How Can You Use Medical Marijuana for Cachexia?

by | Aug 5, 2021 | Health & Relief

Medical marijuana for cachexia

Updated on November 26, 2021. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Shatha Atiya.

Understandably, being diagnosed with cachexia can cause you to worry. After all, the disorder is often associated with the late stages of severe illness

Also known as wasting syndrome, cachexia is common in patients in the late stages of chronic progressive illnesses. It is especially common in cancer, HIV/AIDs, COPD, kidney disease, and congestive heart failure patients. 

In the latter stages of such illnesses, many patients find themselves lacking appetite and energy. Their physical condition starts to deteriorate with extreme weight loss and muscle-wasting. 

A cachexia diagnosis will likely leave you with a lot of questions. What exactly is cachexia? Or what causes cachexia? What are the symptoms of cachexia? How is cachexia treated? And most importantly, how can you use medical marijuana for cachexia symptoms?

This article will answer these questions and explore how to use medical marijuana for cachexia. 

Can Medical Marijuana Treat Cachexia?

Medical marijuana for cachexia

Medical marijuana can bring some relief to people suffering from cachexia. Cannabinoids can help in improving appetite, reducing nausea, improving mood, and decreasing pain.

However, cannabis isn’t a cure for cachexia or wasting syndrome. 

Here’s a summary of how medical cannabis helps with cachexia:

Increasing Appetite and Relieving Nausea 

As early as 300 BCE, marijuana was used to stimulate appetite and alleviate nausea.

A review of different studies found considerable evidence of cannabinoid’s anti-nausea and anti-emetic effects.

Preclinical research suggests that cannabinoids, CBD included, may be effective in treating nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy and other treatments.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), in particular, helps increase hunger signals to the brain. It also promotes a positive emotional association with eating. 

Relieving  Pain

Anecdotal evidence of people using cannabis to effectively relieve pain abound. And scientific study backs up the anecdotal evidence. According to a 2010 research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, three puffs of cannabis a day can help relieve pain in patients with chronic nerve pain due to injury or surgery.

Both THC and CBD are known for relieving different kinds of pain. While CBD is recommended for inflammatory pain, THC relieves pain while giving patients a euphoric feeling.

With reduced pain, cannabis can inspire increased physical activity in chronically ill patients. This helps slow down muscle atrophy.

Boosting Mental Outlook and Comfort

Medical cannabis has also been shown to improve mental outlook and comfort in cachexia patients. 

In a 2017 study by Columbia University, HIV patients reported positive effects from using medical marijuana. Importantly, they had no discomfort or impairment in cognitive performance. They also reported improvements in sleep – a benefit they lacked in prescription appetite drugs such as dronabinol. 

A 2015 study from the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions found that endocannabinoids in the brain activate the same receptors as many active compounds in marijuana. Endocannabinoids are linked to feelings of happiness and general well-being.

According to a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, smoking marijuana also helps to significantly decrease self-reported levels of depression in the short term. 

The Best Strains of Medical Marijuana for Cachexia Symptoms

Several cannabis strains are effective in managing cachexia. Generally, THC-dominant strains seem to be the most effective for treating cachexia. 

That said, here is a summary of the best medical cannabis strains for managing different cachexia symptoms:

For Appetite

Medical marijuana boosts appetite

To improve your appetite, try strains that are dominant with appetite-stimulating THC and CBG. However, if you would like to avoid the psychoactive effects, go for CBG-dominant strains. 

THC stimulates ghrelin production to make you feel hungry. Additionally, it acts on the olfactory bulb to make food tastier and its smell more appealing. 

THC also triggers the release of dopamine, helping increase satisfaction from eating. 

CBG also acts as an appetite stimulant by stimulating hormones such as endorphin. 

While it doesn’t directly stimulate appetite, CBD can also be helpful. It improves mood, relieves pain, and eases nausea – which can help boost a patient’s desire to eat. 

