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March 17, 2017

Impact of Marijuana Legalization for Eating Disorder Sufferers

Girl smoking marijuana for her eating disorder

Anorexia and bulimia have been shown, through research, that there is an imbalance in brain chemistry than non eating disordered individuals. Marijuana comes from the hemp plant, Cannabis. Marijuana contains more than 400 chemicals, and researchers tend to know the most about THC and Cannabidiol. THC is responsible for its effects on the central nervous system.

It stimulates cannabinoid receptors in the brain, triggering other chemical reactions that underlie marijuana’s psychological and physical effects [5]. Even though little is known about cannabidiol, but research suggests that interacts with THC to produce sedation. It may though, have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and/or antipsychotic effects.

Exogenous marijuana can affect one’s mood and feeling behavior, and the normal function of the endocannabinoid system becomes impaired in those with anorexia and bulimia.

Impact of Marijuana on the Brain

The endocannabinoid system has been shown to have a role in signaling reward, such as eating. The regulation of appetite and feeding behaviors involves many processes. Studies suggest that the endogenous endocannabinoid system plays an important role in signaling rewarding events, such as eating or restricting [1]. Researchers at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in belgium used PET imaging to look at the endocannabinoid system in the brains of 30 women with anorexia and bulimia.

Results showed that the brains marijuana-like neurotransmitter system was significantly underactive in participants with anorexia and bulimia. The under active transmitter was noticed in the area of the brain, the insula, responsible for the integration of the taste of food with our emotional response to eating [1].

The insula allows us to integrate the sensory aspects of food, such as taste, flavor, and oral texture, as well as how hungry we feel; it also responds to food’s rewarding properties. The insula processes information on a wide range of sensations that determine how we feel, including pain, temperature, sensual touch, stomach pH, and intestinal tension (such as constipation).

Integration of these internal feelings provides a blended sense of the state of the entire body. The insula is the place in the brain where our sensory experience (from eating), our emotions (in response to eating) and thoughts (about why should not be eating!) come together. [1]

Our brain’s endocannabinoid system normally controls how much pleasure we derive from sensory experiences; it then motivates us to repeat the experience again and again. An obsessive interest in food coupled with an inappropriate emotional response is consistent with a dysfunction in the brain’s endocannabinoid system.

This new information might help identify new targets for medications that may help reverse the symptoms of anorexia and bulimia. [1] A study conducted by Tamas Horvath of New Haven Yale University, found that the CB1 receptors found in our bodies cells [3]. When these receptors are activated with dronabinol, an anti-nausea drug and a component of cannabis, the CB1 receptors encouraged the release of hormones that promoted hunger. Suppressing this activity could also result in weight loss.

Eating Disorders and Co-Occurring Addiction

The effect of marijuana legalization can be profound for those individuals with comorbid underlying issues, along with eating disorders. Observational studies suggest that 1 in 9 people who smokes marijuana regularly become dependant on it [5]. In many individuals marijuana smoking can increase anxiety and panic attacks and studies have reported that 20-30% of recreational users experience problems with increased anxiety after use [5].

The corner of Main and HighIndividuals who have bipolar disorder and use marijuana seem to induce manic episodes and increase rapid cycling between manic and depressive moods. Marijuana use can also exacerbate psychotic symptoms and worsen outcomes in patients previously diagnosed with psychotic disorders [5].

The use of marijuana stimulates the metabolism and leads a person to experience an increase in appetite [2]. Although not been heavily researched, the use of medical marijuana has indicated an increase in appetites in AIDs or cancer patients where significant weight loss is seen. The use of the drug can help the person regain weight and help with appetite stimulation, and signaling food cravings.

Medical marijuana could aid in the refeeding process with an anorexic patient, due to being less traumatizing than a feeding tube, while still allowing the patient to chose to eat rather than be forced to eat. Marijuana could aid in the later stages of recovery, after weight restoration has been achieved, through use in relation therapy, exploring new ideas and insights.

In a longitudinal study of 94 AIDS patients, the use of THC in doses ranging from 5-20 mg, confirmed the appetite enhancement and patients tended to retain stable body weight over the course of the 7 month study [2].

Marijuana Legalization Across the United States

The number of areas in the United States where marijuana is being legalized for medicinal use is growing rapidly. Rarely is eating disorders seen as a valid reason to issue or prescribe marijuana for medicinal use. At least 24 million Americans have an eating disorder, with at least half also meeting the criteria for depression and anxiety [4]. In 2011 a study in Biological Psychiatry found a link between anorexia and bulimia with that of a potential brain malfunction that leads to los in the endocannabinoids.

Woman in the green gardenA review by a team of researchers in Canada, where marijuana is legal, identified only 31 studies that focused on the medical benefits of the drug [5]. The American Medical Association also concluded that the research in this area seems to be limited. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine reported that marijuana could be modestly effect for pain relief, appetite stimulation for individuals with AIDS wasting syndrome, and control of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.

The IOM also stated that with the widespread availability of FDA approved medications to help treat these conditions, as well as eating disorders, marijuana should only be considered for treatment when patients do not get relief from current available medicines [5, 7].

New studies evaluating the use as treatment for psychiatric disorders are inconclusive due to the fact that the drug may have contradictory effects in the brain depending on the dose of the drug and inborn genetic vulnerability. In the United States, THC concentration has been increasing in herbal forms of marijuana.

Research in this area is also unclear as many users report an improvement in mood, but animal studies show marijuana having antidepressant effects. In Australia, a study was done on 1,601 students who used marijuana at least 1x per week from ages 14-15.

The study showed at follow up that those who used were twice as likely to develop depression up to seven years later [5, 7]. Marijuana can also increase psychosis symptoms and observational studies suggest that using marijuana, especially in teen years can increase the risk of developing psychosis in adulthood.

In conclusion, marijuana can have various benefits to those struggling with eating disorders, but further research and clinical studies need to be done to see what effect it can have on the treatment of eating disorders.


Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons, MSW, LCSW, CEDS is a specialist in the eating disorder field. Libby has been treating eating disorders for 10 years within the St. Louis area, and enjoys working with individuals of all ages.


[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-brain-food/201204/the-connection-between-anorexia-bulimia-and-marijuana
[2] https://www.medicalmarijuana.com/medical-marijuana-treatments-cannabis-uses/eating-disorders-anorexia-and-medical-marijuana/
[3] https://cannabis.net/blog/how-to/can-cannabis-help-treat-eating-disorders
[4] http://www.psyweb.com/lifestyle/eating-disorders/marijuana-and-eating-disorders
[5] http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/medical-marijuana-and-the-mind
[6] http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/smoking-weed-may-help-treat-eating-disorders
[7] http://www.healthline.com/health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder-and-marijuana#2

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 17, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

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