Is Medical Marijuana The Hope For Viral Hepatitis?

Can medical marijuana give hope to viral hepatitis patients? Research suggests that the herb can help.

Apr 14, 2016

Can medical marijuana give hope to viral hepatitis patients? Research on the subject suggests that the herb can help. Not only are marijuana users more compliant with their treatment plans, but cannabinoids may prove to be new therapeutic targets for combatting potentially deadly liver inflammation. Here’s the scoop on how medical marijuana aids hepatitis treatment. 

What is viral hepatitis?

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Hepatitis is a chronic inflammation of the liver, typically caused by a variant of the hepatitis virus. While symptoms can remain unobtrusive for many years in some cases, the disease causes extremely painful liver damage over time and it can be fatal if left untreated.

There are five main types of hepatitis: A, B, C, D, and E. Though, there is also some recent speculation on types F and G. According to the World Health Organization, types B and C “lead to chronic disease in hundreds of millions of people and, together, are the most common cause of liver cirrhosis and cancer.”

These two types of hepatitis, along with Hep D, are typically transmitted via exposure to bodily fluids of those that are infected. Other types are spread via contaminated water sources.

Safe and effective vaccines are available for viruses A, B, D, and E. But, there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C. This makes this particular form of the virus especially dangerous. Hep C is most often spread via blood contact, putting those who use needle-based recreational drugs particularly at risk. It can also be spread via sexual contact, but this is not common. Blood is thought to be the primary form of transmission.

Symptoms of hepatitis

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WebMD has outlined some of the most common symptoms of viral hepatitis infection. The most common form of hepatitis is hepatitis C. Though, there are often no reported symptoms when people first contract the virus. It’s also common for patients to be misdiagnosed early on, as symptoms tend to mimic the flu when they first being to show. Watch out for:

  • Flu-like symptoms: nausea, poor appetite, fatigue, mild fever, muscle aches, belly pain
  • More serious symptoms: dark urine, light-colored stools, jaundice, internal bleeding, feeling itchy, feeling dazed, coma

How is hepatitis treated?

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Some hepatitis infections, like Hep A, are not usually treated. However, chronic forms of the virus, like hepatitis C are typically treated with a series of antivirals and Interferon. Interferon is a synthetic version of an immune protein that our bodies create naturally. It’s usually the first line of defense  and is often combined with powerful antivirals like Epivir, Hepsera, or one of several other medications.

The course of antiviral treatment for types B and C often require 12 weeks to a year of compliance. Unfortunately, there is no quick-fix for this disease. If it progresses to the point where you experience liver scarring, also known as cirrhosis, you may require a liver transplant.

Marijuana and viral hepatitis treatment

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Antiviral therapy is no easy task. The months of medication compliance needed to head-off a severe infection cause a lot of patients to be inconsistent with their treatment. Obviously, this is bad news for the patient, and only increases public health costs and risks.

One 2006 study found that viral hepatitis patients undergoing antiviral therapy were more likely to stick to their treatment if they were also marijuana users. The study included 71 patients and marijuana users typically stayed with treatment for 38 weeks. Their non-using counterparts managed around 33. When patients are given interferon, the best and primary line of treatment for hepatitis patients, flu-like symptoms are amplified. 

The human body creates our own version of interferon when we develop an infection or illness. It’s the protein responsible for the aches, pains, chills, depression and fatigue that we experience when we’re sick. So, it’s no wonder why so many hepatitis patients turn to cannabis to provide some relief. Adding medical marijuana to your hepatitis treatment can help mitigate some of the negative side effects caused by the treatments themselves.

The plant’s potent anti-nausea, appetite stimulating, and pain-relieving effects can drastically improve the quality of life of those undergoing antiviral treatment. This is especially important in hepatitis C, as the disease is curable if you’re adherent to your medication program. If not, the virus can permanently damage your liver.

Is there hope in medical marijuana treatment?

It’s well-known that marijuana has incredibly strong anti-inflammatory effects. In the case of liver inflammation caused by hepatitis virus, marijuana may be able to help. Research published in 2003 found that cannabinoids successfully reduced damage-causing inflammation in experimental models of hepatitis.

The study used a non-psychoactive synthetic cannabinoid. The research team found that the compound reduced the amount of inflammatory proteins found in the liver, and concluded:

These findings suggest that this cannabinoid derivative is an immunomodulator that could be developed as a potential drug for hepatitis as well as for other short- or long-term inflammatory diseases.

Another 2011 study found that the endocannabinoid system plays a crucial role in mediating liver diseases. The research published in the British Journal of Pharmacology suggests that cannabinoid receptors are possible therapeutic targets for reducing hepatic inflammation. These potent inflammation-fighting properties may offer hope to those at risk for liver scarring or chronic forms of the disease. Though, clinical trials are needed to confirm these theories.

While some earlier studies have suggested that cannabis use may lead to increased fat and tissue build-up in the liver, potentially causing more damage, other research suggests otherwise. A 2013 study published in Clinical Infectious Disease examined nearly 700 marijuana using hepatitis C patients. The researchers found that marijuana did not worsen the liver damage caused by the disease.

Between aiding in medication compliance and it’s strong anti-inflammatory effects, medical marijuana offers some much-needed relief to hepatitis patients. Though, the current political climate surrounding the herb makes clinical trials in the United States nearly impossible. Until restrictions for medical professionals and scientists are loosened, patients are left to decide for themselves whether medical marijuana is a helpful addition to their antiviral therapy.

Do you have experience with medical cannabis for hepatitis? Did it help? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below.

Apr 14, 2016