Can Anorexia Be Treated Successfully With Cannabis?

We know that cannabis stimulates appetite, and recent research has some interesting things to say about cannabis and anorexia.

Jul 31, 2016

It’s well-known that cannabis can stimulate appetite. The herb is already being used to treat anorexia related to specific medical conditions, like cancer. But, what about in eating disorders? Does cannabis help in treating anorexia? Recent research suggests that the endocannabinoid system may play a role in the condition. 

What is anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss, fear of weight gain, poor body image, and food aversion. Those with anorexia can also “purge” which is the intentional vomiting of food to avoid weight gain. Both men and women can have anorexia, but the disorder predominantly affects women. Young people are most affected by this condition, accounting for 95% of cases.

Though anorexia is considered a psychological condition, physiology plays an important role. Unrealistic cultural standards contribute to anorexia, but so do several other factors. These factors include:

  • Genetics
  • Life stresses (trauma)
  • Mental and behavioral conditions

The endocannabinoid system and anorexia

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This psychological disorder is associated with physical changes in the brain. Some of those changes occur in the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a large regulatory network in the body. It has a variety of functions, including the control of mood, appetite, and pleasure.

When you consume cannabis, psychoactive THC engages this system and takes the place of compounds that our own bodies produce. These compounds are called endocannabinoids.

Research has found that the endocannabinoid system malfunctions in those with anorexia. In 2011, Belgian researchers wanted to see how the endocannabinoid system is affected by eating disorders. So, they tested 16 women with bulimia nervosa and 14 women with anorexia.

They found that the endocannabinoid system was underactive in both groups. Specifically, the women were less responsive to endocannabinoids in areas of the brain that control reward, emotion, appetite, and body perception.

Animal studies have also found widespread endocannabinoid dysfunction in rodent models of anorexia. It’s unclear whether or not changes in endocannabinoid processing contribute to anorexia, or occur because of the disorder. Regardless, these are positive signs that cannabis medicines may help the condition.

How cannabis may help anorexia

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There are several ways cannabis can relieve acute symptoms of anorexia or help you on your path to health. Medical cannabis and cannabis-based pharmaceuticals are already given to cancer and AIDS patients for condition-associated anorexia. According to a 2002 study, the herb even helped a group of Alzheimer’s patients who were refusing to eat.

1. Appetite

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Cannabis jump starts your metabolism. When you consume psychoactive THC, you get a surge of a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin is the reason why we feel hunger. Though you may be able to ignore hunger pains pre-cannabis, when a cannabis-induced ghrelin surge kicks in, finding food will be the most important thing in your immediate experience.

If you’re the type that feels guilty or upset after a post-cannabis meal, try planning ahead. Prepping some highly nutritious snacks before you medicate might help you feel more comfortable with the experience.

Though some may find this horrifying, foods high in healthy fats are ideal. Avocados, salmon jerky, chopped veggies with nut butter, and full-fat dairy or coconut yogurt with fruit, nuts, and seeds are all great options.

Why go for fat?  Your body uses fats to make endocannabinoids. As mentioned earlier, endocannabinoids seem to be low in those with anorexia. The fats listed above are not the same as those found in french fry grease or a hotdog. Rather, they’re natural sources of omgea-3s that your body has adapted to metabolize and use.

From these fats, your body can make a variety of mood-boosting compounds that will help you feel happy and relaxed.

2. Pleasure

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This herb will make you love the experience of eating. Cannabis gives you a dopamine boost. Dopamine is the key neurotransmitter that allows you to feel pleasure and reward. This neurotransmitter naturally rises when you eat, allowing you to gain pleasure from food.

With cannabis, these pleasure sensations are intensified. Suddenly that avocado doesn’t just taste good, it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten in your life.

3. Relaxation

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This is more subjective, but cannabis helps you get out of your own head. If you’re having a really bad day during recovery, the herb will put you into a different frame of mind. It can change your perspective, help you relax a bit, and then go about your day in a different mood.

Cannabis is a tool that you can use when you feel stuck in dangerous thought patterns or need a little help coping with something that might trigger a purge.

4. Underlying conditions

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There are several underlying conditions that contribute to anorexia. Bipolar disorder and addiction are two of the most common. It’s important to screen for these conditions in order to successfully treat anorexia. If an underlying condition is causing the disorder, you might struggle to find relief for your eating disorder unless these issues are addressed.

Many people use cannabis to relieve symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and substance abuse. For more information on how the herb affects those conditions, check out their associated articles.

Additional treatments

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Like traditional pharmaceutical medications, cannabis alone won’t magically make all of your troubles disappear. As mentioned earlier, the herb is a tool that you can use to help in the healing process. Unfortunately, recovery from disordered eating takes quite a bit of work.

The best results are achieved by a combination of therapy, community support, and proper treatment. But, there are a few other things that you may find helpful, like:

1. Mindfulness meditation

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Mediation has two big advantages. First, it can help you quickly change your perspective when you’re stuck in a rut. If you’re feeling down or are having trouble with a meal, mindfulness training can help you become aware of your emotions and move beyond them.

Secondly, continuous practice over time trains your brain to approach situations in a different way. This can help change your relationship with your body over time.

2. Recovery coaching

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Working with a psychologist or psychiatrist is great, but it can be a bit expensive. If you are looking for a different approach, there are quite a lot of life coaches and recovery coaches online. Recovery coaches will check in with you to see how you’re doing, walk you through a general plan for recovery, and help you work through some potential triggers.

3. Surround yourself with positive media

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The modern media environment is toxic. Unrealistic representations of health and body shape dominate the scene, and it can be difficult to heal with the constant bombardment of negative imagery. Choosing to follow or engage with body-positive media may help drown out some of the bad. Here are a few neat options to check out:

Recovery from an eating disorder is no easy task. It takes a lot of work to change your relationship with yourself and to find comfort in nourishment. Though you may still have a long road ahead, there are some signs that cannabis may be able to help along the ride. The plant can put a smile on your face, make food more enjoyable, and help you find a little peace. All good things, right?

Has cannabis helped you or someone you know with Anorexia or Bulemia? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

Jul 31, 2016