“My mum has been bedridden for a few years now. Last year, we noticed her quality of life was starting to deteriorate, and her other medications weren’t quite cutting it,” recalls 58 year-old Jade, who requested that we share only her first name. Jade works as a librarian in Toronto, and is a caregiver for her 84 year-old mother.
“My mum’s doctor recommended we try marijuana. I thought, ‘Well, it’s a lot more natural than some of the other things she’s taking.’ But I was concerned about having an 84 year-old smoking a joint,” she laughs, “Thankfully, the doctor offered [to prescribe] a pill form.”
Although patients usually turn to cannabis to improve specific symptoms, cannabis may indeed improve overall quality of life when compared with other medicines or no medicine.
Of course, ‘quality of life’ is a difficult term to qualify, but typically researchers consider the same variables the rest of us do, assessing factors like physical and mental wellbeing, safety, relationships, and the ability to engage in meaningful social, occupational, recreational activities. It also follows that any treatment that can reduce pain, improve mood, or aid sleep will lead to a better outcomes on these measures.
Here are five common conditions where cannabis treatment may contribute to overall improvement in quality of life:
Loss of appetite
Appetite stimulation, also known as “the munchies”, is a commonly-reported side effect of certain strains of cannabis, and well-supported by research.
Since cannabis can stimulate appetite, and appetite can impact quality of life, it stands to reason that cannabis may help improve a person’s quality of life if they were previously not eating.
This was the experience of Jade’s mother, who used cannabis to stimulate her appetite.
“The main difference we noticed [when using cannabis] was how much more interested she was in eating,” Jade continues. “She gained a good ten pounds, which we were all so happy about.”
“Chronic pain is one of the most underestimated health care problems in the world today, causing major consequences for the quality of life of the sufferer and a major burden on the healthcare system,” says Professor Harald Breivik, speaking in a World Health Organization report. According to the same report, one in five people worldwide suffer from moderate to debilitating chronic pain.
Thankfully a review in the journal Clinical Crossroads found that the use of cannabis for chronic pain is supported by “high quality evidence.”
A Canadian study published in the Journal of Pain supports this finding; chronic pain patients treated with cannabis reported reduced pain and improved quality of life when compared with a control group taking traditional painkillers. The cannabis group also reported decreased anxiety, depression, and fatigue, indicating that cannabis wasn’t just improving physical pain – it was alleviating the pain’s psychological and emotional impact, too.
Historians believe that cannabis has been used as an arthritis treatment for nearly 3,000 years,and arthritis is one of the most common reasons for seeking a cannabis prescription.
Cannabinoids such as CBD and THC are “potent anti-inflammatory agents.” According to one study, they are up to 20 times more effective than aspirin at reducing inflammation, and twice as powerful as hydrocortisone.
Cannabis treatments have also been shown to reduce autoimmune inflammation and improve bone and cartilage health, although more research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms at play.
Regardless, it’s not a huge jump to conclude that reducing pain and inflammation can lead to a better sense of wellbeing.
Insomnia can decrease a person’s quality of life via sleep deprivation, stress, and anxiety.
THC in particular is known to be a mild sedative that can help people get to sleep. A 2017 review concluded that THC could reduce the time it took to get to sleep, but that it is best used occasionally.
Palliative care is a form of specialized healthcare that’s uniquely focused on quality of experiences as patients near the end of their lives.
In addition to its well-studied ability to alleviate pain and nausea, and to improve appetite, cannabis may provide palliative patients with emotional and spiritual comfort, too. Writing in a review of cannabinoid medicine for cancer patients in palliative care, Dr. S. K. Aggarwal argues that cannabis can help facilitate “a good death” by increasing sensorial pleasures, and encouraging meditation and reflection.
“A mild euphoria or sense of well-being, if brought about through use of cannabinoid botanical products, could very well play an important therapeutic role for patients faced with the despair of a terminal malady and the loss of function that normally accompanies it,” he writes.
Is cannabis the right choice?
Natural Care nurse practitioner Lynn Haslam is cautious but optimistic when it comes to cannabis for quality of life, particularly in the elderly.
“Some older folks may be prone to confusion and other side-effects, especially when combining cannabis with other medications,” she cautions.
Haslam takes an individual approach when considering whether or not cannabis might improve a patient’s quality of life.
“To me, quality of life is defined by the person,” she says, “Your quality of life may mean something different than mine. Take someone who has really bad rheumatoid arthritis, their quality of life with a chronic disease may be being able to socialize a few times a week with manageable pain. My quality of life would look vastly different. [So if a patient finds] that taking medicinal cannabis enables [them] to walk a bit longer, or do more activities, I am all for it.”