Updated on April 13, 2023
As a first-line treatment for cancer, chemotherapy saves the lives of countless individuals who wouldn’t otherwise survive their illness. At the same time, it is one of the most feared treatments in medicine because of its destructive and wide-ranging side effects. Indeed, despite substantial advancements in chemotherapeutic regimens, most chemotherapy overwhelmingly remains difficult for individuals to tolerate.
Nearly all individuals who receive chemotherapy experience side effects, whether or not they derive a significant therapeutic benefit. These side effects and their intensity can differ slightly depending on the chemotherapeutic agent but typically include:
Although such effects often begin with the administration of chemotherapy and slowly taper with its cessation, some individuals struggle with the side effects of chemotherapy for years after the therapy has concluded. Unfortunately, the medications typically prescribed to address these side effects might not provide adequate relief and can carry a broad spectrum of side effects on their own.
Due to the disruptive and possibly dangerous nature of chemotherapy, individuals could greatly benefit from a well-tolerated adjunct therapy that makes them more comfortable and helps them to recover. Ideally, this therapy could be administered immediately after a dose of chemotherapy without interfering with the therapeutic effects, while also being suitable for long-term use by individuals who struggle with persistent side effects after the completion of treatment. A growing body of literature now suggests that cannabidiol (CBD) might be that therapy. By using CBD after chemotherapy, individuals can now have access to the chemotherapy adjunct they need.
Cannabidiol is a molecule produced by the cannabis sativa and cannabis indica ferns that has antiemetic, analgesic, anxiolytic, and anti-inflammatory properties that make it a powerful remedial tool for individuals undergoing chemotherapy. Research consistently demonstrates that individuals who use cannabidiol immediately after a chemotherapy session will likely be able to manage many of the worst side effects, like pain, inflammation, and intense fatigue.
Neuropathic pain is one of the primary and most troubling side effects of chemotherapy, affecting up to 75 percent of patients. This pain results from chemotherapy’s infliction of systemic cellular damage that causes nerve cells to die or experience dysfunction. Individuals with neuropathic pain can be treated with a broad range of drugs, including anti-epileptics, such as gabapentin and pregabalin, and antidepressants, specifically tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and selective serotonin-norepinephrine inhibitors (SNRIs).
However, these drugs can cause significant side effects in some individuals and can be of limited efficacy. Meanwhile, individuals with more severe pain often rely on opioid painkillers. Unfortunately, opioids carry a number of serious risks, potentially impairing cognitive and gastrointestinal function, causing mood changes, and presenting the risk of addiction and overdose, particularly when taken long-term. Opioids can at times be augmented by the use of NSAIDs, but NSAIDs on their own have not been shown to be effective for neuropathic pain and can cause renal, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal damage, particularly with extended use.
Because of the limitations of conventional treatments for chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain, many patients are now looking to CBD to complement or serve as an alternative to other forms of pain management. Unlike standard treatments, CBD is not only known for its efficacy, but for its mild side-effect profile and suitability for both short-term and long-term use. Because CBD can safely be used alone or in concert with other pain relievers, individuals might achieve more complete pain management, decrease dosage and/or frequency of other analgesics, or eliminate use of other analgesics altogether. Additionally, research suggests CBD might work synergistically with chemotherapy drugs.
A 2014 study using mouse models found that CBD could reduce neuropathic pain while simultaneously potentiating co-administered chemotherapy drugs. In the study, healthy mice were given a placebo or a round of chemotherapy three times weekly for 10 weeks. Of the mice that were given chemotherapy, half were also given CBD at the same time. The chemotherapy reliably caused the mice to become sensitive to otherwise mild stimuli and react as though they were in pain to normal-intensity stimuli. The CBD treatment group, however, exhibited a significantly different pain threshold; they responded as though they were in pain only when exposed to a mechanical pressure of 1.5 grams.
This was a significant improvement over the mice who did not receive CBD, who exhibited pain after a pressure of 0.5 grams. In comparison, the mice that didn’t get the chemotherapy treatment or CBD exhibited pain after slightly over one gram of pressure, meaning that CBD is capable of reducing pain beyond healthy baseline levels of sensation. These effects persisted in-between doses of CBD but at lower intensities.
This indicates that taking CBD after chemotherapy can be nearly as effective to minimize side effects as administration at the time of treatment. Researchers also found that smaller doses of the chemotherapy drug were needed in the mice that were dosed with CBD; i.e., simultaneous administration of CBD potentiated the chemotherapy agent, allowing the treatment to maintain the same level of efficacy when the dose was reduced by 50 percent.
CBD’s analgesic effects post-chemotherapy have also been confirmed in a placebo-controlled clinical trial of 303 participants with treatment-resistant post-chemotherapy pain. In the trial, 30 percent of participants responded to a nasal spray therapeutic containing CBD. Although 30 percent might seem underwhelming, it’s important to note that the study participants were only eligible for inclusion if both first and second-line analgesics like NSAIDs and opioids had failed to curb their pain, which might or might not have been neuropathic in origin.
The participants who responded to CBD experienced a 0.99 point reduction in their pain according to the 10-point Pain Numerical Rating Scale (NRS) used in the study. In contrast, participants who received placebo reported a 1.78-point increase in pain, indicating that CBD had a significant impact. For responders, pain management started promptly after administration of the CBD nasal spray and continued for the duration of the study’s 15-week period.
