Can Cannabis Help Treat Anorexia?
Anorexia is a condition that affects 0.9% of women and about 0.1% of men in America at some point in their lifetime. It’s an extremely dangerous eating disorder that can easily go unnoticed, as those who suffer usually hide their self-starvation and any side effects it produces.
Cannabis has long been known for promoting ‘the munchies,’ which increase appetite and make tasting food more pleasurable. But cannabis can also be beneficial in elevating mood and promoting balance in the body. Could it be an effective treatment for anorexia? Read on to find out.
What is Anorexia?
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 20 million women and 10 million men will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Anorexia is the most common type of disorder and has the highest mortality rate of any psychological disease. It is most common among girls and women in their teens and twenties. Characteristics include body dysmorphia (a distorted perception of body image) leading to self-starvation, excessive exercising, and sometimes, bulimia. Anorexia can be brought on by trauma, society’s promotion of a thinner body image, genetics, or neurobiological factors, and often goes hand in hand with anxiety and depression.
THC and the Munchies
There are many cannabinoids that are derived from the cannabis plant, and each has a different effect on our appetite. Of all of them, THC has been the most effective in creating a phenomenon known as ‘the munchies.’ When THC enters the body, it interacts with the primitive part of the brain that controls emotions and appetite. It also promotes the release of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates hunger. One animal study showed that THC enhanced sensitivity to smell, making aromas from food more potent and causing the subjects to eat more. Another study showed that marijuana use caused neurons that normally turn off during eating to actually stimulate further consumption. THC also increases the release of dopamine, which enhances the pleasure of eating and lowers inhibitions, making us throw caution to the wind when it comes to controlling food intake and eating healthy foods.
THC and Anorexia
Several studies have been conducted to determine whether cannabis can help treat anorexia. One 2014 study showed that THC can be useful in the treatment of anorexia due to its ability to make eating, and other activities, more pleasurable. The study showed that THC activates the endocannabinoid system’s (ECS) CB1 receptor to elevate our pleasure of eating by increasing sensitivity to smell and taste. Another study conducted involved 24 subjects who were either given a placebo or a synthetic form of THC. Those who took the THC gained 1.6 lbs. more in weight when compared to those who took the placebo. And follow ups provided evidence that those who continued treatment showed further improvements in their symptoms, with no signs of addiction or withdrawal.
Other Cannabinoids and Anorexia
THC is not the only cannabinoid that could be a possible treatment for anorexia. CBD has been known to work as an appetite suppressant, but may actually have a positive effect on anorexics. There is evidence that one of the underlying causes of anorexia is a dysregulation of the endocannabinoid system. This may result in anorexics having less control over their appetite and may also affect their general health, mood, and well-being. Research shows that women with anorexia have higher concentrations of endocannabinoid receptors in certain parts of their brain than healthy women do. The dorsal striatum is an area where high concentrations occur and is related to forming habits. A higher concentration of receptors in this part of the brain can keep women regulated to a routine where they deprive themselves of food. Another part of the brain that experiences an imbalance in women with anorexia is the insula. The insula regulates body perception, the tasting sense, reward, and emotions. This is the place where thoughts about food intersect with the pleasurable feeling we get from eating. When this region isn’t functioning properly, people can adopt unhealthy rituals that can develop into eating disorders. A 2011 study showed that introducing cannabinoids to the system can correct cannabinoid deficiencies and imbalances, helping individuals return to a healthy state. Though any cannabinoid can be used to help regulate the ECS, CBD may be preferable to THC for those who do not enjoy THC’s psychoactive effects. Similarly, other cannabinoids options, such as CBG and CBN, do not cause psychoactive effects and work as appetite stimulants. These cannabinoids are rarely sold on their own, but you can ask your provider for strains that have a high CBG and CBN content.
And helping to regulate the ECS isn’t the only way cannabinoids can be useful in treating anorexia. They are also known for relieving anxiety and depression, two underlying causes of anorexia that can be further exasperated in those suffering with the condition. CBD, CBN, and CBG are all known to boost serotonin in the brain to relieve feelings of anxiety and depression. Although some find THC to be relaxing, it can boost unpleasant feelings in some, so using it to improve mood is not always advisable.
Anorexia, Addiction, and Cannabis
It may be interesting to pause here and consider how anorexia is related to addiction. On one hand, anorexia can be an addiction in its own right. Many people are addicted to drugs and alcohol due to chemicals stimulating the rewards section of the brain. Eating disorder behavior can stimulate this section of the brain in a similar fashion. The feeling addicts get when this rewards section is stimulated makes them want to continue the behavior.
Anorexia has also been linked to addiction in other ways. Certain drugs affect the brain by producing feelings of physical satiety, making the body think it has enough nutrition when it doesn’t. These feelings may cause addicts to become anorexic simply because they lose the desire to eat. On the other hand, those who wish to lose weight may be aware that certain drugs can suppress appetite and may start using them to get thinner. This may cause them to become addicted to those drugs over time.
Evidence shows that CBD affects the memory in such a way that it eliminates the pleasurable associations a person may have with drugs and alcohol, working to decrease addictive tendencies. It has been shown to be effective in the treatment of addictions to opioids, cocaine, nicotine, and more. Of course, this may bring concerns when considering the use of marijuana. Because many who suffer with anorexia tend to have addictive tendencies, there is a possibility that they could develop a dependency on the cannabinoid if they are prescribed it as part of their treatment plan or begin using it to self-medicate. CBD may be considered as an alternative, as it is not known to be habit forming. But all are advised to think carefully and consider the risks involved before moving forward with treatment.
Mainstream Not Convinced
Despite promising findings that support cannabis as a treatment for anorexia, many are still not convinced that it can be effective. According to Tamara Pryor, Director of Clinical Research at the Eating Disorder Center of Denver, those suffering with anorexia are empowered by not giving into the temptation of eating, so stimulating their appetite will not help overcome the neurobiological issues associated with the disorder. This type of thinking may be why many states do not consider anorexia to be a qualifying condition for medical cannabis, although it can be used to treat related conditions, such as uncontrollable weight loss, anxiety, and nausea. However, many do acknowledge that cannabis can be effective as a treatment when used in conjunction with therapy, working to stimulate appetite and reduce anxiety and depression. There are several people who have used cannabis to help overcome their anorexia. Those people feel the compounds in the plant helped them deal with their self-consciousness over body issues and improved their mood overall.
Anorexia is a condition that affects many people and can have dire consequences. While cannabis may be a promising solution, those dealing with this disorder should feel encouraged to talk to a medical professional to find a treatment option that works best for them. In any case, it’s hopeful that this wonder plant may get us one step closer in helping those who are dealing with this potentially fatal condition.