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End-of-Life Care: Dying With Dignity and Comfort — The Role of Medical Cannabis The principal goal of palliative care is to reduce suffering experienced by patients who are at or near end of End-of-life care is one of the less frequently discussed uses of medical cannabis. Palliative care, however, is perhaps the area of medicine that would most benefit from its clinical use. Dr Frankel was recently featured on Paxton Quigley's radio show, "Cannabis Healing," to talk about cannabis and its use for end of life/palliative care.

End-of-Life Care: Dying With Dignity and Comfort — The Role of Medical Cannabis

The principal goal of palliative care is to reduce suffering experienced by patients who are at or near end of life. Palliative care is multidimensional, attending to the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs of patients with life-limiting disease. Hospice and palliative care services may be provided in a patient’s home, a nursing home, or an inpatient hospice unit.1 Historically, end of-life palliation utilizes a combination of opioids, benzodiazepines, serotonin 5-HT3 receptor antagonists, and antipsychotic medications to help ease patients’ suffering. While often necessary, these medications come with many unwanted—and sometimes dangerous—side effects, particularly at the increased doses typically needed to achieve relief of symptoms. Integrating cannabis has been shown to reduce harm and unwanted side effects when used in combination with medications.

The benefits of using medical cannabis for improving quality of life among palliative care and hospice patients are numerous. Several benefits are explored here.

The Synergistic Relationship Between Cannabinoids and Opioids
The overlap of the endocannabinoid and endogenous opioid systems offers an understanding of why cannabis and opioids work well synergistically. Both provide analgesic effects, with evidence of cannabis producing analgesia at both the central and peripheral levels.1 Both systems consist of G-coupled protein receptors found throughout the brain,2 and both cannabinoids and opioids are produced endogenously and are part of the homeostatic processes necessary for life.3

Cannabis is an ancient medicine with millennia of safe usage. With a toxicity profile that’s less harmful to the body than water, cannabis is particularly effective when dosed consistently and appropriately. Opioids are also an ancient medicine, regarded as most effective for treating pain but with a much more harmful toxicity profile that includes respiratory depression from overdose. With morphine, the most common opioid used in end-of-life care, difficulty breathing is a common side effect. Constipation, nausea, vomiting, and drowsiness are also commonly reported at the doses often required for comfort.

Many of these side effects can be mitigated with the use of medical cannabis. Research has demonstrated that subanalgesic doses of morphine and THC are equally unsuccessful at mitigating pain. However, the combination of morphine and THC shows a significant reduction in affective pain, and preclinical trials suggest coadministration attenuates tolerance.4 This translates to the patient requiring lower doses of opioid medication for symptom control, thereby reducing respiratory depressive effects that are commonly experienced at higher doses.

Medical cannabis also has been shown to reduce the doses of antidepressant or antianxiety drugs in patients at the end of life.5

These examples support the concept of combining cannabis with conventional medications to reduce the doses of prescribed opioids, anxiolytic, and antidepressant medications, all of which are often titrated up significantly at end of life.

Cannabis Promotes Presence of Mind for Dying Patients
Cannabis has been associated with euphoria, aversive memory extinction, and sensorium enhancement, and can serve as a spiritual insight catalysis. This experience may mitigate any number of anxious thoughts and behaviors that accompany the end of life. Cannabis has also been used as an enhancer to heighten sensory perceptions and awareness.6 People with terminal illnesses may be looking to evaluate the meaning of their lives and deepen their connections with loved ones during the limited time they have left. If used properly, euphoria and enhanced sensorium may help overcome the barriers to achieving mindfulness at the end of life. This may help patients achieve a moment-to-moment presence and abstain from focusing only on the future.

Cannabis also holds potential to ease the psychological trauma that a terminal diagnosis often brings. This spiritual growth and development may offer a more dignified experience for patients. Families may also benefit as they witness their loved ones experience a more peaceful state of being. The resultant lucidity makes possible a more conscious, connected, and dignified passing.

Barriers to More Widespread Use
In a national survey examining the knowledge, experience, and views of hospice professionals toward medical cannabis, 91% of individuals support cannabis use in hospice. Three-fourths of these clinicians care for patients for whom cannabis was most successful in managing their nausea, vomiting, pain, and anxiety; however, less than 50% certify their patients. The most common reason for providers not utilizing cannabis is a general confusion and discomfort over their insufficient knowledge and training.7 This inadequate preparation begins at the core of providers’ careers, with traditional education at medical, nursing, and pharmacy schools neglecting to include appropriate cannabis education.

