Marijuana and HIV: Much More Than Palliative Aid
Even though cannabis and cannabinoid-derived pharmaceuticals are both frequently used by HIV/AIDS patients, several studies show that something interesting happens when cannabis is consumed.
What is HIV and how is it manifested?
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as the name implies, harms the immune system.
HIV produces this effect by killing specific white blood cells (CD4 T cells, otherwise known as T-Helper cells), who are in charge of destroying pathogens.
Infections are caused by either bacteria or viruses, and CD4 T cells react to those threats in two distinct ways:
- By releasing chemicals that inform other cells of the immune system to the site of the infection
- By releasing chemicals that cause other white blood cells to multiply
These newly created white blood cells create markers called antibodies, which can identify the same foreign invader throughout the body.
Antibodies attach to bacteria and viruses, but also to infected cells, marking them for destruction by the immune system.
HIV also multiplies by entering healthy CD4 T cells, and the quantity of the HIV virus in body directly determines how rapidly it can enter and kill other CD4 T cells.
The amount of HIV in one’s blood is called the viral load.
If left untreated, HIV virus spreads to such extent that the immune function is so diminished the body cannot protect itself anymore, leading to various dangerous infections.
When these infections occur as a result of a weakened immune system, they are called “opportunistic infections”.
Examples include pneumonia, cancers, tuberculosis, chronic diarrhea, and inflammation-based conditions such as meningitis and encephalitis.
When the human immunodeficiency virus weakens the immune system so much that “opportunistic infections” start to occur, it is then considered that a patient doesn’t have HIV anymore and has an acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (or AIDS).
How classical pharmaceuticals fight HIV
Drugs used for the treatment of HIV and AIDS are called antiretroviral medications, and there are several different classes of these drugs:
- Fusion/Entry Inhibitors (they prevent, or more precisely slow down HIV from entering healthy cells)
- Reverse transcriptase inhibitors (preventing the RNA of the virus to be reverse transcribed into DNA)
- Protease inhibitors (preventing the protease enzyme from producing mature virions of the virus)
- Integrase inhibitors (preventing the retroviral integrase (IN) enzyme from integrating the RNA of HIV to the DNA of the infected immune cell)
These medications are combined in what’s known as HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy).
Even though these pharmaceuticals slow down the progression and lessen the quantity of the virus in a patient’s body, many sufferers experience severe pain from antiretroviral therapy.
Other side effects include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and weight, chronic exhaustion, physical weakness and cachexia (wasting syndrome).
HIV patients frequently combat anxiety and depression, and the intensity of these side effects often cause patients to stop their therapy in order to experience relief.
Cannabis as a palliative aid for HIV patients
As you’re probably already aware of, medical cannabis is used to fight many of these conditions, including pain, nausea and vomiting, lack of appetite, disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, and also anxiety and depression.
The results of one 252-patient review showed that combining the use of cannabis with HAART made patients withstand antiretroviral medications for significantly longer periods of time, compared to patients who weren’t using cannabis. (1)
Another survey published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome showed that HIV patients who used cannabis in combination with their regular treatment experienced significant relief from anxiety, depression, pain, and had improved appetite. They also reported an overall increase in pleasure. (2)
What’s also very important to understand that palliative care isn’t the only way cannabis influences the way a body reacts to HIV.
Before we get into all of that, first we should take a step back and analyze how cannabis impacts an organism.
All vertebrate species on the planet have an endocannabinoid system (ECS) embedded in their biochemical structure.
This system consists of endocannabinoid receptors stationed on the membranes of many different cell types, which are in all important parts of the body including the brain and spinal cord, vital and reproductive organs, gastrointestinal tract, muscles, connective tissues and so forth.
The second part of the ECS are endocannabinoids, the internal chemical compounds that entice these cellular receptors, causing many different reactions within each individual cell.
Let’s talk about the function of the ECS.
This ancient mammalian physiological system is in charge of maintaining homeostasis on a cellular level.
Homeostasis is a posh term used to describe a state of balance between the separate but interconnected systems that make up an organism.
Cannabinoids from the cannabis plant trigger the endocannabinoid receptors of the cells in the same way as endocannabinoids, and this additional enticing of the receptors is beneficial in many ways.
There are many different cell types in the human body.
Depending on what type of cell it is, but also the type of condition a person is struggling with, these factors determine the way how will a specific cell react to cannabinoids.
The ECS is extremely complex and very adaptive, and because of these characteristics cannabis is beneficial for so many different conditions and disorders.
Cannabis as medicine against HIV
Besides offering palliative aid for numerous side effects that accompany HAART therapy, cannabis also directly influences how a human body reacts to this virus.
Even though scientific data is still somewhat scarce on this topic, several studies confirm that cannabis directly acts on the cells of the immune system affected by HIV.
55 HIV-positive patients participated in this study, who reported their personal use of cannabis, and were divided into three categories, non-users, light users, and moderate to heavy users.
Both light and moderate/heavy patients had a lower viral load, and a higher number of CD4 T immune cells, compared to patients who didn’t consume cannabis.
This study from UCSF included 62 HIV patients who were randomly separated into three groups.
20 patients received an oral placebo, 20 patients got cannabis in the form of a joint, and 22 received dronabinol (FDA-approved medication containing synthetically created and isolated THC, branded and sold as Marinol or Syndros).
The study lasted for 25 days, and after comparing results, the research found that there was a 20% increase of CD4 T cells in both real-cannabis and dronabinol groups.
