The main active ingredient in marijuana seems to allow chemotherapy patients to regain their ability to taste and enjoy food, according to the results of a small new study.
The finding could potentially lead to treatments to help some cancer patients restore their appetite.
Chemotherapy patients often lose the ability to smell and taste food, which can cause them to lose an unhealthy amount of weight. Researchers at several universities in Canada wondered if THC, a component of marijuana, might help. After all, marijuana is known to make users want to munch on food.
In the new study, Wendy Wismer, an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and colleagues randomly assigned 21 patients to take THC in pill form (through an anti-nausea drug called Marinol, known generically as dronabinol) or a placebo twice daily for 18 days.
The study results are published in the Annals of Oncology.
Weed makes people sleepy, relaxed
The investigators found that those who received the THC were more likely to report that food "tasted better" and ate more protein, although they didn't eat more kJ's overall than those who took the placebos. The patients who took THC also reported better sleep and relaxation.
"We know from our earlier work that individuals with advanced cancer have diminished appetite and have to make a big conscious effort to eat; they are motivated to eat simply to survive," Wismer stated. "So, although THC did not significantly increase total kilojoule intake, the fact that it improved appetite and protein intake is important," she explained.
The study authors concluded that "THC may well contribute to the overall enjoyment of food in cancer patients." It could also help patients with a variety of symptoms, they noted, including pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety and poor quality of sleep.
Commenting on the report, Dr Donald I. Abrams, a professor of clinical medicine who studies marijuana at the University of California, San Francisco, said that the findings aren't "earth-shattering", but they are good news for cancer patients.
However, he added, the drug probably won't get approved for this use. As an alternative, "people might get similar benefits from smoking cannabis," Abrams said.
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