Millions of people live with HIV/AIDS every day; at the end of 2015 there were over 36 million worldwide suffering from the disease. While modern medical advances have produced quite effective long-term medications to reduce viral loads and extend the life span of those with HIV/AIDS, these medications come with a myriad of side effects. Depending on the patient and the medication, these side effects can range from diarrhea and dizziness to nausea, vomiting, nerve problems, generalized pain, and fatigue. Recent studies have studied the effects of cannabis on many of these negative side effects, and have shown that cannabis can significantly ease the suffering caused by the extensive side effects of HIV/AIDS and the medications that go along with it.
One 2014 study in Canada identified that, among the participants in its study, 38.5 percent used cannabis while undergoing treatment for HIV/AIDS. This study found that, among those cannabis users, over 80 percent reported that cannabis relieved their HIV-related symptoms of stress and pain. These patients reported spending an average of approximately $105 on cannabis each month; compared to the thousands of dollars monthly it can cost a Canadian, for example, to pay for the other related medical costs of HIV/AIDS. As such, on an economic basis alone, cannabis provides an efficient treatment for these generalized adverse side effects of HIV/AIDS medications.
Loss of Appetite
One of the earliest symptoms of HIV/AIDS is a loss of appetite, often with an associated rapid weight loss. This symptom can continue and worsen when patients start taking medication to treat the disease. Loss of appetite might sound demure, but the resulting decrease in nutrients and body weight can exacerbate other HIV-related symptoms and put patients at risk for other infections. Cannabis is an especially effective treatment for this particular symptom, as it was shown in a 2007 study. In this study, cannabis increased both daily caloric intake as well as body weight – an impressive feat considering the other side effects of HIV medications, such as nausea and vomiting, that exacerbate the typical loss of appetite many HIV/AIDS patients deal with daily.
One of the trademark symptoms of HIV/AIDS is pain – specifically peripheral neuropathic pain, meaning pain related to the nerves. Many patients experience this pain in their toes and feet, and describe it as aching or burning or pins and needles. The treatment of this pain is usually completed using anticonvulsants and analgesics, or in the case of severe pain, narcotics.
One study looked at the effect of cannabis on this HIV-induced nerve pain, with fifty patients smoking cannabis three times daily for five days. After this five day period, patients reported a 34 percent reduction in pain. This is especially significant, as this reduction in pain is comparable to oral drugs typically used to treat this kind of neuropathic pain, showing that cannabis is an effective alternative to long-term narcotics.
While many studies have shown the positive effects of cannabis on specific symptoms of HIV/AIDS, scientists have not yet identified the exact mechanism through which cannabis acts upon the disease itself. There is a large amount of evidence that suggests cannabis acts as an immune modulator and anti-viral agent, but these studies have not yet been completed in human subjects. One study, however, was able to statistically prove the effects of cannabis use on the plasma HIV RNA viral loads.
This longitudinal study, conducted over more than a decade, monitored viral loads in cannabis users – the result being that cannabis use was strongly associated with lower viral loads. Showing that cannabis has a positive correlation with reduction of HIV/AIDS viral loads supports continuing research into the physiological effects of cannabis on HIV/AIDS infected individuals, and supports the increasing legalization of cannabis as a medical treatment.
With more and more studies showing the positive effects of cannabis in those suffering from HIV/AIDS, it is becoming more apparent that cannabis is both an economically and medically viable treatment. Hopefully the continued research into both the broad effects of medical cannabis and its specific effects on widespread diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, can provide fact-based fodder for the ever-continuing debate on legalization – medical or otherwise.
This post was originally published on March 31, 2017, it was updated on October 5, 2017.