Cannabis and Anorexia: A New Approach to Treating Eating Disorders


It’s well-known that cannabis can stimulate appetite, and is already being used to treat lack of appetite in specific medical conditions, like cancer and HIV. But, what about using cannabis for eating disorders? Can the herb be helpful to those with anorexia?

By the estimates of the National Eating Disorder Association, there are 30 million people in the United States living with an eating disorder. Now, as marijuana is legalized in more and more states, doctors and patients are taking a close look at medical marijuana for an effective eating disorder treatment.

Cannabis for Eating Disorders

Most us are familiar with the fact that cannabis can make us hungry (aka the munchies) and even sometimes make food taste better. This hunger-inducing effect from marijuana – not to mention its many other medicinal and psychological benefits – may be why some wonder if the herb could treat eating disorders.

In fact, more and more studies are backing up the idea that medical marijuana for eating disorders, like anorexia, can be effective.

How Cannabis Increases Appetite

In 2015, Yale University researchers discovered that when cannabinoids are introduced to the system, they activate receptors that cause a switch from signaling that the person is full to making endorphins, a neurotransmitter that increases appetite.

“It’s like pressing a car’s brakes and accelerating instead,” explained lead author Tamas Horvath in the paper published in Nature. “We were surprised to find that the neurons we thought were responsible for shutting down eating, were suddenly being activated and promoting hunger, even when you are full. It fools the brain’s central feeding system.”

Endocannabinoids and Eating Disorders

Cannabis can also treat eating disorders through its effect on the endocannabinoid system, says research. Per NIH, endocannabinoids play a key role in the regulation of appetite and body weight by acting at the brain’s CB1 receptors – which are linked to stimulation of appetite and feedback signals associated with appetite.

It fools the brain’s central feeding system

Studies show that women with anorexia have higher levels of endocannabinoid receptors in certain parts of the brain than healthy women do – including those related to forming habits. This brain region is more active in women with anorexia, suggesting that a healthy endocannabinoid system plays a part in the eating habits that many people with anorexia struggle with.

Medical Marijuana for Eating Disorder Depression

Depression and eating disorders often go hand in hand. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, as many as half of all patients diagnosed with binge eating disorder have a history of depression. What’s more, research from Northeastern University found that anorexics are 50 times more likely than the general population to die as a result of suicide.

The effect that marijuana has on depression may be another reason why some are looking to cannabis for eating disorders.

Medical marijuana may help to treat depression in eating disorder patients by increasing serotonin in the brain, suggests one 2007 study that found by activating serotonin, cannabis can act as an antidepressant in animals. A naturally-occurring brain chemical, serotonin controls mood, sleep and appetite – which all play a role in eating disorders, like anorexia.

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