Try these Sativa-dominant cannabis strains to boost appetite: 

  • Sonoma Coma – a strain with high THC levels. It will make you feel uplifted, energized, and with increased appetite. 
  • Orange Skunk – a strain with moderate THC levels that stimulates hunger. 
  • White Fire OG – a hybrid marijuana strain often liked by patients for boosting appetite.

For Nausea and Vomiting

Medical cannabis relieves nausea

Medicinal use of cannabis in alleviating nausea and vomiting is well-documented and established.

Both THC and CBD strains have properties that can provide relief from nausea. But consuming edibles isn’t advisable if you are taking medical marijuana for nausea. Edibles can take 30-45 minutes to have any noticeable effect. 

You can also use medical marijuana to prevent and treat nausea caused by motion sickness. If you are prone to motion sickness, medicate before boarding. 

Drugs commonly prescribed for nausea, such as promethazine and metoclopramide, come with worrying side effects. The side effects include dizziness, shortness of breath, increased heartbeat, fever, headaches, and weakness. 

Unlike these drugs, medical cannabis doesn’t come with a laundry list of side effects. 

Patients who have used medical cannabis for nausea and vomiting say that CBD-dominant strains provide the most relief. 

Look for strains with high CBD and low THC amounts. Combining the non-intoxicating effects of CBD  with low levels of THC can provide relief for nausea and vomiting.

The best strains for treating nausea and vomiting include:

  • Sour Willie – a Sativa strain that helps relieve nausea and vomiting
  • Durban Poison – a sweet-smelling, energizing Sativa that assuages nausea 
  • Mango Kush – a munchie-inducing strain that you can also use to treat nausea 
  • Sour Diesel – a Sativa-dominant hybrid that alleviates nausea

For Depression

Research shows that cannabis can be an effective remedy for depression – one of the symptoms of cachexia wasting syndrome. 

The best cannabis strains for treating depression in cachexia patients include:

  • Granddaddy Purple – a mentally stimulating Indica strain 
  • Blue Dream – a Sativa-dominant hybrid that will leave you feeling relaxed, euphoric, and creative.  
  • Chocolope – a pain-relieving Sativa strain that also alleviates depression.

For Energy

Medical marijuana for cachexia energy

Patients suffering from cachexia find themselves feeling constantly fatigued. 

Fortunately, medical marijuana can give patients an energy boost. This can enable them to have more physical activity and improve their quality of life. 

Generally, Sativa and Sativa-dominant hybrid marijuana strains are the best for fatigue. These strains have energizing and mentally stimulating effects.

The best strains for energizing cachexia patients include:

  • Jack Herer – a Sativa strain that helps boost energy.
  • OG Kush – a potent THC-dominant strain that will leave you feeling happy and relaxed.
  • Green Crack – a Sativa dominant hybrid that will give you enough energy to go through the day but won’t keep you up at night.
  • Super Silver Haze – a strain that will make you feel energized and focused throughout the day. 

The Best Methods of Taking Medical Marijuana for Cachexia

Taking medical marijuana strains for cachexia

You are probably wondering about how to best take medical marijuana for cachexia. 

Since cachexia leaves you feeling constantly weak and fatigued, smoking pot isn’t such a great idea. The most effective route of administering medical marijuana for cachexia seems to be sublingual or oral.

Alternatives to explore include vaping, sprays, tinctures, juices, and edibles. 

Possible Side Effects of Medical Marijuana for Cachexia Patients

Although medical marijuana is considered safe for managing cachexia symptoms, it can have side effects such as:

  • Tiredness
  • Disorientation
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations 
  • And altered general functioning

Is Cachexia a Qualifying Condition for Medical Cannabis Use?

Cachexia qualifying condition for medical marijuana use

In many states, cachexia is included in the list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis use. Additionally, physicians across the country can legally prescribe dronabinol for patients suffering from cachexia. 

Once you have your medical marijuana card, you can legally purchase medical cannabis for cachexia symptoms in these states: New York, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, North Dakota, Oregon, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. 

To get your medical marijuana card, book an appointment with one of QuickMedCard’s licensed doctors.