The team behind this study also found that the number of CD8 T-cells rose 20% in the real-cannabis group, and 10% in patients who were given dronabinol.
CD8 T cells of the immune system could be considered as the secondary target for the HIV virus, right after CD4 T cells.
This study focused on the SIV virus (Simian deficiency virus), which is a disease that affects primates, and is very similar to HIV. Researchers frequently analyze SIV to draw conclusions about HIV.
Scientists observed numerous positive effects on the subjects upon administering THC, including slowing down the progression of the disease, lower viral loads and lessened inflammation via immunosuppression. Combined, these factors significantly reduced the mortality rate.
This research was performed on microglia cell cultures (microglia are a type of different immune cells found in the brain and spinal cord), with a synthetic compound very similar to THC.
This study showed that by introducing this compound which affected these microglia cells via both CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors, the replication of the HIV virus was suppressed.
What’s also very interesting is that microglia cells “create” these cannabinoid receptors when they require to be affected by cannabinoids/endocannabinoids (on demand), in a process known as reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction.
Biggest cannabis/HIV study is yet to come
University of Florida received a 3.2 million dollar grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2017 to conduct a 5-year study on the effects of cannabis on HIV.
It will be the biggest and most comprehensive research on this topic to date, and it will include 400 HIV patients from Florida.
The head researcher Robert Cook (MD, MPH), shared his views on the goals of the study:
“I’ve seen some very interesting data that looked at just how much of the virus is in people’s blood before they were treated with antiretrovirals.
The research showed that those who used marijuana had a lower amount of the virus in their blood compared to those who didn’t use marijuana.
That’s a good thing if there is a lower amount of the virus.
But I haven’t seen any clinical trials looking at the direct effects of THC on the virus.
We also don’t have a lot research comparing THC alone versus THC and CBD on people with HIV.”
This study will surely provide the much-needed insight for HIV-infected patients.
Cannabis concentrates for HIV
When we consider the factual evidence that consuming cannabinoids through inhalation “somehow” decreases the amount of HIV in the blood (viral load), and increases the quantity of immune cells which are both the primary victims of this virus and the only thing in the body that can suppress HIV, it is safe to say that cannabinoids possess the power to fight this threat.
Even though we lack comprehension on how exactly this happens, we do understand how the endocannabinoid system works, and the studies conducted so far precisely indicate that the human immunodeficiency virus follows the same pattern as all other diseases and conditions which are positively influenced by cannabis.
What’s very disconcerting (and expected at the same time) is that absolutely no research was performed on any concentrated forms of cannabis.
This can be perceived as something suspicious, because if we’re aware that a natural substance has healing effects, wouldn’t it be logical to perform the healing with the most potent variation of that substance.
Ingesting large quantities of cannabinoids with concentrates influences the cells of the body to a much larger extent than just smoking or vaping cannabis.
Because of this “overloading” of the endocannabinoid system a great number of patients successfully overcame cancer with RSO.
Naturally without the involvement of official governmental institutions these claims remain highly anecdotal, but considering that official science recognizes that relatively miniscule quantities of cannabinoids produce beneficial effects including lessening of the viral load and an increase in the numbers of immune system cells – wouldn’t it be wise to consume cannabinoids in greater volume and see what will happen?
We already know that a person cannot overdose on cannabis (or more precisely that it would take about 20.000 joints at once for cannabis to become lethal), so it’s fairly safe to say that our capitalist society simply doesn’t want a cure for any serious ailment, and HIV and cancer are definitely included.
It is of great importance to take matter into your own hands, because we still have the power to take care of ourselves, especially in Canada, where it’s now absolutely legal to purchase large quantities of high-quality bud material and producing your own oil.
To sum up, cannabis greatly diminishes the side effects of HAART therapy, and it also influences the cells of the endocannabinoid system to directly fight the virus.
- De Jong, Bouke C, Prentiss, Diane MA, McFarland, Willi, Machekano, Rhoderick, Israelski, Dennis M; Marijuana Use and Its Association With Adherence to Antiretroviral Therapy Among HIV-Infected Persons With Moderate to Severe Nausea; 2005; 43-46
- Prentiss, Diane, Power, Rachel, Balmas, Gladys, Tzuang, Gloria, Israelski, Dennis M; Patterns of Marijuana Use Among Patients With HIV/AIDS Followed in a Public Health Care Setting; 2004; 38-45
- April D. Thames, Zanjbeel Mahmood, Alison C. Burggren, Ahoo Karimian, Taylor Kuhn; Combined Effects of HIV and Marijuana Use on Neurocognitive Functioning and Immune Status; 2016; 328-332
- Jeff Sheehy, Joan F. Hilton, Roslyn J. Leiser, Starley B. Shade, Steven G. Deeks, Thomas F. Mitchell; Short-Term Medical Cannabis Doesn’t Harm HIV+ Patients; 2003
- Patricia E. Molina, Angela Amedee, Nicole J. LeCapitaine, Jovanny Zabaleta, Mahesh Mohan, Peter Winsauer, Curtis Vande Stouwe; Cannabinoid neuroimmune modulation of SIV disease; 2011; 516-527
- Rock RB, Gekker G, Hu S, Sheng WS, Cabral GA, Martin BR, Peterson PK; WIN55,212-2-mediated inhibition of HIV-1 expression in microglial cells: involvement of cannabinoid receptors; 2006