Does cannabis help with diabetes treatment? Type 1 and type 2 diabetes have two completely different causes. Yet, the same herb may be helpful for both of the conditions. Though research is in its early stages, there have even been some small human trials of cannabinoid therapies as a diabetes treatment. While evidence that that the herb may improve insulin sensitivity and help autoimmunity is still under review, cannabis may help patients cope with difficult diabetes symptoms.
Type 1 diabetes
Cannabis has a lot of potential in the treatment of autoimmune diseases, type 1 diabetes included. In type 1 diabetes, an overactive immune system decides to attack the pancreas. The pancreas is responsible for producing insulin, a hormone which moves sugar out of the blood and into cells.
When the immune system attacks these cells, they can no longer produce the insulin needed to regulate blood sugar. Unfortunately, type 1 diabetics are usually on life-long insulin. When the pancreas becomes too damaged, there is not much you can do other than replace the hormone that the organ makes.
While cannabis therapy cannot create more insulin, the herb may be helpful for another reason. Active compounds in the plant called cannabinoids may help calm the immune system in type 1 diabetes. Calming the immune system stops your body from attacking itself, decreasing harm to the pancreas. Here’s how the herb seems to work:
Cannabis and autoimmune diabetes
Back in 2001, researchers put psychoactive THC to the test in mice with autoimmune diabetes. The mice were treated with 150mg/kg of THC. The scientists found that the mice had much lower instances of hyperglycemia and a significant decrease in loss of pancreatic insulin.
They also found lower inflammatory markers in the mice. Low inflammation is a sign that the immune system is suppressed, decreasing destruction of the pancreas.
Yet, 150mg/kg of THC is a lot. Fortunately, nonpsychoactive CBD also has potential. A 2008 study found that CBD delayed insulitis, the term for when immune cells attack insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The same study also found decreased inflammatory markers.
In fact, CBD treatment seemed to shift immune response to from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory. This tentatively corrects an immune imbalance that contributes to autoimmune disease in animal models.
Human trials in type 1 diabetes sorely needed. But, rodent models do show that cannabis is not something to be overlooked.
The herb is far from a cure for type 1 diabetes, but the potent anti-inflammatory and immune modulating properties of the herb may be highly beneficial for delaying the condition and improving the overall quality of life for type 1 diabetics.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a different beast. While type 1 is an autoimmune condition, type 2 is linked to poor carbohydrate metabolism. The body has become so inundated with sugars that the pancreas has to continue to pump out insulin to remove high levels of sugars in the blood. These sugars are stored in fat cells.
Eventually, cells are so bombarded with insulin carrying sugar that they no longer respond to the hormone. This fatigues the pancreas. The organ has to keep producing more and more insulin to get your fat cells to respond. It just can’t keep up. The result is skyrocketing blood sugar levels.
Sugars come from carbohydrates. Not just candy, soda, and ice cream, but simple, refined grains like pasta, breakfast cereals, and fruit juices. Carbohydrates in these foods are broken down into glucose in the body, creating blood sugar.
This is why low carbohydrate diets are so effective in those with type 2 diabetes. With a low-carb diet, you drastically limit overall sugar intake. Though, you may still need to take insulin depending on your individual condition.
Here’s where cannabis comes in. Interestingly enough, cannabis aids type 2 diabetics in an entirely different way than it does in type 1. While the anti-inflammatory properties of the herb are useful in this version as well, it’s the plant’s impact on metabolism that is most beneficial in type 2 diabetes.
As it turns out, compounds in cannabis may improve insulin sensitivity.
Cannabis and insulin
There’s a lot of potential for future cannabis-based diabetes drugs. Thus far, animal models have been quite positive. A 2012 study found that CBD effectively decreased feeding in rats. The research tested three different cannabinoids, CBD, CBN, and CBG.
CBG had no effect on appetite, CBN caused the rats to eat more. But CBD seemed to decrease appetite. The rats consumed less when they were treated with the compound.
While overeating is far from the primary contribution to diabetes, appetite-suppressing qualities may be beneficial for those trying to majorly transform their diets as a part of diabetes treatment.
CBD has also shown potential in reducing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. When combined with THCV, the cannabinoid cocktail successfully decreased fat buildup in the liver.
The fatty liver study looked at cells cultured outside of the body, obese mice, and zebrafish. Fatty liver disease is one of the possible complications of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is the umbrella term for a range of conditions, including diabetes, high-cholesterol, high blood pressure, fatty liver, and heart disease.
All of these conditions, including fatty liver, are prevalent in those with type 2 diabetes.
But, that’s not all. In two mouse models of obesity, THCV decreased glucose intolerance, improved insulin sensitivity, and increased energy expenditure. Basically, THCV kickstarted the rodents’ metabolism. This research also found that THCV restored insulin signaling in cells that were once resistant to the hormone.
This collection of strong animal evidence led British researchers to put cannabis to the test in humans. Here are the details:
A clinical trial
In 2012, British pharmaceutical company GW Pharmaceuticals tested two cannabinoids in type 2 diabetes. They gave 62 diabetes patients nonpsychoactive tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) and CBD.
The results were positive. The patients had improved insulin response and greater pancreatic cell function. Blood glucose levels dropped, fasting insulin increased, blood pressure was reduced, and inflammation markers declined.
The trial was double-blind, randomized, and placebo-controlled. The creme-of-the-crop as far as studies go. GW Pharma’s study used a drug that contained both THCV and CBD in specific ratios. The success of this trial has inspired GW Pharma to move forward with a larger placebo-controlled study.