Additionally, hospices and other health care settings that receive federal funding preclude the use of cannabis, as it remains a federally illegal substance. Many hospice settings are left to either look the other way or maintain a hands-off policy, leaving someone close to the patient to procure and administer the medicine.7 The result is typically a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach that can lead to an unsafe and ineffective combination of cannabis with other medications. With patients and families continually asking hospice clinicians about cannabis, we’ve clearly reached a time in which hospice clinicians must either receive appropriate cannabis education or refer their patients to a provider who specializes in medical cannabis.

Overcoming the Roadblocks
While rescheduling or descheduling cannabis would certainly be helpful, patients are suffering now. We cannot wait for hospice clinicians to educate themselves, as cannabis therapeutics is a specialty in and of itself that requires time and experience. Being in such high demand, most cannabis providers don’t provide in-home or nursing home visits. One silver lining in the dark COVID-19 cloud is telehealth. With telehealth, cannabis therapeutics specialists, such as recommending providers and cannabis nurses, are able to consult with suffering patients and their families from the safety of their residences. To meet patients’ needs, many medical dispensaries are implementing or expanding their delivery services so patients have access to cannabis during this unprecedented time.

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Death With Dignity
In summary, medical cannabis holds the potential to help terminal patients remain comfortable mentally, emotionally, and physically at the end of their lives. The synergistic effect of combining cannabis with opioids, anxiolytics, or mood stabilizers reduces the necessary dose of both cannabis and these medications. This offers patients an approach that can better manage many symptoms associated with the end of life, while reducing the unwanted side effects of interventions. With appropriate guidance and support, hospice patients have an opportunity to die peacefully, comfortably, and with the dignity we all deserve.

— Ryan D. Zaklin, MD, MA, PC, is trained in internal, geriatric, integrative, mind-body, and cannabinoid medicine. He earned his MD from the University of Virginia and completed his training in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. He works with Partners Network in skilled nursing facilities and maintains a private practice in integrative medicine.

— Meghan Clements, FNP-BC, graduated with her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Merrimack Collage (2009) and her master’s in nursing from Simmons University (2013). Starting her career as a nurse practitioner, she cared for geriatric patients during their short term rehabilitation or long term care stay, helping to manage their acute illnesses, chronic conditions, and end-of-life care. She also works as an orthopedic nurse practitioner.

— Marissa Fratoni, BSN-RN, LMT, RYT, INHC, is a holistic nurse and multidisciplined health practitioner specializing in women’s health and behavioral health and further specializing in cannabinoid therapeutics. She’s well versed in complementary healing modalities including massage therapy modalities, yoga, and integrative nutrition. Her published work and adventures in the cannabis space can be found at holisticnursemama.blog.


1. Russo EB. Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD): can this concept explain therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistant conditions? Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2008;29(2):192-200.

2. Befort K. Interactions of the opioid and cannabinoid systems in reward: insights from knockout studies. Front Pharmacol. 2015;6:6.

3. Carter GT, Flanagan AM, Earleywine M, Abrams DI, Aggarwal SK, Grinspoon L. Cannabis in palliative medicine: improving care and reducing opioid-related morbidity. Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 2011;28(5):297-303.

4. Roberts JD, Gennings C, Shih M. Synergistic affective analgesic interaction between delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and morphine. Eur J Pharmacol. 2006;530(1-2):54-58.

5. Bar-Sela G, Vorobeichik M, Drawsheh S, Omer A, Goldberg V, Muller E. The medical necessity for medicinal cannabis: prospective, observational study evaluating treatment in cancer patients on supportive or palliative care. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:510392.

6. Strouse TB. Cannabinoids in medical practice. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 2016;1(1):38-43.

7. Costantino RC, Felten N, Todd M, Maxwell T, McPherson ML. A survey of hospice professionals regarding medical cannabis practices. J Palliat Med. 2019;22(10):1208-1212.

Cannabis in Palliative Care

End-of-life care is one of the less frequently discussed uses of medical cannabis. After all, most of us who turn to cannabis, want to continue living, right? And yet, thanks to the ability of cannabis to ameliorate the heavy symptom burden experienced by patients with minimal side effects, palliative care is perhaps the area of medicine that would most benefit from its clinical use.

Dying is a journey all of us will inevitably take, however how to ‘die well’ is something we tend not to consider. Dignity with dying is only possible, I believe, when there is a certain amount of consciousness and acceptance of the process. Something that a skinful of morphine doesn’t allow. But cannabis does, and I experienced this for the first time with a friend’s mother.

As Jose neared the end of her life after battling pancreatic cancer, morphine failed to control her pain, leaving her confused and unable to connect with loved ones. Thanks to an open-minded doctor who recommended cannabis oil, the last few weeks of her life became the gift her family longed for. The pain no longer troubled her, the anxiety lessened, sleep returned, as did her appetite. Not only that, Jose remained fully lucid until moments before she died.

This changed me forever and it’s why I’m sitting here today writing about cannabis.

