By Angela Johns, PhD
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) spreads through bodily fluids. It infects and can destroy or change the function of certain white cells in the body called CD4+ T cells. CD4+ cells play a vital role in your immune system and therefore the HIV virus makes your body a lot more susceptible to infections. When left untreated, HIV progresses to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). As there is currently no effective cure for HIV, once its acquired, the focus of treatment is on controlling the virus and preventing it from progressing to AIDS. A person who has AIDS must receive treatment called antiretroviral therapy to prevent death.
While antiretroviral therapy has been shown to effectively curtail HIV from progressing to AIDS, the symptoms and side effects of the long-term drug therapy are immense.
These symptoms include peripheral neuropathy (nerve pain), nausea, diarrhoea, anxiety, loss of appetite and loss of weight, headaches and difficulty sleeping and a decrease in cognitive function due to chronic inflammation of the brain.
It is thought that up to a third of patients with HIV worldwide use cannabis to treat some of the symptoms caused by the HIV virus.
Can Medical Cannabis help with HIV symptoms?
There are over 80 compounds known as ‘cannabinoids’ that can be extracted from the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa). The best known cannabinoid in cannabis is called tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. This cannabinoid is responsible for the psychoactive effect or ‘high’. Alternative cannabinoids e.g. cannabidiol or CBD have been found to have many of the same benefits of THC but without the negative psychoactive effects.
Research has shown that cannabis can help ease the above mentioned symptoms of HIV by potentially increasing appetites (1), inhibiting brain inflammatory responses(2) and helping to ease nerve pain caused by the virus(3, 4). Additionally, researchers are proposing that the cannabinoid, THC could possibly be able to prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS, however, a lot more research is required in order for these facts to be established and proven in the human body(5).
Medical cannabis can be vaporised, taken as a pill, used as a spray beneath your tongue, inserted as an enema or made into a cream for topical applications. Smoking cannabis for medicinal purposes is not currently advised as smoke may be harmful to your lungs.
This research is ongoing and as medical cannabis Australia laws change & also around the world, it will become easier for scientists to investigate cannabis and its derivatives further and come to concrete conclusions about its role as a treatment for symptoms of HIV. Clinical trials will be required to be conducted, using standardised doses of various cannabinoids and are compared with current treatments to ensure they are both safe and effective to use for individuals with HIV.
- Haney M, Gunderson EW, Rabkin J, Hart CL, Vosburg SK, Comer SD, et al. Dronabinol and marijuana in HIV-positive marijuana smokers. Caloric intake, mood, and sleep. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr. 2007;45(5):545-54.
- Raborn ES, Jamerson M, Marciano-Cabral F, Cabral GA. Cannabinoid inhibits HIV-1 Tat-stimulated adhesion of human monocyte-like cells to extracellular matrix proteins. Life Sci. 2014;104(1-2):15-23.
- Abrams DI, Jay CA, Shade SB, Vizoso H, Reda H, Press S, et al. Cannabis in painful HIV-associated sensory neuropathy: a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Neurology. 2007;68(7):515-21.
- Woolridge E, Barton S, Samuel J, Osorio J, Dougherty A, Holdcroft A. Cannabis use in HIV for pain and other medical symptoms. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2005;29(4):358-67.
5. Henriquez JE, Rizzo MD, Schulz MA, Crawford RB, Gulick P, Kaminski NE. Delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol Suppresses Secretion of IFNalpha by Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cells From Healthy and HIV-Infected Individuals. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr. 2017;75(5):588-96.