due to gastrointestinal issues, hepatorenal dysfunction, central nervous system disorders, or as a result of treatments used to treat the disease.
The ability of cannabinoids and certain synthetic analogues to counter the symptoms of nausea in HIV/AIDS patients is well-known. Cannabidiol eases vomiting & nausea by indirectly activating a specific serotonin-receptor in the dorsal raphe nucleus (a specific location on the midline of the brainstem).
In fact, the THC analogue dronabinol is approved by the US Food & Drug Administration for the treatment of nausea and appetite loss associated with cancer and HIV. An early study into the dronabinol as a treatment for AIDS-induced appetite loss was published in 1995, and found that patients experienced an average 20% improvement in nausea.
The previously-mentioned 2005 patient survey found that 93% of HIV-positive cannabis users reported subjective improvements in nausea after smoking. Another 2005 study found that among HIV-positive patients experiencing nausea, those who used cannabis were more likely to adhere to their anti-retroviral therapies than non-users. Patients not suffering from nausea did not experience significant improvements in adherence if they used cannabis, indicating that adherence was increased by improving symptoms of nausea.
3. Cannabis may help boost mood and act as an antidepressant
Anxiety, depression, and mood disorders are a common feature of HIV/AIDS, and can arise due to a combination of negative physiological, psychological, and social pressures. The 2005 patient survey found that 93% of respondents experienced relief of anxiety after using cannabis, while 86% reported an improvement in depression too.
The above-mentioned 2007 double-blind study into cannabis and dronabinol found that both substances improved respondents’ mood and caused a “good drug effect” that increased feelings of friendliness, stimulation, and self-confidence. Interestingly, lower doses of THC seemed to provoke higher rates of anxiety in the subjects than higher doses of THC, or dronabinol at any dose.
4. Using cannabis as an analgesic to reduce pain
HIV/AIDS can cause severe and debilitating pain that arises from various complex sources, including joint, nerve, and muscle pain. A 2011 cross-sectional study on 296 socioeconomically disadvantaged patients found that 53.7% had severe pain, 38.1% had moderate pain, and 8.2% had mild pain. Over half the subjects had a prescription for an opioid analgesic. More severe pain was also found to correlate with incidences of depression.
The 2005 patient survey found that 94% of respondents experienced relief from muscle pain as a result of using cannabis. 90% also reported improvement in neuropathy (nerve pain) and 85% in paresthesia (burning, tingling and prickling sensations).
The fact that cannabis can provide significant long-term subjective relief of chronic pain in HIV/AIDS sufferers is noteworthy. Safer and potentially-cheaper medications that could replace use of opioids in disadvantaged groups could have several positive ramifications, including a decline in opioid-related deaths and increased availability of medicine to those in need.
5. Cannabis may reduce peripheral neuropathy
A specific and particularly common form of pain associated with HIV/AIDS is peripheral neuropathy, in which one or more nerves of the peripheral nervous system (any part of the nervous system outside the brain and spinal cord) become damaged and lead to pain, twitching, paresthesia, muscle loss, and impaired coordination. It has been shown that cannabis may help improve symptoms of peripheral neuropathy in HIV/AIDS, as well as in other conditions in which it appears, such as diabetes.
Beyond the above-mentioned subjective reports of reduced nerve pain and paraesthesia, several other studies have assessed the ability of cannabis to improve peripheral neuropathy in HIV/AIDS patients.
In 2007, a patient survey conducted in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Colombia and Taiwan found that 67 of 450 patients with peripheral neuropathy reported use of cannabis to improve their symptoms.
A randomized placebo-controlled trial also published in 2007 found that pain was reduced by over 30% in 52% of the cannabis-using group and by just 24% of the control group, and that there were no serious adverse effects. The first joint smoked by the cannabis-using patients reduced chronic pain by a median of 72% compared to 15% in the placebo group.
In 2009, a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial into the effectiveness of cannabis in reducing HIV-associated polyneuropathy found that of 28 subjects, neuropathy was reduced by over 30% in 46% of the cannabis-using group and 18% of the control group. It also found that mood physical disability, and quality of life were improved by a similar degree throughout the course of the study.
- Disclaimer:This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with your doctor or other licensed medical professional. Do not delay seeking medical advice or disregard medical advice due to something you have read on this website.