The second study began in 2014, and we are currently awaiting results.
There’s good evidence that cannabis can actually improve metabolic function and ease autoimmunity in both types of diabetes. But, that’s not all the herb can do. The plant may help patients manage some of the uncomfortable side effects of either condition. Here’s how:
Neuropathy is nerve damage. High levels of blood sugar can cause nerve damage over time, leading to painful conditions. Diabetic neuropathy can manifest in different forms, though it most commonly causes pain, numbness, and tingling in the hands, arms, feet, and legs.
Both autoimmune and type 2 diabetes patients can experience neuropathy. In fact, 60 to 70% of those with diabetes experience neuropathy.
A 2015 study tested 16 diabetic patients with neuropathy of the feet. Each patient received four testing doses. They each tried a placebo, low THC, moderate THC, and high THC. Patients took a two-week break before changing doses. The results? Patients felt a dose-dependent relief from neuropathic pain with cannabis treatment.
Yet, another 2009 study found something different. The clinical trial tested 30 neuropathy patients with Sativex, a GW Pharmaceuticals drug created for multiple sclerosis patients. Sativex contains a 1 to 1 ratio of THC to CBD. In this trial, the Sativex was not effective in reducing neuropathic pain.
Both of these studies provide conflicting results, indicating that there is a lot we still need to learn about cannabis treatments. In animal models of diabetic neuropathy, cannabis has effectively improved nerve response.
In fact, treatment with cannabis extract restored thermal pain perception in rats without worsening blood sugar levels. But, as always, more human research is needed.
Diabetes can also damage your eyes. Diabetic retinopathy occurs from damage to the small blood vessels behind the retina. It can eventually lead to blindness, and is the leading cause of blindness in people aged 20 to 64. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you are to suffer from this form of ocular degeneration.
Fortunately, cannabis may be able to help this complication as well. 2006 research found that CBD may protect the eye from “a growing plethora of leaky blood vessels”. In diabetes, it’s not uncommon to experience ischemia, where different organs in your body are not receiving enough oxygen.
This lack of oxygen causes blood vessels in your eyes to try to create new blood vessels to solve the problem. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out so well for them. Very simply explained, under all of this stress, special pumps that help regulate communication between nerve cells in your eyes begin to fail. This leads to eye troubles.
Lead study author Dr. Gregory I. Liou explains
Cannabinoids are trying to ease the situation on both sides. They help save the neuron and, at the same time, make sure the microglial cells [an immune cell of the central nervous system] stay in microglial form. How good do you want a drug to be?
Liou and his team later published a paper suggesting that CBD may provide a novel therapeutic approach to treating inflammation and degeneration in diabetic retinopathy. The cannabinoid’s strong antioxidant properties help reduce damage from stress which causes ocular nerve cells to fail.
As with any chronic illness, depression is a major concern for those with diabetes. Luckily, the most abundant cannabinoids in cannabis have antidepressant effects. Recent research from the University of Buffalo found that chronic stress reduced the levels of endocannabinoids in rodents. Endocannabinoids are like our body’s own THC.
Lead researcher Dr. Samir Haj-Dahmane explains,
Chronic stress is one of the major causes of depression. Using compounds derived from cannabis – marijuana – to restore normal endocannabinoid function could potentially help stabilize moods and ease depression.
Yet, Dr. Haj-Dahmane isn’t the only scientist to find that cannabis eases depression. Research published in April of 2016 found that CBD had extremely rapid antidepressant effects in rodents. Pharmaceutical antidepressants can take as long as 6 weeks to fully kick in.
This new rodent study suggests that those with depression may benefit from the mood-lifting effects of CBD right away.
Potential strains for diabetes
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find cannabis products high in both THCV and CBD. Yet, there are some strains out there that you might want to consider. Until we either have strains bred specifically for those with diabetes or we have a cannabis-based drug, canna-curious patients are left with a handful of herbal options.
Here is a brief list of high THCV and high CBD cannabis strains:
- Charlotte’s Web Hemp Oil (this is a high CBD product legally available for any U.S. resident to purchase online, though the providers make no medical claims.)
- Harlequin (high CBD)
- Durban Poison (high THCV)
- Blue Dream (high THCV, but check testing data as there are two common phenotypes for this strain.)
For a few more “skinny weed” recommendations, check out our article here.
An anecdotal example
Catrina Coleman has a Monday appointment to get her stomach stapled. She called and canceled the Friday before. Instead, she picked up some cannabis and went to the gym. As a result, she lost around 80 lbs.
While cannabis alone did not help her lose weight or completely reverse her diabetes, it certainly helped her throughout the recovery process. She says,
The friend that introduced me to cannabis talked me out of getting the surgery, and said “you can do it. You can go to the gym, you can do it the right way. You can do it the old-fashioned way, just give it a try and if it doesn’t work there is always the surgery.” And… he was right. And I did it. And I did it with cannabis.
I did it with going to the gym and eating right. But, I didn’t have the courage and I didn’t have the energy. And people are always really surprised to hear that I got high and had energy. They think that you get high and are just sitting around and doing nothing, and it’s the complete opposite.
To conclude, cannabis has a lot of potential for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. In type 1, the herb’s immunomodulatory effects may help turn off inflammation and activate the body’s anti-inflammatory response.
This helps save the pancreas from a constant assault. In type 2 diabetes, cannabis shows potential as a supplement that improves insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism.
Though cannabis is no replacement for a healthy (perhaps preferably low-carb) diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management, the herb has therapeutic potential. Fortunately, clinical trials testing cannabis as diabetes treatment are currently underway. We look forward to their results.