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Cannabis has long been rumored to be effective in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. And as legalization makes it easier to access cannabis for medical purposes, more and more HIV/AIDS patients are turning to it for relief.
HIV/AIDS affects over 36 million people across the world. And, although treatment has advanced tremendously, patients still find themselves dealing with a variety of symptoms and side effects brought about both by the disease and their medication.
Survey statistics suggest that up to 1 in 3 HIV/AIDS patients in North America rely on cannabis for relief from symptoms like nausea, vomiting, pain, and more. But should they? Just how effective is cannabis in the treatment of HIV/AIDS?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. If left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
As the name suggests, HIV is a disease that attacks the body’s immune system. There is no way to defeat HIV, meaning that patients have it for life. The virus specifically targets CD4 cells, a type of white blood cell responsible for fighting off infection, and can leave patients being more susceptible to a wide variety of infections/diseases. The virus also uses CD4 cells to multiply and spread throughout the body.
If left untreated, patients may enter the final stage of the human immunodeficiency virus, known as AIDS. A healthy adult will have a CD4 cell count of between 500-1600 per mm³ of blood. A patient has AIDS once their count falls below 200 per mm³, at which point they become vulnerable to opportunistic infections.
Without treatment, AIDS patients have a life expectancy of about 3 years. Once a patient has an opportunistic illness, their life expectancy drops to roughly 1 year.
There are 2 types of HIV; HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is the virus that was initially discovered, and is believed to be more infective. It is the main cause of HIV infections across the world. HIV-2, on the other hand, is noted for being less aggressive and is mainly found within West Africa.
Both HIV-1 and HIV-2 are believed to have originated in primates before crossing the species barrier somewhere in the 20th century. HIV-1 is believed to have originated among a breed of chimpanzees in Cameroon, while HIV-2 is thought to have originated in a breed of sooty mangabey in West Africa.
AIDS was first observed in the US in the 1980s in cases mainly affecting groups of injection drug users and homosexual men. The subjects displayed symptoms of a special type of pneumonia known to affect patients with very damaged immune systems, and soon after additional subjects began developing a rare kind of skin cancer.
As more cases emerged, the US Center for Disease Control formed a special taskforce to monitor the outbreak. There was no initial name for HIV at this time and the press tended to refer to it as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), while the Center for Disease Control referred to it as the “4H disease” because it tended to affect homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Once it became known that the virus didn’t just affect these communities, the name HIV/AIDS was eventually adopted.
There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS. However, thanks to innovation in the medical industry, HIV can be managed using special medications, which aim to stop the virus cells from multiplying and spreading.
HIV is treated using antiretroviral therapy (ART). This therapy combines a variety of antiretroviral medicines that, when taken correctly, can greatly prolong the lives of HIV patients and lower the spread of the disease. Using multiple antiretroviral medications is said to be more effective than monotherapy.
Today, HIV patients who actively and correctly follow through with ART are able to control the virus to a great extent, and essentially live regular lives just like people who don’t have the virus.
Contrary to popular belief, HIV can produce symptoms in some individuals.
Within the first 2-4 weeks following infection, some patients may experience a flu-like illness with the following symptoms:
These symptoms can last anywhere from days to weeks. However, it is very important to realize that these symptoms are not unique to HIV and can be caused by a whole variety of other conditions. It’s also important to notice that some patients may not experience any symptoms upon infection.
After the initial infection, HIV moves into a stage known as clinical latency. During this time the virus stays active within the body but tends to reproduce very slowly. The duration of this varies greatly; some people can be in it for decades while others only a few years. The use of medication helps to prevent the spread of the virus and can help keep people in the clinical latency stage.
The final stage of HIV is the progression to AIDS. This is when the virus has greatly damaged the body’s immune system, and can bring about a variety of symptoms, including:
Again, none of these symptoms are unique to HIV/AIDS. They can be caused by a variety of other diseases as well.
It is important to note that ART also produces a wide variety of adverse effects that can include:
These adverse effects can take a big toll on a patient’s quality of life. In some patients they can also be severe enough to lead them to give up therapy. In others, the stress of dealing with these symptoms constantly can affect them on a physical, emotional and social level, which may even lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
It is important to understand that cannabis unfortunately can’t cure or treat HIV/AIDS. Instead, it can help to manage some of the symptoms of the disease and the adverse effects of treatment.
While the research into the medical properties of cannabis is still in its infancy, there is growing evidence that the active compounds found in cannabis plant material can provide effective relief from some of the symptoms listed above, especially nausea, vomiting, and pain.
