HIV and Cannabis: How Weed Helps People With HIV/AIDS

HIV and cannabis might seem like a strange combination, but weed can be very helpful to those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Here's how.

HIV and cannabis might seem like a strange combination. Both HIV and cannabis are stigmatized in their own way. Few people realize that weed can actually be very helpful to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

HIV – which stands for human immunodeficiency virus – is a virus that attacks the immune system. The virus attacks CD4 cells, which are white-blood cells that defend our bodies against illnesses. The virus then ‘hijacks’ CD4 cells and replicates itself within those cells. Because the CD4 cells are destroyed, they aren’t able to defend the body against illness.

The term ‘AIDS’ refers to the final stage of HIV, which occurs when the immune system is severely damaged.

Fortunately, innovations in medicine mean that HIV-positive people can go on to live long and fulfilling lives. Anti-retroviral drugs – or ARVs – are given to HIV/AIDS patients to slow down the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, ARVs come with a great deal of uncomfortable side-effects that can prevent the patient from functioning well.

This is where cannabis comes in. As a multi-use plant with little-to-no real side effects, it can be a lifeline for those living with HIV.

How cannabis can help HIV-positive patients

Many HIV-positive patients suffer from constant nausea and a poor appetite. Since a healthy diet is important in treating HIV positive people, it’s imperative that they have a good appetite.

A study focusing on HIV-positive men showed that cannabis could increase one’s appetite by increasing the amount of appetite-stimulating hormones in the bloodstream. In 2005, researchers conducted a survey among 523 HIV-positive patients who used cannabis. The survey showed that 97% of HIV-positive cannabis users felt that cannabis stimulated their appetite, while 93% felt it eased their nausea.

HIV/AIDS patients often suffer from chronic pain in the muscles and joints. This pain is often neuropathic, meaning it’s caused by nerve damage. Cannabis is strongly linked to pain relief, including the relief of neuropathic pain, which is why many people use marijuana-enriched topical creams for pain relief. In the 2005 survey mentioned above, 94% of participants reported that using cannabis eased muscle pain and 90% reported relief in nerve pain.

A study conducted in 2002 showed that marijuana can positively affect HIV-positive patients in a number of different ways. Other than improving appetite, cannabis can also help by improving a patient’s mood. Due to the social stigma and physical strain of the virus, HIV/AIDS patients often suffer from mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Many people find that cannabis can ease the symptoms of anxiety and provide relief from depression. The study noted that cannabis decreased the patient’s’ irritability and improved their mood significantly.

Can cannabis slow the effects of HIV?

Cannabis might not just manage the side-effects of ARVs. It could actually contain the key to slowing the spread of HIV.

Recently, a study hosted at Louisiana State University indicated that THC might prevent HIV from spreading within the body. The study focused on monkeys infected with SIV, the simian version of HIV. The study involved giving THC to monkeys infected with SIV over a 17 month period. Five months after this, the researchers discovered that the monkeys had a healthier gut.

The gut is an important part of our immune system. It produces CD4 and CD8 cells, which attack viruses. HIV tends to attack the gut first, destroying most of the immune system. This makes it easier for HIV to spread.

After the monkeys received the THC, the gut tissue started producing more CD4 and CD8 cells. This suggests that THC could slow down or prevent the HIV from spreading in one’s body.

This study brings a great deal of hope to those living with the virus. That said, we need further studies to verify whether THC can help humans affected by HIV.

Further research on HIV and cannabis

Other studies have explored the link between HIV and cannabis. Specifically, they looked at the role of the endocannabinoid system in people living with HIV. A 2012 study suggests that certain cannabinoids can slow down the replication of the HI-virus. Another study, published in 2013, shows that cannabinoids can prevent HIV causing nerve damage.

There needs to be more research on HIV and cannabis to show how cannabinoids affect people living with the virus. Given how optimistic past results have been, it’s possible that these studies can lead to the development of better medication for HIV-positive people.

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