Cannabis is often talked about in regard to cancer, and the internet is full of claims that the plant can work as a cure. However, while there are signs from in vitro testing that certain cannabinoids may be of therapeutic value, such statements are unethical and even dangerous for patients – no one should stop taking their current medication and switch to cannabis because of an article they have read online. In any post discussing cannabis, cancer and chemotherapy, it’s important to clear that up first.
Chemotherapy is not a desirable treatment, but it can be a life-saving one for cancer patients – the downsides are worth putting up with if it allows for a better quality of life in the long-term. But unfortunately, chemotherapy can come with a long list of horrible side effects.
However, cannabis is popular – and even recommended by some doctors – to alleviate the symptoms of chemotherapy. Some patients choose to smoke cannabis and get the benefits of all the chemicals in the herb, but that does mean getting “high”, due to the consumption of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). But the cannabis market is changing, and the non-psychoactive industry is flourishing. Cannabidiol (CBD) products, which are made from CBD-rich strains of cannabis and hemp, do not have the chemical components to get the user stoned, but they do offer a wealth of medicinal benefits which could help chemotherapy patients. Let’s take a closer look.
Nausea and vomiting are perhaps the most well-known side effects of chemotherapy and can continue for more than a week after the final dose has been administered. The severity of nausea and sickness may, however, be eased by medicating with CBD.
In 2012, the British Journal of Pharmacology published a study documenting how CBD reduces “vomiting and nausea-like behavior”. The cannabinoid does this by working as an indirect agonist of the serotonin system’s 5-HT1A receptors which are found in the dorsal raphe nucleus.
The research was conducted on rats and revealed that the anti-nausea effects may come from reducing the firing of 5-HT (serotonin) nerve fiber afferents to the terminal forebrain regions. The next phase of CBD and anti-nausea research should be to replicate the study on humans – chemotherapy patients may be ideal participants for such an investigation.
Some chemotherapy patients report pain following treatment. Cannabis has always been a popular remedy for pain, but how much of this is down to the THC, and can CBD provide sufficient relief?
THC is a partial agonist of cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and is an analgesic by distracting from the pain – as opposed to opioid drugs which block pain signals. CBD cannot ease pain in this way, as it is an antagonist of the CB1 receptor. However, by boosting concentrations of crucial endocannabinoids in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) which can bind to these receptors, CBD appears to have moderate pain-relieving properties.
Anandamide is the body’s endogenous analogue of THC, but levels of this analgesic endocannabinoid can be manipulated by CBD. The enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) hydrolyzes, or breaks down anandamide molecules, therefore diminishing their therapeutic value. However, CBD inhibits this process, increasing anandamide availability in the ECS. CBD might also treat pain by binding with the capsaicin receptor, which is known to regulate pain perception.
Smoking hemp flower allows for the therapeutic effects to take hold in just minutes. For those averse to smoking, even for medicinal reasons, the same fast relief can be enjoyed via CBD vape oil and e-liquid.
Fatigue is a very common symptom of chemotherapy, and unfortunately one that affects all aspects of life. First off, adjusting expectations can be helpful – in the days, weeks and months after treatment, accepting that your energy levels aren’t going to be at their maximum can help make the reality easier to deal with.
But CBD may also be useful in combatting fatigue, not least by enhancing the quality of sleep. The most beneficial phase of sleep is deep sleep, as this is when the body can heal tissues and muscles. The ECS is thought to have influence over the sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm – if so, this can then be regulated by taking CBD.
To enjoy the full sleep-promoting benefits of CBD, one has to use a product where the CBD remains active from when you fall asleep to when you wake up. This can be done with both CBD pills and edibles, such as CBD gummy bears. Take a dose around 30 minutes to an hour before time, and allow the soothing, sedative effects to draw you into a peaceful night’s sleep.
Chemotherapy can have a significant adverse effect on cognition and concentration – this may be caused by the toxicity of treatment to cells in the hippocampus, which controls memory and motivation. The toxicity caused by chemotherapy affects neurogenesis processes in the hippocampus, which are key for continued learning and memory development.
“Chemo brain,” or “chemo fog” is a notorious symptom, but recent studies on the effect of cannabinoids and the brain gives chemotherapy patients reason to be optimistic.
A large quantity of CB1 receptors are found in the hippocampus, which explains why cannabinoids hold such power over this part of the brain. Chronic use of THC-rich cannabis seems to cause memory impairment by causing structural damage in this region. Fortunately, CBD’s effects are much more positive.
A handful of studies on both rodents and humans have demonstrated that CBD facilitates structural repair in the hippocampus, restoring and increasing the amount of neurogenesis while protecting from additional volume loss.
Depression and mood changes
Hippocampal damage may worsen depressive symptoms in chemotherapy patients, but this decline in mood is likely to also be caused by the collection of side effects which impact quality of life, as well as the reality of going through a life-threatening battle with cancer. Engaging in helpful mental work like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be useful in improving one’s outlook of a situation. The calming act of meditation can be valuable in a similar way.
But chemotherapy-induced depression and mood swings can also be managed with cannabis-based medication. Blocking the breakdown of anandamide allows for more of this antidepressant neurotransmitter to enhance and regulate mood by binding with the CB1 receptor.
The therapeutic value of CBD for depression is more measured than that of a THC-imbued cannabis treatment, which could be more unpredictable. THC has a tendency of aggravating anxiety in those predisposed to the condition, and chemotherapy patients prone to worst-case scenario thinking may find themselves dwelling over their cancer situation with irrational and clouded thinking due to the psychoactive effects. The clear-minded nature of CBD is, therefore, a more reliable option.
Given that some chemotherapy patients are already directed toward cannabis by medical professionals, CBD is definitely worth considering. Indeed, it may be preferable to much of the high-THC cannabis available, because of its unique medicinal properties and more reliable mental effects.
The most suitable product for side effect relief depends on whether the symptoms are acute or chronic. For the former, a quick-acting treatment like CBD e-juice or CBD oil is necessary, but for the latter, the more gradual relief of edibles may produce better results.