Holistic Medicine

Sadly, when my mother became terminally ill with advanced cancer, this option was not available in the UK . Sure, I had a few offers from my cannabis contacts. But for an 82-year-old Irish ex-nurse, trusting a funky tasting oil (that I couldn’t say for sure how much to take) over the pharmaceutical meds prescribed in precise dosages was never going to happen.

Instead, I found myself administering a list of medications that just kept growing and growing as the disease progressed. This included morphine for the pain (which incidentally my mum couldn’t tolerate), antiemetics for nausea, laxatives for the constipation caused by both the cancer and the pain medication, as well as Lorazepam for the middle-of-the-night agitation.

The frustration was overwhelming. I knew that instead of the sledgehammer approach to her symptom control, a far more holistic, person-centred alternative existed that could not only ease her pain, take the edge off her anxiety and agitation, stimulate her appetite and help with the nausea, but also allow her to be present for the time that remained.

What is Palliative Care?

According to the World Health Organization, palliative care is “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”

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Palliative care encompasses end-of-life care, but a patient receiving palliative care is not necessarily approaching death.

In other words, palliative care encompasses end-of-life care, but a patient receiving palliative care is not necessarily approaching death.

However, when a patient enters the end-of-life stage in a hospice setting, the emphasis on quality of life means rules often get bent in a bid to fulfil a dying patient’s wishes and beliefs. Dogs and family pets are welcome guests in a patient’s room, and a glass of wine is not unheard of, if that’s what the patient wants. So why not allow access to medical cannabis if that will help ease the suffering of a dying patient?

In some countries and states in the US , palliative and end-of-life care is considered a qualifying condition for the prescription of medical cannabis.

Using Cannabis in Palliative Care

Since 2007, the Israeli Ministry of Health has approved medical cannabis for palliative care in patients with cancer. This led to a prospective study analysing the safety and efficacy of cannabis in 2970 patients and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. 1

Ninety-six percent of patients who responded in the 6 month follow-up reported an improvement in their condition, 3.7% reported no change and 0.3% reported deterioration in their medical condition. Furthermore, while only 18.7% of patients described themselves as having good quality of life prior to cannabis treatment, 69.5% did six months later. Tellingly, just over a third of patients stopped using opioid pain medication.

Cannabis can improve symptoms commonly found in advanced cancer, as well as improving quality of life.

While observational studies such as these suggest cannabis can improve symptoms commonly found in advanced cancer, as well as improving quality of life, in practice physicians often feel insufficiently informed to prescribe cannabis to their patients.

A 2018 survey found that of the 237 US oncologists interviewed, 80% conducted discussions with their patients about cannabis, while only 30% actually felt they had enough information. 2 However, an encouraging 67% viewed cannabis as a helpful additional way to manage pain, and 65% said that it was equally or more effective than the standard treatments for the rapid weight loss often found in advanced cancer. And yet, only 45% of them actually prescribed cannabis to their patients.

These discrepancies mean that even in countries where cannabis can legally be prescribed for palliative care, many physicians prefer to stick to the usual methods of symptom control.

A Physician’s View

Claude Cyr, MD , a Canadian family physician and author of “Cannabis in palliative care: current challenges and practical recommendations,” believes palliative care is uniquely suited to cannabis. 3

“If we’re going to integrate cannabis products in medicine,” he told Project CBD , “palliative care is the best port of entry because of the fact that doctors have more time, and patients also have the time to deal with possible issues of the medication.”

However, in order for cannabis to fulfil its potential in palliative care, Dr. Cyr believes a shift in how physicians view symptom control is needed.

Cannabis is mildly effective for a wide range of symptoms common to people in palliative care.

“What seems to be coming through with the research for symptom control,” says Cyr, “is that cannabis is mildly effective for pain, mildly effective for nausea, mildly effective for insomnia and anxiety. It doesn’t treat any one of these conditions dramatically better than the other medications that we have. So, many physicians are like ‘why would we take a medication that is mildly effective when I can take a much more incisive approach with specific symptoms.’ Instead of saying ‘Do you have a bit of pain, a bit of anxiety, a bit of insomnia, a lack of appetite and a bit of nausea? So why don’t we start with something that’s mildly effective for all that and then we’ll be able to work on more specific symptoms in the long run’.”

Cyr is also critical of fellow physicians’ tendencies to rely on clinical evidence while dismissing the validity of their patients’ positive experiences.

“Palliative care is a specific situation where we can actually put into question the core philosophy of medicine which is the evidence based paradigm. I think physicians need to stop obsessing over the evidence when their patients are dying and clearly telling them, ‘I’m really enjoying this, I’m getting huge benefits from this, I’m sleeping better, I’m eating better.’ But the physicians are nodding their heads and saying, ‘I hear you, but I can’t accept this because I’m still lacking evidence.’

