Is Medical Marijuana a Solution for AIDS? - December 28, 2021

We’ve reached far with the medications and therapy available for AIDS today, but it isn’t without limitations. From limited benefits to a long list of side effects, we’re still looking forward to more breakthroughs in the medicine industry. So it shouldn’t come as a shock when people, especially patients and medical care providers start looking into other alternatives that might just work wonders. And here we are. Looking into a herb that not too long ago was viewed as nothing more than a drug – Cannabis.

Marijuana and AIDS were used together only recently. While the herb has been used for therapeutic benefits for decades, it was only in 2018 (Farm Bill) that the herb was legally introduced into the system. It is now being used as a potential medication, used in medical regimes by doctors recommending it as an aid to HIV-positive patients.

But the public is still unsure. Is the change in air surrounding the herb influenced by its true benefits or is it just the current trend of the times? Can cannabis really help treat AIDS or its symptoms? How does it work? Are there any side effects to its use? And what about the existing medications? Is cannabis going to replace these prescriptions?

Let’s start from the basics.

What Is AIDS?

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a terminal condition turned chronic with the development in science and medicine. What was once a deadly disease is now a painful lifelong condition that patients have to battle against. In 2020 alone there were 680,000 deaths due to AIDS which is far less than the 1.9 million of 2004.

The condition is the result of a viral attack on the body’s immune system, leaving it defenseless and vulnerable. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) if not treated, leads to AIDS. It’s important to remember that even though the condition once acquired is impossible to get rid of, proper medication and therapy can help reduce its effects and symptoms. You can also control its transmission by continuous treatment.

Treatment for AIDS: Why We’re Looking for Alternatives to Medication?

There is no cure to this immunodeficiency, but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to hamper one’s life. With the right treatment and medication, a patient can live a long and healthy life. But at the same time, medical treatments and medications most often prescribed by doctors can also hamper a patient’s daily life. Contradictory, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, this holds true for almost all chronic diseases and their medications. These have their own set of side effects, which while enabling a long life renders patients incapable of enjoying it.

Presently, Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) is the most common treatment for the illness. The drugs used in this therapy too can have multiple side effects and degrade the quality of life for patients. Some of the most common side effects are,

  • Appetite Loss
  • Weight gain or loss at certain areas (Lipodystrophy)
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Higher than normal levels of cholesterol

Any other drugs used in the treatment of AIDS also commonly leads to

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • Abnormal heart beat
  • Cold hands and feet

So, why are we looking for medical alternatives? Because these are some symptoms we’d like to avoid. With a chronic illness like AIDS, patients end up suffering too much.

And why are we looking into medical marijuana and AIDS? Because even though it’s not a solution to the illness, it can help reduce these symptoms and allow patients to live a decently healthy life.

Marijuana and AIDS:  Symptoms That Cannabis Can Help With

There are numerous symptoms that tag along when the immune system is targeted. Let’s focus on some of the common ones and understand how marijuana and AIDS are an effective combination.

Nausea and Vomiting

The effects of marijuana and AIDS are still undergoing research but paying attention to patient experience is one way to find how the herb is really beneficial. Multiple AIDS patients report using cannabis products to help with nausea that they face due to their treatment and medications.

Even though not a lot of research has been conducted to officiate this association, cannabis has for a long time been used to manage nausea in chemotherapy patients.

While both chronic diseases are quite different, several types of antiemetic drugs have been used in both AIDS and Cancer patients. Benzamides, Serotonin receptor antagonists, and Corticosteroids are some of these medications.

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Even though the FDA has not approved of cannabis as a medication, the association has legalized the use of some cannabis-based medications for different purposes. Epidiolex is one such drug, consisting of more than 98% pure CBD oil and used to treat rare forms of epilepsy in children. On the other hand, a drug that goes by Dronabinol (Marinol) is a synthetic THC-based medication, formulated especially to help patients of chemo regulate their nausea. The medication has helped multiple AIDS patients to control their nausea, weight loss as well as bring up their appetite.