A breakdown of how cannabis can help manage some of the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and antiretroviral therapy:
Nausea and vomiting are symptoms that aren’t unique to HIV/AIDS. They can affect people with a large variety of medical conditions or undergoing certain types of therapies including chemo, ART, and more.
Both nausea and vomiting are long-term symptoms that are hard to treat, making it more difficult for patients to eat or build up an appetite. This can lead to appetite loss and, in severe cases, weight loss and muscle wasting (both of which are commonly observed in patients with HIV/AIDS).
Evidence from clinical trials suggests the cannabinoids found in cannabis have antiemetic effects, helping to reduce nausea or the need to vomit while simultaneously boosting appetite. These effects can even be achieved even with small doses of cannabis.
A study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2011 by researcher from the Department of Psychology and Collaborative Neuroscience Program at the University of Guelph in Canada, found that both THC and CBD have these antiemetic effects.
The study was conducted using rats. Rats can’t actually vomit, but investigators have been able to “teach” rats to adopt certain behavior when exposed to nauseating cues (such as bitter flavors, for example). This behavior is referred to as a conditioned gaping response.
The study found that both THC and CBD, the two most renowned components of cannabis, suppressed conditioned gaping reactions (or nausea) in rats. It concluded that cannabinoids like THC and CBD may be effective clinically for treating both nausea and vomiting produced by chemotherapy or other therapeutic treatments.
Another commonly cited source when it comes to the topic of cannabis and nausea is Dr. Lester Grinspoon, Professor of Psychiatry and researcher at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Grinspoon and his wife found that cannabis was able to calm powerful nausea and vomiting in their son Danny after he underwent chemotherapy.
Danny’s chemotherapy treatment often left him “in bed, with a bucket at his side, until it was just dry heaves.” After having heard about some of the evidence behind marijuana and its ability to calm these symptoms, Dr. Grinspoon’s wife Betty bought some weed for her son in a high school parking lot. After just a few tokes, Danny seemed unusually relaxed, happy, and, most importantly, not nauseous.
Besides these clinical research results and Dr. Grinspoons statement, there are countless anecdotal reports from HIV/AIDS patients who swear by cannabis as an effective medicine in relieving nausea, vomiting, and helping them boost their appetite.
As noted earlier, it's not unusual for HIV/AIDS patients to suffer from muscular or neuropathic pain, either due to their condition or their treatment. Well, there is plenty of evidence that proves that cannabis may help with this too.
The cannabinoids found in cannabis plant material (such as THC, CBD, and others) interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system. This system naturally occurs in our bodies and is capable of producing its own cannabinoids.
In 1997, a paper in the European Journal of Pharmacology first showed that the endocannabinoid system plays an active role in managing pain. Since then, a variety of studies have shown that cannabis can be very effective at helping patients deal with pain caused by a certain condition or medical treatment.
In 2016 a study from the Clinical Journal of Pain observed the effect of cannabis on pain and functional outcomes in 270 chronic pain patients. It found that cannabis treatment not only reduced the severity of their pain and improved the overall quality of life, but also helped them wean off opiate-based medications, which are renowned for building tolerance, causing addiction and producing a wide variety of side effects.
But it doesn’t stop there; there is plenty more research that proves that cannabis is an effective painkiller and can help in the treatment of chronic pain.
Not only does cannabis have the potential to alleviate some of the symptoms caused by HIV/AIDS and ART, but it may also help to inhibit the spread of the virus.
While research into this field is limited, a 2008 study published in Biochemical Pharmacology showed that a marijuana constituent called Denbinobin slowed the replication of HIV. Again, this research is limited, but it opens up a world of opportunity in finding an alternative to the existing treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Thanks to recent developments in the legalization of cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use, more research can be done to find evidence for the benefits of using cannabis to treat the symptoms of HIV/AIDs and adverse effects of treatment.
On top of the existing evidence lie countless anecdotal reports from HIV/AIDS patients who already use cannabis to treat their symptoms. Luckily, thanks to legalization for cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use, cannabis is becoming more accessible than ever before.
To find out more about cannabis and how to use it to treat the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and Antiretroviral therapy, always consult your doctor.
AIDS/HIV is a qualifying condition under a variety of state medical marijuana programs in the US (including Alaska, Delaware, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, and many more).
If you live outside these states or outside of the US in a country that has legal medical cannabis (like Australia, Chile, and Croatia), be sure to consult your local laws for more information on how to access it for the treatment of HIV/AIDS symptoms.
Note: We have taken the utmost care and precaution whilst writing this article. That being said, please take note of the fact that we are not medical professionals of any kind. Cannabis.info is strictly a news and information website. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.