A characteristic feature of cannabis is that it causes the “munchies.” Does that mean it could be used to treat anorexia nervosa?
Cannabis has been widely studied as a treatment for anorexia (or cachexia) associated with cancer and HIV/AIDS. However, there’s little research on whether it would be an effective treatment for anorexia that most people are familiar with: anorexia nervosa.
Unfortunately, little research has been done. In addition, what the consequences are of leaving anorexia untreated? 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 has the highest mortality rate (12.8 percent) of any psychiatric disease. A shocking 6 percent commit suicide.
What is Anorexia Nervosa?
According to NEDA, anorexia nervosa is “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.” Commonly, patients exhibit extremely low body weight and body dysmorphia (a distorted perception of body image). Furthermore, an obsession with counting calories and an excessive need to control one’s environment are all common among sufferers. Individuals also often base their sense of self-worth on their body weight and shape.
What Are the Causes of Anorexia?
Historically, the causes of anorexia have been attributed to sociocultural factors such as childhood trauma or family members’. Not to mention society’s attitudes towards the desirability of thinness and slimness. However, evidence has emerged in recent years that also underscores the role of genetics and neurobiological factors.
Can Medical Marijuana Treat Anorexia?
The idea that cannabis could help treat anorexia seems like a no-brainer. After all, cannabis is notorious for inducing the “munchies.” Furthermore, research on cannabis as an appetite stimulant for those suffering from cancer or HIV/AIDS has validated cannabis’s effectiveness. However, when it comes to anorexia nervosa, there are only have a few studies. Only a handful of states consider anorexia a qualifying condition for medical cannabis. On the other hand, it includes related issues like uncontrolled weight loss, anxiety, and nausea.
A 2011 Belgian study suggests dysfunctional regulation and underlying imbalances within the endocannabinoid system are prominent across eating disorders. For that reason, developing cannabinoid-derived treatments could prove therapeutically valuable. The study offered promise that cannabinoids could help correct endocannabinoid deficiencies while helping the individual return to a healthy state.
In 2014, European neuroscientists conducted an important animal study offering another possible explanation on why cannabis may be useful in treating anorexia. Authors of the study found that the system activates the CB1 receptor (one of two identified receptors) elevating pleasure in eating by increasing our sensitivity to smells and taste.
A human study was done at the Center for Eating Disorders at Odense University Hospital in Denmark. They provided encouraging data (although, with just 24 subjects, the study was fairly small). The study gave patients a placebo or dronabinol (a synthetic form of THC). On average, patients gained 1.6 lbs more on dronabinol than the placebo.
The Future of Anorexia Nervosa
While cannabis may provide a valuable alternative treatment for anorexia, the seriousness of the condition warrants consulting a specialist and enlisting support through peer groups. Two organizations, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), provide valuable online resources.
It may be some time before mainstream medicine embraces cannabis as part of an overall treatment program for anorexia. However, it hasn’t stopped patients in states where it is (and isn’t) a qualifying condition. So, research continues to shed light on how cannabis may or may not play a role in recovery. Nevertheless, prospective patients should consult a professional and carefully consider the pros and cons of cannabis as a treatment before embarking on a cannabis-based treatment. Also, keep in mind that dosing, strains, intake methods (e.g. vaping, tinctures, edibles), can all influence outcomes. So it may take a little trial and error to find what works best.