The doctor will:

  • assess your condition,
  • create a personalized treatment plan for you,
  • and certify you for a medical marijuana card in your state. 

We have a team of experienced doctors dedicated to helping patients access the right marijuana treatment. 

You will get to consult with qualified practitioners from the comfort of your home. You can have a telemedicine consultation with your doctor and be evaluated through your laptop, mobile phone, or tablet. 

What is Cachexia? 

Cachexia is a wasting disorder that causes one to experience extreme weight loss, muscle depletion, and loss of body fat. The wasting of muscles is also known as sarcopenia.

Cachexia medical definition is where a patient loses more than 5% of their body weight over 12 months or less. This weight loss occurs when you are not trying to lose weight through diet or exercise and you have a known illness or disease.

Cachexia is a term that is derived from the Greek words “kakos” and “hexis” which mean “bad condition.” 

The ICD-10 code for cachexia is R64

Why is Cachexia Weight Loss Different?

Cachexia weight loss cancer cachexia

Unlike other types of weight loss, losing weight due to cachexia is involuntary. People suffering from cachexia are not actively trying to trim their waistlines through diet and exercise.

Rather, cachexia patients lose weight due to:

  • Lack of appetite,
  • Metabolic imbalances,
  • And inflammation associated with their illness.

Researchers have theorized that cachexia is one of the body’s natural responses to fighting disease. When you can’t provide your body with adequate nutrition due to illness, it starts breaking down muscle and stored fat for fuel.

Unlike normal weight loss, cachexia patients don’t simply lose weight. They also get frail, which makes them more vulnerable to infections that may lead to death. Additionally, reversing cachexia isn’t simply a matter of eating more food.

Cachexia wasting syndrome is commonly seen in patients suffering from:

  • Cancer
  • Rheumatoid arthritis 
  • Chronic renal failure
  • Multiple sclerosis 
  • Tuberculosis 
  • Celiac disease
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Malaria
  • Severe sepsis 
  • Malabsorption
  • Mercury poisoning

Note: Cachexia is also common in the elderly, where it may happen without any underlying cause. This is known as geriatric cachexia.

What Causes Cachexia?

Cachexia is a multifactorial, complex syndrome. The exact causes of cachexia vary from patient to patient depending on their physiology and underlying illness. 

Cachexia was largely overlooked by physicians and researchers. They disagreed on its classification, diagnostic criteria, and treatment approaches. 

Fortunately, understanding of the condition has improved considerably over the years. Cachexia is now recognized by doctors and scientists as a distinct condition that is treatable with the right approach. 

Scientists have found that cachexia patients have incorrect levels of some substances in their bodies. Such imbalances are responsible for wasting syndrome.

For instance, a 2015 research by La Trobe University in Melbourne discovered that the fibroblast growth factor-inducible 14 (Fn14) receptor found on the membrane of cancer cells leads to cachexia in cancer patients. 

The scientists found that blocking the Fn14 receptor can help reverse cachexia, regardless of the presence or stage of a tumor.

What are the Common Cachexia Symptoms?

Emaciation is one of the most prominent cachexia symptoms. But research shows that the wasting syndrome starts even before any weight loss occurs. 

In 2006, a group of international experts met in Washington DC and reached a consensus on the criteria for diagnosing cachexia

To be diagnosed as cachectic, you have to have lost at least 5% weight in 12 months or less in the presence of an underlying illness. 

Additionally, you must have at least three of these other symptoms:

  • Decreased muscle strength
  • Fatigue 
  • Anorexia
  • Low fat-free mass index
  • Abnormal biochemistry. This includes increased inflammatory markers, elevated cytokines, anaemia, and low serum albumin)

Another symptom to look out for is decreased physical performance, which leads to lowered quality of life for the patient. 

Cachexia Statistics

It is estimated that more than 160,000 people are hospitalized with cachexia diagnosis annually in the United States. 

According to data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, the median duration of hospital stay for patients with cachexia is 6 days. Compare this to 3 days median stay for non-cachexia admissions. 

