AFNS researcher finds cannabis ingredient aids appetite stimulation in cancer patients

(Edmonton) A new study by Wendy Wismer, associate professor with the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta, has shown that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC—the active psychoactive ingredient in marijuana—has the ability to improve the taste and enjoyment of food in advanced cancer patients with diminished appetites.


While marijuana has a reputation for increasing ones appetite in users, Wismer points out that this is the first study to correlate these effects in late-stage cancer patients, who typically have a dramatically reduced desire to eat.

“The ‘Cheech and Chong’ phenomenon, as I heard someone refer to it, is relatively well demonstrated in the healthy population,” she said. “But this is the first randomized, controlled trial to show that THC makes food taste better and improves appetites for patients with advanced cancer, and one of the characteristics of the advanced-cancer population is that they generally don’t have any appetite whatsoever.”

Wismer, who penned the study along with graduate student Tristin Brisbois, as well as doctors from the departments of oncology from the University of Alberta and McGill University, expressed benefits that go beyond merely allowing patients to enjoy eating again. Lack of appetite can lead to a lower body mass which can, in turn, reduce an individual’s ability to endure their condition.

“It’s very important to address these problems, as both appetite loss and alterations to taste and smell lead to involuntary weight loss and reduce an individual’s ability to tolerate treatment and to stay healthy in general,” says Wismer. “Additionally, the social enjoyment of eating is greatly reduced and quality of life is affected.”

Although alterations in the sense of taste has been documented for decades in cancer patients, medications commonly used to treat loss of appetite have so far met with sporadic results, and has been widely regarded as an unfortunate, but unavoidable, consequence of the disease.

“For a long time everyone thought that nothing could be done about cancer patients’ loss of appetite,” said Wismer. “Indeed, cancer patients are often told to ‘cope’ with chemosensory problems by eating bland, cold and odourless food. This may well have the result of reducing food intake and food enjoyment.”

Although the study did not see an increase in the calories consumed by the individuals taking the drug over the placebo group, it did show that they ingested a greater amount of protein. Wismer said that these results are encouraging from a “quality-of-life” point of view.

“In the advanced-cancer population, there is a real struggle with appetite,” she said. “Normal appetitive pathways do not seem to be functioning. We know from our earlier work that individuals with advanced cancer have diminished appetite and have to make a conscious effort to eat, but they are motivated to eat simply to survive. So, although THC did not significantly increase total calorie intake, the fact that it improved appetite and protein intake is important.”

Although the amount of THC prescribed was very small compared to what would typically be ingested recreationally, patients enjoyed some additional effects from the drug, which Wismer hopes will lead to greater accessibility for patients.

“I would hope the results of this study help make obtaining THC easier for patients, particularly given the fact that there were other benefits as well. Patients enjoyed better quality of sleep and relaxation and everyone involved in the study said they were less depressed.”

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