HIV/ AIDS has been in existence since the beginning of the twentieth century – back then, it was prevalent in apes. In 1981, the first HIV case was identified in the United States. Since then, HIV cases have sprouted at alarming rates across the globe. Recent statistics indicate that 35 million people have died so far from this scourge. A lot of effort has been channeled towards finding a cure for HIV, and a lot has been achieved with antiretroviral therapies (ARVs). Unfortunately, current treatment is not a cure, and prolonged use of ARVs is associated with undesirable side effects. Due to this, the quest for a cure and wholesome treatment for HIV is ongoing, and cannabis for HIV is one of the promising considerations.
Overview of HIV/ AIDS
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is just that, a virus that suppresses the immune system. The HIV virus attacks CD4 cells that are responsible for the body’s immunity. When this happens, the CD4 cell numbers reduce significantly (CD4 count) and a person is vulnerable to all sorts of infections. HIV is not a disease per se, but a compromised state of immunity.
When the CD4 count is very low, the body becomes progressively unable to fight off infections and without treatment to boost CD4 count, one may develop full-blown AIDS.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a state where the body has acquired opportunistic infections due to a compromised immune system. These infections are commonly confused to be what AIDS is, but anyone with compromised immunity can develop any of the opportunistic infections suffered by AIDS patients. Another common misconception is that anyone with HIV already has full-blown AIDS. This is not so, as many people living with HIV live for many years without getting to the AIDS stage where they are plagued by opportunistic infections.
Current Treatment of HIV/ AIDS
The most common treatment for HIV is ARVs. What ARVs do is to boost the CD4 count and reduce viral load. Viral load is the concentration of the HIV virus in one’s blood.
ARVs have offered a lot of hope to people living with HIV/AIDS, and some patients have survived 30-plus years living with the virus. ARVs, however, come with some uncomfortable side effects, including:
- Lipodystrophy (weight gain or weight loss in certain areas of the body)
- Loss of appetite
- Mood changes
Also, ARV treatment is not a cure. Because of this, patients living with HIV are always looking for alternative solutions to relieve them of the burden of living with HIV/ AIDS. Alternative treatments for HIV include the use of supplements such as selenium (to slow down the progression of the disease), herbal medicine such as milk thistle, and ginseng, acupuncture, and yoga among others.
Cannabis offers help in two ways: symptom management and slowing down progression of the disease. It is also speculated that cannabis may offer a cure solution for HIV/ AIDS, but with no concrete scientific data to back this, we shall leave this as just that speculation.
Here is a breakdown of symptoms that may benefit from marijuana use:
Cachexia (severe loss of weight)
HIV-related cachexia is the primary cause of the stigma associated with HIV. At some point when everyone dreaded HIV, anyone who had lost significant weight was suspected to be infected with “the virus.” Thankfully, those days are behind us, even though cachexia still continues to plague HIV/AIDS patients.
It is not clear why HIV causes such massive wasting away. This could be due to the loss of appetite or the general stress that comes with the diagnosis. However, it has been shown that marijuana’s appetite-stimulating properties are effective in combating HIV-related cachexia.
Marinol is a marijuana-based drug that has shown positive results as an appetite stimulant that causes gain in lean muscle mass for people with severe wasting syndrome.
HIV/AIDS patients may benefit from consuming cannabis that will stimulate their appetite and help them achieve weight gain.
ARVs are also associated with peripheral neuropathy, a condition that presents with nerve pain and altered sensations. In extreme cases, patients may be unable to walk due to painful nerves in their feet.
A study conducted by the University of California in 2007 investigated the effectiveness of marijuana in treating peripheral neuropathy associated with HIV/AIDS. The study proved the usefulness of marijuana in this regard.
HIV/AIDS patients are frequently plagued with anxiety, stress, and depression related to the diagnosis, side effects from ARVS, stigma, and disease symptoms. Doctors frequently prescribe anti-depressants, such as Escitalopram, that may cause addiction over time.
Marijuana can be used to treat depression and anxiety. One study showed that short-term use of cannabis significantly reduced stress levels, depression, and anxiety. Long-term use of cannabis, though, resulted in an exacerbation of symptoms.
The issue of marijuana dependence and addiction is controversial. 30% of marijuana users may develop dependence over time, meaning that the user feels withdrawal symptoms when they have not taken marijuana. But unlike addiction to other drugs, marijuana overuse is not associated with fatalities, nor are the withdrawal symptoms life-threatening.
Is Cannabis a Cure for HIV/ AIDS?
A study conducted by the department of pharmacology of Michigan State University showed that cannabis suppresses T-cell function and immunity through various mechanisms. However, another study conducted by Virginia State University showed that cannabis helps in boosting CD4 cell count. Another study conducted by the University of Florida, department of epidemiology showed similar findings to the second study. It is clear that further research needs to done to point us in the right direction.
Cannabis has proven useful in treating stubborn symptoms associated with HIV/ AIDS, but whether it can boost CD4 count or not is subject to debate. There is just a lack of clinical evidence to support this, as most of the studies done in this area have been pre-clinical.
Is cannabis a cure for HIV/ AIDS? There is no scientific evidence yet to support this claim. However, scientists are hopeful in finding a cure for HIV/ AIDS, and cannabis is one of the promising considerations.
- Science Direct (2018): A naturalistic examination of the perceived effects of cannabis on negative affect. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032718303100
- BMJ Open: Oral cannabinoids in people living with HIV on effective antiretroviral therapy: CTN PT028—study protocol for a pilot randomised trial to assess safety, tolerability and effect on immune activation. Retrieved from https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/9/1/e024793.full.pdf
- NCBI (2018): Long-Term Stress and Concomitant Marijuana Smoke Exposure Affect Physiology, Behavior and Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6064973/
- NCBI: Marijuana and AIDS. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK224400/
- NCBI: HIV-related cachexia: potential mechanisms and treatment. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1461629