Wasting Syndrome

For an HIV patient, losing weight beyond 5% can be dangerous. That being said, it is also a common symptom of the disease. Both cachexia and starvation can lead to this unwanted decline in body weight, leading patients into the critical zone. Decline beyond 10% body weight along with a month-long fever or diarrhea is usually diagnosed as wasting syndrome. Weight loss that goes beyond one third of the body’s current weight is known to be lethal.

Cachexia involves the wasting away of muscles and fat, one kind of weight loss that cannot be completely recovered.

Starvation on the other hand, has more to do with the depletion of nutrition, most often a result of reduced appetite.

Research shows that loss of muscle and lean tissue (cachexia) can begin in the very early stages of the ailment, while mouth ulcers can lead to difficulty in consuming food. When combined with diarrhea leading to loss of nutrients and reduced absorption, a patient tends to lose their weight and appetite extremely fast.

Loss of appetite, weight loss, and even nausea in chronic illness patients usually combine into a wasting syndrome and cannabis has been associated with its regulation to some extent. In the previous section, we discussed the benefits of Marinol in regulating a patient’s appetite while also providing anti-nauseating benefits. However, there are other medical substitutes available that are more often prescribed for this purpose.

Practitioners prefer prescribing megestrol acetate (Megace) to stimulate a patient’s appetite. Both megace and marinol are more closely associated with increasing body weight by gaining fat, but neither seems to have any relation to gain in muscle mass or lean tissues.

Marijuana and AIDS : Preferred Modes of Consumption

Both AIDS and Cancer patients that prefer consuming cannabis to help with nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and weight loss usually prefer smoking flowers over any other form, especially edibles.

Edibles seem to take longer to take effect while at the same time are difficult to dose. With smoking, patients can get their preferred doses from a few puffs without having to wait for hours before the results kick in.

Disclaimer: Long term smoking of cannabis can lead to respiratory dysfunctions. If patients are unable to get desired results from any other mode of consumption, regular breaks in smoking are advised.

Pain

Neuropathic pain is another common symptom of AIDS, leading to burning sensations across the skin.

Cannabis consumption has found a huge market in patients with chronic illnesses who no longer want to depend on addictive opioids or simply want to reduce their intake of painkillers. Since not all medicines work equally for all, patients tend to try their hands at all possible substitutes to find the one that works best for them.

Cannabis has been proven its efficacy in being a tolerable and non-addictive pain reliever as long as consumed in directed doses and with low levels of THC. Higher THC percentage consumption over longer periods can lead to dependency.

While the NCBI believes that there is still a lot that needs to be researched about the efficacy of cannabis, they also recognize its potential as a pain-relieving substitute for chronic illnesses.

At the same time, it is important to remember that cannabis can interact with other medications and produce unwanted results. Patients and caregivers are always advised against combining the two at their own whim. It is recommended that you consult your physician and even take a second opinion if necessary before indulging in a combined treatment.

Anxiety and Depression

Whether due to the medications they’re consuming or the nature of their illness, patients of chronic illness have some mental battles to fight too. And for this purpose, they turn to substitutes like cannabis to help relieve these symptoms.

Cannabis has always found association with mental health disorders. To the extent where the drug’s medical use has been legalized by states for multiple disorders like anxiety, depression, PTSD as well as chronic disorders like Schizophrenia and Dementia.

Cannabis has two major components, CBD and THC. Both, when consumed in the right proportions can be a great solution to reduce symptoms. Higher doses of CBD and lower doses of THC are most commonly recommended in situations like these. Higher doses of THC can be more anxiety-inducing rather than the other way around. This in itself is reason enough that patients should be wary of self-medicating. It is preferable to talk to a physician, specifically a medical marijuana doctor to learn about the right doses.

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Marijuana products have some great physical and psychological benefits for patients with AIDS as long as consumed wisely.

Cannabis is not a remedy for patients suffering from AIDS but it can alleviate a lot of their painful symptoms. With a chronic illness that is sure to stay with patients for a lifetime, it is only logical to allow them to find these alternative medications. This is why, in almost all states where medical marijuana is legal to some degree, there are provisions legalizing marijuana for chronic use.