While the occurrence of HIV and AIDS has been reduced significantly over the last 10 years, it is still a condition that affects thousands of people across the country. Cannabis has been used as an effective treatment for these disorders for the last couple of decades due to its ability to reduce the side effects from HIV and AIDS medication. However, as more studies are done, the plant has revealed itself to be an even more powerful ally for those suffering from this disease. It appears that not only can the plant help to manage symptoms but it may also work towards preventing HIV from becoming AIDS as well as the mental deterioration that many patients experience over time.
The Danger of “Opportunistic Infections”
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus functions by attacking the immune system. It kills the white blood cells that protect the health of the body. As a result, “opportunistic infections” such as cancer, pneumonia, meningitis and tuberculosis may develop and without a healthy immune system fighting these infections off, a lot of physical damage may occur. There is also a risk that HIV will develop into AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which opens the body up to additional infections and a low CD4 T-cell count.
Current Accepted Treatments
The main treatment for HIV is high active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) which is an extremely expensive combination of medications that aim to slow the progress of the disease. On top of this, more medication may be necessary to treat any infections contracted as well as AIDS symptoms and side effects from the medication. All of this medication weighs heavy on the system and may result in side effects such as severe nausea, vomiting, fatigue, physical weakness, neurological problems, loss of appetite, depression and anxiety. The side effects for many are so debilitating that patients will choose to forego treatment in lieu of living in pain.
How THC Can Be Used as to Curb Side Effects of Treatment
This is the first way that cannabis treatment helps patients dealing with HIV and AIDS. Marijuana is well known to be highly effective at treating nausea, vomiting, neuropathic pain, depression and anxiety. One single puff is all that is needed to positively impact a patient’s wellbeing. The most immediate way is through assisting patients in eating, by improving appetite and then keep down their food and medication, allowing their bodies to absorb nutrients and substances needed to improve their health and boost their immunity. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), a compound in marijuana, is a big component in this, as it is known to greatly reduce nausea and vomiting as well as pain and depression.
Weaker Effects of Marinol
A synthetic form of THC called Marinol is often prescribed to patients. However, this has been found to be much less effective than absorbing the THC from the plant, its original source. The marijuana plant itself has a multitude of beneficial compounds called cannabinoids and terpenoids that go towards enhancing the benefits of the THC. Marinol is also prescribed as a high dose pill that may take hours to be absorbed and, once ingested, it has the ability to make a person feel very stoned for many hours. For some, it may even have adverse side effects. When ingesting marijuana through smoke or vapor, the patient has much more control over acquiring a comfortable dosage. The effects are also instantaneous, providing immediate relief.
How a Cannabis Treatment Interacts with pDCs
While this alone seems like a good reason to use a cannabis treatment for HIV and AIDS, there are more studies that support its use. A JAIDS study has linked THC to stopping HIV from becoming AIDS through how it interacts with pDC’s (plasmacytoid dendritic cells) which are immune cells that circulate through the blood stream in the body. The study explains that “plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs) play a crucial role in host antiviral immune response through secretion of type I interferon. Interferon alpha (IFNα), a type I IFN, is critical for mounting the initial response to viral pathogens.” It states that HIV leads to “a decrease in both pDC number and function, but prolonged pDC activity has been linked with progression from HIV infection to the development of AIDS.” The study uncovered that, because THC is an immunosuppressant, it can dampen pDC activation which is connected to HIV’s progression into AIDS. This is groundbreaking news for those seeking to use cannabis treatment and those who are already benefiting from the plant.
Other Ways Cannabis Could Stunt the Progression of HIV into AIDS
Another study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses in 2014 also found that cannabis treatment may be used to halt the progression of HIV into AIDS. When a person is first infected with HIV, the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) is attacked hitting CD4 cells. GALT is where a substantial part of the immune system is located. Researchers who worked on monkeys found that THC had a positive effect on this tissue. After 17 months of receiving THC, the monkeys’ viral load was decreased along with inflammation and there was an increase in disease-fighting CD4 and CD8 central memory T cells in GALT.
Blocking HIV Communication
In a 2012 study, researchers at New York City’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine published data that found that cannabis treatment can block the signaling process between HIV and CXCR4 which is one of the main types of receptors that allow HIV to enter and infect a cell. When HIV advances, it uses CXCR4 which speeds up the progression of the disease. By activating the CB2 receptors, which are stimulated through the use of marijuana, cell infection was reduced by 30 to 60 percent.
Cannabis as an Anti-Inflammatory
Researchers at Michigan State University published a study on AIDS that showed that marijuana’s powerful anti-inflammatory properties can be used to reduce mental deterioration by approximately 50 percent. This is due to its ability to “slow down or maybe even stop the inflammatory process.” Co-author of the study, Norbert Kaminski, writes, “It’s believed that cognitive function decreases in many of those with HIV partly due to chronic inflammation that occurs in the brain. This happens because the immune system is constantly being stimulated to fight off disease.”
From stopping the progression of the disease, to managing the symptoms and facilitating medical treatment, cannabis is able to help HIV and AIDS patients in countless way. With the popularity of medical marijuana sweeping the nation, it may only be a matter of time before cannabis treatment is available to everybody.