“But I think there is enough data out there to convince physicians that it’s safe for palliative care patients, and it’s predictable.”

Psychoactivity in Palliative Care

Cyr urges doctors to find peace with the idea that cannabis is psychoactive, which he believes could actually help patients process the existential anxiety often experienced at the end of their lives.

“When you look at the studies of psychedelics in depression and existential anxiety in cancer patients, some of these results have been dramatic,” says Cyr. “Although cannabis isn’t a true psychedelic, there are some similar experiences that patients tell us about. 4 At smaller doses patients experience a psycholytic effect, a lowering of the defenses allowing people to explore other aspects of their psyche, and that’s when they start making connections between different aspects of their reality.”

THC ’s ability to reduce activation of the default mode network, the area of the brain involved in cognitive processing and where our ego or sense of self is thought to reside, could also potentially bring a sense of peace to dying patients. 5 6

Cyr explains: “Existential anxiety is rooted in the loss of the self, but when you can dissolve the ego temporarily and you realize it’s not all about me, that can be liberating.”

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For the last fifty years, activists have been campaigning for the right to use cannabis to treat their health conditions in order to be well. This must also be extended to using cannabis to maintain quality of life in life-threatening illnesses, and when this no longer becomes possible, to die well and with dignity.

In memory of Jose and Agnes.

Mary Biles, a Project CBD contributing writer, is a journalist, blogger and educator with a background in holistic health. Based between the UK and Spain, she is committed to accurately reporting advances in medical cannabis research.

Copyright, Project CBD . May not be reprinted without permission.


Dr Frankel was invited to discuss the role of dosed cannabis medicine in palliative care, in the control of terminal symptoms and keeping patients comfortable as they approach the end of life.

The role of cannabis in end-of-life-care

There is potential for cannabis to treat a wide range of the conditions associated with palliative care, particularly the major issues of pain, mood disorders and insomnia.

As with all medical treatment, the use of cannabis depends on the individual patient, their history of cannabis use and their sensitivity to THC. In Dr Frankel’s practice, elderly patients can start with whole-plant CBD both safely and effectively. Whilst there is some benefit from isolates and hemp CBD products, the whole plant extract is much more effective medically.

Dr Frankel has applied whole-plant cannabis medicines to end of life care to offer patients control of terminal symptoms. Indeed, some patients start using cannabis with the expectation that they are approaching death but experience such positive outcomes that their ‘end of life’ care turns out to be long-term management.

Those patients in hospices are generally admitted to control their symptoms, particularly pain, poor appetite and hydration. In Frankel’s experience, cannabis can help to alleviate these symptoms, at times to a degree that patients are discharged from hospices.

Cannabis Minimizes Narcotic Use

Cannabis also has an important role in minimizing the use of narcotics. Patients at the end of life and in hospices are often prescribed high doses of opioids, with myriad side effects. Cannabis as a treatment to wean patients off opioids can be transformative in terms of quality of life and patient comfort.

Frankel is currently collaborating with an oncologist and an orthopedic surgeon in observational trials to use cannabis in peri-operative care and alongside chemotherapy. These are care points where patients are at significant risk of addiction to narcotics. Whole-plant CBD decreases the craving for narcotics (alcohol and cocaine), as well as offering alternative pain relief. Whole-plant CBD can, therefore, be very useful in keeping patients safe and comfortable.

The Role of Your Physician

It is not easy to die – almost all patients will face some kind of fear at the prospect, and any holistic approach to end of life care needs to take account of this. Dr Frankel highlights that physicians have a role to play in supporting patients to face the existential trauma of death.

Cannabis is not the only plant medicine to play an important role in this arena. There is good evidence that psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) reduces the anxiety in patients with end-stage cancer, with participants at one UCLA trial reporting a perspective-altering, life-affirming experience more effective than any talking therapy or antidepressant drug. In this context, mushrooms have been approved for medical use in Oregon, with similar liberalization anticipated in western states.

Dr Frankel discussed this topic with Paxton Quigley’s ‘Cannabis Healing’ show. If you prefer to listen, the full interview is available online on the station’s website, on 24 March

Allan Frankel, MD Dr Allan Frankel is one of the few physicians in the US who truly understands Cannabis as a medicine. All treatments suggested have been well studied. Every patient seen by Dr Frankel is given a personally created Treatment Plan created with the patient’s specific issues defined. Plant medicine requires “tuning” of the dosing. Dr Frankel works with his patients thru a messaging portal. The use of this portal, allows quick and simple follow up contact with Dr Frankel. Patients are not charged for these messages, as this is how Dr Frankel has learned what he has learned. Follow up appointments in person or by phone/video are also available when needed

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