New research from the University of Colorado Boulder shows how medical cannabis for cancer not only reduces pain and insomnia but improves the so-called “chemo brain.”

“Chemo brain” is a term cancer survivors use to describe memory and thinking problems that arise from chemotherapy. Another word is “brain fog” or “chemo fog.”

Some symptoms may include:

  • Taking longer to complete routine tasks
  • Short attention span and memory problems
  • Difficulty multitasking and learning new skills
  • General confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty with verbal and visual memory

This study was unique because it looked at over-the-counter cannabis products instead of government-issued pharmaceuticals with cannabis in the ingredients. As well, the researchers did not use synthetic cannabis.

As expected, the researchers found the cancer patients had reduced pain levels and better sleep quality. But to their surprise, the patients had greater cognition. That is, cancer patients using cannabis had less “chemo brain.”

Cannabis for “Chemo Brain”

Cannabis for "Chemo Brain"

When you’re in a lot of pain, it’s hard to think,” said Angela Bryan, the study’s senior author. “We found that when patients’ pain levels came down after using cannabis for a while, their cognition got better.”

Surveys estimate as many as 40% of the U.S. cancer population use cannabis for relief.

While the study was small and further research is needed to establish longer-term benefits, the results are promising.

As mentioned, unlike other studies, patients purchased their cannabis from local dispensaries. Typically in a research setting, the cannabis is either government-supplied or it’s a synthetic version.

Because cannabis remains federally illegal, most cannabis studies use a prescription product like e nabilone or dronabinol. Or poorly-sourced, weak government strains.

Because this study allowed patients to purchase their own edibles from dispensaries of their choice, there was less standardization. However, giving patients choices highlighted aspects the researchers never considered.

Cancer patients in the cannabis for “chemo brain” study bought from 18 brands. They included baked goods, tinctures, pills, chocolates, and gummies. Products ranged in THC potency, with most containing varying ratios of THC and CBD.

“This tells us that people are open to trying whatever they think might be useful, but there’s just not much data out there to guide them on what works best for what,” said Bryan.

Method: Cannabis for “Chemo Brain”

Cannabis for "Chemo Brain"

The researchers of the cannabis for “chemo brain” study used a Dodge Sprinter van as a “mobile laboratory. The researchers called it their “cannavan.”

Using a van, they were able to visit each patient’s home. Participants underwent physical and cognitive tests in the van and were re-assessed in their homes after consuming cannabis.

Two weeks later, researchers follow-up with more tests.

The researchers of this cannabis for “chemo brain” study came to a few conclusions. The obvious is that cannabis eased patients’ pain while making them feel “high.” Researchers concluded that the higher the THC content, the higher the patient felt.

But what surprised the authors of this cannabis for “chemo brain” study was the long-term effects.

While public health busybodies claim cannabis lowers your IQ, they’re not basing this belief on any unbiased research study.

Whenever we do get research in this field: the results are positive for cognitive function. And indeed, that’s what researchers found here.

After two weeks of cannabis use, researchers found patients reported better pain management, sleep quality, and cognitive function.

“We thought we might see some problems with cognitive function,” said Bryan, noting that people tend to associate cannabis and chemotherapy with impaired thinking. “But people actually felt like they were thinking more clearly. It was a surprise.”

The researchers used objective measurements for cognitive function, including reaction times. They found that the more people’s pain subsided, the more their cognition improved.

In other words, cannabis helps reduce the “chemo brain.” Patients who consumed CBD and THC had the most significant improvements.

What Does the Future Hold?

While larger, controlled studies are welcome, this small study is promising. While cannabis gets a bad rap for impairing short-term thinking, it’s clear there are long-term benefits for people in pain.

The study’s lead author, a breast cancer survivor herself, hopes this research continues. She’s worried that most patients are unaware that cannabis for “chemo brain” works. Or that other chemo-related symptoms aren’t well known. As well, doctors are hesitant to prescribe.

Yet, she’s been able to go through surgeries and chemotherapy using THC and CBD edible products. Bryan says she did not take a single opiate during her cancer treatment.