Significantly, with CBD treatment the participants noticed assistance with pain-associated symptoms like insomnia and malaise; the participants who responded to CBD reported subjective improvements in their quality of sleep, which they directly attributed to CBD rather than other factors, like time spent in recovery from chemo. No participants exhibited accumulating tolerance to the CBD therapy, nor did any exhibit signs of dependence or subsequent withdrawal.
The results of these studies indicate that CBD can be a potent adjuvant to chemotherapy for the purposes of individual comfort, ultimately possibly improving overall quality of life in multiple ways. CBD also has few side effects and is not known to interfere with cancer-related treatments, allowing individuals to easily integrate CBD within a comprehensive treatment plan. Although CBD hasn’t been directly linked to improved rates of survival or cancer remission, few clinicians would dispute the idea that a more rested and less distressed individual tends to experience faster recovery.
Indeed, with the help of their doctors and CBD, a cancer patient might be able to increase the potency of their chemotherapy treatment and subsequently use lower doses of chemotherapy, potentially diminishing the incidence and severity of chemo-associated pain, cognitive dysfunction, and other chemo side effects.
Although controlling pain is a major care priority for chemotherapy patients, typically other side effects are problematic as well. The systemic inflammation and gastrointestinal malfunctions associated with chemotherapy can produce physiological discomfort, as well as add a significant burden to psychological health. Among the many chemotherapy side effects that tend to fray the mental health of patients, hair loss is perhaps the most common.
Hair loss is one of the most stereotypical symptoms of chemotherapy, affecting 65 percent of patients. At present, CBD might be the only therapeutic that has been confirmed to help patients to recover their hair. In mice given a course of chemotherapy, researchers found that without any aid, the mice lost hair for 10 days at the start of chemotherapy, then slowly began regrowing their hair after 21 days had elapsed from the final dose. A subset of these mice was given a compound containing CBD and thyroid hormones two days after a round of chemotherapy.
The CBD-treated mice still lost their hair as a result of chemotherapy, but hair regrowth began immediately after chemotherapy ceased rather than experiencing a delay. The net result was that the mice given the compound containing CBD reached normal levels of hair nearly one month faster than the other mice. This means CBD can potentially address the psychological damage of chemotherapy-induced hair loss by helping patients recover from it much faster.
Faster hair regrowth doesn’t occur in a vacuum, however. CBD has no independent ability to cause hair to grow in healthy subjects. Instead, CBD appears to address post-chemo inflammation that often harangues cancer patients, a factor that might contribute toward both its analgesic properties and its ability to help superficial tissues, like the scalp, return to their normal functioning. By curbing inflammation, CBD can thus counteract the damage that chemotherapy tends to cause to superficial tissues and mucosal surfaces, meaning that those who take CBD might experience faster nail, skin, and bowel tissue regrowth as well.
Of course, the consequences of post-chemo inflammation are not confined to superficial tissues and mucosal surfaces. Rather, this systemic inflammation likely contributes to the severity of nearly all chemotherapy side effects by preventing normal tissue function. As a result, the corresponding organs can’t perform as effectively as they would when free of inflammation. Processes ranging from blood detoxification to contraction of cardiac muscle begin to fall behind, an effect that can often cascade to problems elsewhere in the body. In heart tissue, chemotherapy’s propensity to cause inflammation can be especially dangerous.
Most chemotherapeutic agents are overtly cardiotoxic. However, CBD can attenuate the cardiotoxic effects of some chemotherapy agents by managing inflammation and inducing protective chemical signaling molecules like surviving in cardiac tissue; while supporting cardiac cell survival, CBD also helps cells clear toxins and addresses inflammation as well as cell death. Although the impact on one’s quality of life in the wake of CBD’s cardioprotective effects is unclear, consumers might find they are much more comfortable as a result of the CBD’s impact on inflammation alone.
Research into CBD’s many benefits is ongoing, but there is presently an abundance of evidence supporting the use of CBD after chemotherapy for the purpose of reducing chemo side effects. Given the life-changing impact that CBD appears to have on the lives of chemotherapy patients, many are already adopting its use. Cancer patients are perhaps the largest patient group driving CBD’s popularization, frequently picking up CBD on their own and working in conjunction with their oncologist to determine how it can help them the most. Although many questions remain to be answered about the best ways to maximize CBD’s therapeutic impact in conjunction with chemotherapy, clinicians and their patients can begin using CBD immediately with the help of products already on the market. For individuals who are interested in integrating CBD into their treatment plan, a highly palatable supplement that can be consumed directly as a liquid or added to food might be the best choice to enhance treatment.
The power of Tesseract supplements lies in enhancing palatability, maximizing bioavailability and absorption, and micro-dosing of multiple nutrients in a single, highly effective capsule. Visit our website for more information about how Tesseract’s products can help support your neurological health and gastrointestinal health.*
Burnstein S. 2015. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry. 23(7):1377-1385.
Fouad AA, Albuali WH, Al-Mulhim AS, Jresat I. 2013. Environmental Toxicology Pharmacology. 36(2):347-357.
Katikaneni R, Ponnapakkam T, Seymour A, et al. 2014. Anticancer Drugs. 25(7):819-825.
Serpell M, Ratcliffe S, Horkova J, et al. 2014. European Journal of Pain. 18(7):999-1012.
Ward SJ, McAllister SD, Kawamura R, et al. 2014. British Journal of Pharmacology. 171(3):636-645.