Cannabis oil, quack or miracle cancer cure?

One-minute summary: cannabis oil extract, as cannabidiol or CBD, has shown in various studies high promises as a complementary therapy for cancer patients. It could be helpful to manage the side effects of the cancer and potentially help treat the cancer itself. Side effects are generally non-existent or minor. Unfortunately, the evidence is only at an early stage and we need a lot more studies before we can draw definite conclusions.

Cannabis-extracted CBD oil has show some promises as a complementary therapy for cancer patients

I have always been a sceptic. I like to question things and I don’t take any “miracle cures” at face value. And certainly, cannabis oil for cancer is one of those where the hype in the alternative community is everywhere. Because of this hype I have decided to investigate the subject with an open mind in order to find out if there are any real benefits. As I don’t sell products and don’t recommend any particular manufacturer, I can keep my freedom to analyse the situation with a critical eye.

There are actually several forms of cannabis oil. The most well-known are the cannabidiol oils (CBD for short) and tetrahydrocannabinol oils (abbreviated as THC). THC is the main psychoactive component of the cannabis plant and therefore an illegal product here in the UK. There is no reason to discuss this component as even if it were helpful, it wouldn’t be possible to get some legally. CBD oil is non-psychoactive and is sold freely on the high street throughout the country.

Both compounds interact with your body’s endocannabinoid system but they have different effects. Yes, your own body produces cannabis-oil-like substances called endocannabinoids. Those endocannabinoids are involved in a variety of body processes such as appetite, pain sensation, mood, inflammation, blood pressure, immunity, and memory. And the plant-based cannabidiol oils do interact with the cell receptors involved in those process.

The effects of cannabidiol oils on health has been researched by the scientific community and, although the research is still early days, there are a number of effects that stand out.

Direct anti-cancer effects

A 2013 review of the scientific literature published in the British journal of clinical pharmacology notes that several studies indicates that CBD may inhibit cancer cell migration, adhesion and invasion. The review primarily focuses on breast cancer, glioma, leukaemia and lung cancer. Obviously that is not to say that CBD hasn’t got any effects in other cancers as well, it just hasn’t been studied there. Interestingly, some of the research reviewed goes beyond the test-tube experiments, and some of the anti-cancer effects have been noted “in-vivo” as well – meaning inside a living organism, typically lab rats or mice.

The same group also reported that CBD may inhibit angiogenesis, at least based on test-tube experiments (angiogenesis is the formation of new blood vessels to supply a tumour with nutrients).

Another review in the Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism Journal also points out that cannabinoid compounds have been associated with the inhibition of tumour metastatic spreading, reduced invasiveness of different cancer cell and inhibition of tumour growth for several types of cancers. The proposed mechanisms are complex and varied, depending on the tumour type, and may involve induction of apoptosis in tumour cells (programmed cell death), anti-proliferative action through the suppression of mitogenic signals (signals that promote the division of a cell in two new cells), and anti-metastatic effect through inhibition of neo-angiogenesis and tumour cell migration.

A number of studies have also found CBD to trigger cancer cells’ own suicide gene (apoptosis). See here and here.

Management of cancer side effects and palliative care

The use of cannabis extract for chronic or difficult to treat pain has been previously demonstrated, and is now at the stage of being a recognised medicine. For instance, Sativex®, a cannabis derived oral spray containing equal proportions of THC and CBD cannabidiol was approved in Canada in 2005 for treatment of central neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis, and in 2007 for intractable cancer pain.

CBD oil also possesses well-established anti-anxiety properties, anti-nausea and anti-vomiting properties . There is also some evidence that it can be useful in the case of insomnia.

What is the best way to take cannabidiol?

The first thing to note is that oral bioavailability is low. When ingesting CBD, it is estimated that as little as 6% to 20% actually ends-up in the blood stream. Sublingual (under the tongue) is better, with 12%-35% absorption and 34–46% when delivered intra-nasal (inside the nose). One study found that the best way to obtain chronic pain relief can be best achieved through the transdermal route (through the skin), due to the skin having a reservoir effect: in other words, the oil is absorbed through the skin slowly enough to ensure consistent supply in between applications. So perhaps a very good way to get your CBD intake would be to get a CBD oil massage?

Dangers?

THC has been shown to be immunosuppressive, so here is another reason why you might want to be careful using it. There is also some concern that CBD may convert into THC in the stomach, however some studies have found this concern to be unsubstantiated.

Two recent reviews (here and here), of the scientific literature summarised that CBD is safe and non-toxic, with little side-effect. They both underline that the research is in early days and more parameters need to be studied in order to confirm the safety.

So, we have proof that it works, right?

Not so fast! Most of the experiments so far have been done in test tubes, or on isolated tissues, or in animals. Some have used very high concentrations that can be either difficult or expensive to attain. Absorption and delivery are poorly studied. CBD is normally dissolved in oil, and it is unclear how the carrier oil quantities that are required for a therapeutic dose of CBD would affect health. We need good trials in a clinical setting, with dose-response data, in order to be able to say that CBD can cure anything, and considering funding and sometime legal implications of studying the subject, it may be a while before we have an actual definite answer on the subject. In the meanwhile, we can say that it seems to be beneficial and doesn’t show much in terms of negative side effect.

How to purchase CBD oil safely?

There are many sharks out-there, but it is easy to protect yourself when using the following rule of thumb:

  • CBD oil can be bought freely from health shops on the high-street in the UK. A well-established shop with which you can have an on-going relationship surely ought to be our first port of call.
  • When purchasing online, look for reputable dealers. Make small purchases to test their services first. Check their return policies. Take online ratings with a grain of salt, they are quite easy to fake. Make sure their web address starts with “https” (mind the “s”). You probably wouldn’t want to give your credit card number over the phone nowadays.
  • Beware of multi-level-marketing companies (MLM). If somebody needs to “come and give you a demonstration at home”, expect that the price would be inflated compared to a brick and mortar company. In my experience most MLM have unsound business practices and questionable ethics.
  • Do not get supplements from Ebay or Amazon. Anybody can sell on those platforms, and pretend to be who they aren’t, and sale counterfeit or fake items. In fairness Ebay and Amazon both do as good a job as they can shutting scammer down as quickly as possible, but there is no guarantee you are actually getting the real thing.
  • Never, ever, ever, ever buy from obscure dealers / Facebook sellers / friend of a friend abroad, no matter how attractive their sales pitch may be, or what success stories they can flash out. This is the best way to get conned out of your money.

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