Cachexia patients also experience greater loss of function than those admitted with other conditions. 

The global prevalence of cachexia is around 1% of the patient population.

Cachexia prevalence in various illnesses is as follows:

  • 5-15% in people with congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Up to 60% of lung cancer patients
  • Up to 80% of people with stomach and other upper GI cancers
  • 60% of people with chronic kidney disease

Focus on Cancer Cachexia 

Various forms of cancer present with a complex metabolic profile that is characterized by loss of lean body mass. This syndrome is known as cancer cachexia, or cancer anorexia cachexia syndrome (CACS).

Cancer cells release substances that deplete muscles and reduce appetite. The situation is exacerbated by cancer treatments that can cause nausea or damage the digestive tract.

As your body gets less nutrition, it turns to fat and muscle for fuel. Cancer cells also use the body’s limited nutrients to survive and multiply. 

The wasting syndrome occurs in up to 80% of cancer patients, and at least 50% of advanced cancer patients. 

Cancer cachexia is thought to be directly responsible for 20-30% of cancer deaths in the US. 

There are 3 stages of cachexia in cancer patients: 

  • Pre-cachexia: a patient has less than 5% weight loss along with other symptoms.
  • Cachexia: a patient has more than 5% weight loss along with other symptoms associated with the syndrome. 
  • Refractory cachexia: patients diagnosed with cachexia are no longer responsive to treatment. At this stage, the patient probably has advanced cancer. They have low performance scores and a life expectancy of fewer than 3 months. 

Cachexia in HIV/AIDS Patients

Cachexia is a common complication in HIV and AIDS patients, where it is referred to as the HIV wasting syndrome

Like cancer cachexia, the AIDS wasting syndrome is marked by progressive muscle mass and fat depletion, and general body weakness. In AIDS patients, cachexia is also associated with fever and diarrhea. 

Exactly what causes cachexia in HIV patients has not been elucidated. However, researchers say that it is likely to be multifactorial. It involves the interaction between low caloric intake, malabsorption, and alterations in expenditure due to hormonal and metabolic abnormalities. 

Notably, AIDS patients tend to have high levels of cytokines,  which are associated with muscle wasting. 

A patient is said to have AIDS wasting syndrome when they have lost at least 10% of their body weight, especially in muscle mass. Cachexia heightens the risk of opportunistic infections, dementia, and death for AIDS patients. 

Thanks to antiretroviral therapy (ART), HIV wasting syndrome doesn’t occur as much as it used to. However, it is still a significant threat in AIDS patients.

How is Cachexia Treated? 

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive treatment for cachexia.

Currently, treatment options for cachexia include:

  • Appetite stimulants such as megestrol acetate (Megace)
  • Drugs to improve nausea, appetite, and mood such as dronabinol (Marinol)
  • Human growth hormone (HGH) treatments 
  • Medication to reduce inflammation
  • Diet changes and nutritional supplements
  • Adapted exercise 

Researchers are learning more about cachexia and the processes that cause it. With discoveries by researchers, there is hope that drugs will be developed to effectively combat the wasting process. 

Currently, available treatment options for the syndrome are costly and have significant downsides. 

For instance, human growth hormone treatments can cost more than $40,000 annually. Somatropin, a human growth hormone that helps patients build muscle and gain weight, is also known to cause joint and muscle pain and high blood sugar. 

Dronabinol, which improves mood and stabilizes weight, is a man-made cannabinoid. Unfortunately, dronabinol isn’t covered by insurance. 

Without reliable treatment options for cachexia, many patients turn to medical marijuana.

In Conclusion  

Cachexia is yet to be fully analyzed and understood by the medical fraternity. Plenty of further research is needed to understand its causes, effects, and possible treatment options. 

Although medical cannabis doesn’t fully treat cachexia, it goes a long way in helping manage symptoms. It improves a patient’s quality of life and possibly increases their life expectancy.

If you or a loved one is looking for a gentle and natural way to relieve cachexia, get started by booking an appointment with a medical cannabis doctor.