Those undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer can experience uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating side effects. Chemotherapy – or “chemo” — is a category of intravenously administered medicines or drugs that are designed to attack rapidly growing cancer cells. The drugs are very strong, and they kill any cell growing fast, even healthy ones. This can lead to side effects like nausea and vomiting, hair loss, pain, swelling in the hands and feet, sore mouth, diarrhea, constipation, loss of appetite, memory changes, fertility problems, emotional changes, and fatigue. Studies suggest that cannabidiol (CBD), a natural cannabinoid derived from cannabis plants like hemp, may be able to help patients manage the more difficult to control side effects of chemotherapy.
The side effects from chemotherapy develop because the chemotherapy drugs that attack cancerous cells also damage normal, healthy cells. Common side effects associated with chemotherapy are fever and chills, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, sore mouth, diarrhea, constipation, loss of appetite that can lead to anorexia, pain or difficulty with swallowing, swelling in the hands or feet, itching, shortness of breath, cough, and muscle or joint pain.
Individuals undergoing chemotherapy won’t necessarily experience all side effects and the severity of the side effects varies greatly from person to person. Most side effects will gradually go away after completion of the treatment.
Patients that opt to use cannabis as a cancer treatment are largely stepping into the unknown, relying on information passed down from other patients who have had success. Cannabis-like pharmaceuticals are already available and prescribed for side effects of chemotherapy. Two synthetic cannabinoids, dronabinol, and nabilone have been approved for the reduction of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. These two drugs are modeled after THC.
Cannabinoids have shown to effectively reduce the nausea and vomiting that often occurs during and after chemotherapy treatments. Studies have found that one of the major cannabinoids found in cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), is effective at treating the more difficult to control symptoms of nausea, as well as preventing anticipatory nausea in chemotherapy patients. Another study found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), another major cannabinoid found in cannabis, is also effective at reducing conditioned rejection and chemotherapy-induced nausea.
How CBD may be able to complement chemotherapy treatments
Reduce Nausea and Vomiting
Several studies have found evidence that CBD has anti-nausea and anti-emetic effects that may make chemotherapy treatments more comfortable for patients. CBD suppresses nausea and vomiting likely through indirect activation of somatodendritic 5-HT1A receptors in the dorsal raphe nucleus, studies suggest.
One research review concluded: “Preclinical research indicates that cannabinoids, including CBD, may be effective clinically for treating both nausea and vomiting produced by chemotherapy or other therapeutic treatments.”
Reduce Neuropathic Pain
CBD may also be beneficial for reducing chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain. One study found that CBD prevents the neuropathic pain and thermal sensitivity without negatively affecting nervous system function or the efficacy of the chemotherapy treatment. Earlier this year, investigators found evidence that cannabinoids may ease nerve pain. Researchers believe these pain-relieving effects of CBD are also associated with the compound’s influence on 5-HT1A receptors.
In a clinical trial, cancer patients with intractable pain saw significant reductions in pain after just two weeks of treatments containing CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
CBD has shown to have anti-inflammatory properties that may prove to be beneficial for managing the swelling of the hands and feet that some patients experience while undergoing chemotherapy. By interacting with the endocannabinoid system’s CB2 receptors, CBD suppresses the inflammatory response through multiple mechanisms. In one animal study, CBD effectively reduced edema in inflamed paw tissue.
Control Appetite to Prevent Weight Loss
While the cannabinoid THC is better known for its appetite-promoting capabilities, CBD’s influence on the body’s endocannabinoid system may also help manage appetite. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for balancing many of our systems, including the regulation of food intake. Cannabinoids like CBD interact with the endocannabinoid system’s receptors to potentially help it better regulate appetite and eating motivation.