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Medical Marijuana: Does Cannabis Help with Chemotherapy Nausea?

Nausea and vomiting are devastating side effects of chemotherapy. Severe nausea does not easily go away and is a constant sensation that can disrupt your daily life. It can be difficult to control with prescription medications that can cause unwanted side effects and disrupt your daily activities. So what exactly is nausea? This is a combination of your brain, digestive system and nervous system all communicating and making you feel “sick”. When you feel nauseated, this is your body signaling a revulsion to whatever was eaten before vomiting. But, since nausea is a non-specific symptom associated with multiple causes and medical treatments, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of feeling sick.

Cannabis for the treatment of nausea

What are the best ways to block nausea caused by cancer treatments and chemotherapy?

The most common pharmaceutical approach to controlling nausea is through serotonin receptors in the brain and GI tract. A popular prescription anti-emetic is Zofran. Zofran works by blocking the nauseating effects of serotonin release. Like all prescription medication, there can be side effects to using Zofran, like constipation or headaches. Which is why many patients and doctors are turning to alternative medicine, like cannabis or CBD, for nausea relief.

One study published in 2010, showed that cannabis based medicine added to standard antiemetic therapy (Zofran) was well tolerated and provided better protection again delayed chemo induced nausea. Essentially, patients were able to use less Zofran and felt better after chemotherapy then just Zofran alone. The non-psychoactive cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) interacts with serotonin release receptors and has been shown to help alleviate nausea and vomiting.

CBD produces an anti-emetic effect by indirect activation of the somatodendritic 5-HT1A receptors in the dorsal raphe nucleus of the brain (in simple terms, the serotonin area of your brain). CBD has also been shown to ease anxiety. It is easy to to micro-focus on the potential act of vomiting and induce a sympathetic response (i.e you think about throwing up…and you throw up). The fear of the unknown can lead anticipatory nausea. Not knowing what to expect and excess nervous energy can induce a vomiting incident before you begin the drive to the infusion center. The mindset during chemotherapy, especially leading up to the first infusion can heighten the nausea and vomiting response. The unknown of potential side effects are stressful and difficult to predict. Will you get constipation? Or diarrhea? Will you develop fatigue or insomnia? What about “chemo brain”? Everyone is different and will respond differently to similar treatment plans.

Can cannabis be used to combat nausea caused by chemotherapy?

For patients with nausea caused by cancer treatments or other medical reasons, cannabis is an option. Research on CBD and THC for nausea and vomiting have show this is an effective adjuvant treatment option and the endocannabinoid system clearly plays a role in nausea response. The animal and clinical studies show the direct activation of the endocannabinoid receptor CB1 and indirect cannabinoid activation with 5-HT1A receptors by CBD reduce acute nausea and anticipatory nausea without the psychoactive effects of THC.

Nausea and vomiting are the most well known and devastating effects of many medical treatments, particularly cancer treatment. It is best to start with a high CBD, low THC option until you become used to the effects of THC. As you begin to feel comfortable with the psychoactive effects, you can increase the dose as needed, and there are many CBD rich products available. The use of cannabis for nausea and vomiting is well accepted by medical professionals. It is effective, well-tolerated and growing in popularity as a safe anti-nausea option for cancer care.

By Beth Garretson, PhD Molecular Biology & Biochemistry, Torrey Holistics Dr. Beth is a cannabis science specialist and private cannabis consultant. She has a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and is a cancer survivor. 

Works Cited:
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