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Cannabis may be a highly effective treatment for cancer patients

New research from the University of Colorado Boulder has revealed that cancer patients who use cannabis to alleviate their symptoms not only experience less pain and improved sleep, but also exhibit an unexpected benefit: clearer thinking. 

The findings, published in the journal Exploration in Medicine, represent a significant development in understanding the potential benefits of over-the-counter cannabis for relieving cancer symptoms and chemotherapy side-effects.

“When you’re in a lot of pain, it’s hard to think. We found that when patients’ pain levels came down after using cannabis for a while, their cognition got better,” explained study senior author Professor Angela Bryan.

This small yet groundbreaking study is among the first to investigate the impact of cannabis purchased at dispensaries rather than government-supplied or synthetic cannabis.

In recent years, a growing number of cancer patients have turned to cannabis as a legal option for managing symptoms in most states. Survey data indicates that up to 40 percent of U.S. cancer patients use cannabis; however, only a third of doctors feel comfortable advising patients on its use. 

How the study was done

The complexity of studying cannabis is due in part to federal law, which prohibits university researchers from possessing or distributing cannabis for research unless it’s government-issued or of pharmaceutical grade. 

Consequently, previous studies have predominantly focused on prescription products like nabilone or dronabinol (typically prescribed for nausea) or government cannabis strains that tend to be less potent and lack the variety of over-the-counter offerings.

To overcome these limitations, Bryan and her research team collaborated with oncologists at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, observing 25 cancer patients who used cannabis over a two-week period. 

After assessing the participants’ pain levels, sleep patterns, and cognition in a baseline appointment, they were instructed to purchase an edible product of their choice from a dispensary. 

The choices were surprisingly diverse, spanning 18 brands, with options such as chocolates, gummies, tinctures, pills, and baked goods, and containing various ratios of THC and CBD at a wide range of potencies.

The range of products chosen by the participants highlights the willingness of people to try different options in search of relief, but a lack of data leaves them without guidance on which product works best for their needs. 

“This tells us that people are open to trying whatever they think might be useful, but there’s just not much data out there to guide them on what works best for what,” said Bryan.

The researchers behind the study went to great lengths to collect accurate data, using a “mobile laboratory” (a Dodge Sprinter van, sometimes referred to as the “cannavan”) to conduct physical and cognitive assessments at each patient’s home. This allowed the researchers to test the patients before and after using cannabis in their own homes, minimizing external factors that could affect the results.

What the researchers discovered

In the short term, the study found that cannabis use provided significant pain relief within an hour, but also impaired patients’ cognition and made them feel “high” (with higher THC content resulting in a stronger high). 

However, after two weeks of consistent use at the patients’ chosen frequency, a different pattern emerged. Participants reported improvements in pain, sleep quality, and cognitive function, with some objective measures of cognitive function, such as reaction times, also showing improvement.

Professor Bryan expressed surprise at the results. “We thought we might see some problems with cognitive function,” she said, noting that both cannabis and chemotherapy have previously been associated with impaired thinking. “But people actually felt like they were thinking more clearly.” 

The researchers also found that the more a patient’s pain subsided, the more their cognition seemed to improve. Additionally, those who ingested more CBD, a known anti-inflammatory, reported bigger improvements in sleep quality and pain intensity.

While the findings are preliminary and larger controlled studies are needed, they raise an intriguing possibility: while certain forms and dosages of cannabis for pain relief may impair thinking in the short term, some regimens could potentially improve cognition in the long run by reducing pain. 

Personal experience included in the study

Professor Bryan, who had been studying cancer prevention for years and had just begun researching medicinal cannabis use when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, personally used cannabis to help ease her pain after surgery and chemotherapy.

“The doctors were so supportive of what I wanted to do, but they had no idea what to tell me,” she said. “There was just no data.” 

Concerned about using opioids, Bryan created her own custom regimen of more potent THC-heavy products when the pain was intense and she could sacrifice some mental sharpness, and milder, CBD-heavy products to keep the pain manageable. She was not pain-free but managed to avoid using opiates during her treatment.

“I was extremely lucky because I had some knowledge about this. Most patients don’t,” she said. Bryan hopes that her research and future studies will help people make better-informed decisions about using cannabis to manage the symptoms of cancer and its treatments.

As the field of cannabis research continues to expand, these findings provide a valuable insight into the potential benefits of over-the-counter cannabis for cancer patients, and may serve as a foundation for future studies on this topic.

More about cannabis and pain relief

Cannabis has long been used for its pain-relieving properties, and with the growing acceptance and legalization of medicinal cannabis in many parts of the world, research into its therapeutic effects has increased. The two primary active compounds in cannabis, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), have been shown to have varying effects on pain management.

THC is the psychoactive compound responsible for the “high” experienced when using cannabis. It binds to CB1 receptors in the brain, which are part of the endocannabinoid system, a complex cell-signaling system that plays a role in regulating various physiological processes, including pain perception. 

By binding to these receptors, THC can modulate pain signals and provide relief from different types of pain, such as neuropathic pain (associated with nerve damage) and inflammatory pain.

CBD, on the other hand, is a non-psychoactive compound that does not produce a “high.” It is believed to have anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain-relieving), and neuroprotective properties. 

CBD interacts with various receptors in the endocannabinoid system and other neurotransmitter systems, such as serotonin and vanilloid receptors, to modulate pain perception. Research has shown that CBD can be effective in managing conditions like arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and neuropathic pain.

Combining THC and CBD in varying ratios can offer different therapeutic effects, depending on the type and intensity of pain. Some studies suggest that the combination of THC and CBD can provide greater pain relief than either compound alone, due to a phenomenon called the “entourage effect.” 

This concept proposes that the various compounds in cannabis work together synergistically to enhance their therapeutic effects.

It’s important to note that the ideal ratio of THC and CBD for pain relief can vary from person to person, and the optimal dosage depends on factors such as the individual’s tolerance, the severity of the pain, and the specific condition being treated. Medical professionals and researchers are still working to determine the most effective formulations and dosages for different types of pain.

In conclusion, cannabis has shown promise as an alternative or supplementary treatment for pain relief in various conditions. However, more research is needed to establish standardized guidelines for its use and to fully understand the long-term effects of cannabis-based therapies. 

Always consult a healthcare professional before using cannabis for pain management, as they can help determine the most appropriate treatment plan based on individual needs and circumstances.


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