With a wide range of physical and psychological aspects involved—from low body weight to anxiety and loss of appetite, anorexia nervosa can be a complicated disorder to treat. While the medical community has struggled to find effective treatments for this life-threatening condition, cannabis offers new hope for anorexia sufferers. Marijuana can help stimulate appetite, reduce anxiety and possibly even target a root cause of anorexia: an imbalanced endocannabinoid system (ECS).
What Is Anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa is a complex psychiatric eating disorder characterized by:
- Low body weight
- Fear of gaining weight
- Lack of appetite
- A distorted view one’s own physical appearance
Generally, those with the disorder restrict their intake of food, and may also exercise excessively in an attempt to burn off any calories they take in. Anorexia can affect people of any age and gender, but most commonly it begins in adolescence and affects women. In Canada, 0.9% of women and 0.3% of men will suffer from anorexia in their lifetime.
Anorexia is a challenging but important psychiatric disorder to find effective treatments for, because it has such a high mortality rate. Of those with the disorder, 12.8% will die from the disorder, usually within 10 years of its onset, with 6% committing suicide.
Anorexia is usually treated with cognitive behavioural therapy, in an attempt to restore a healthy relationship to food and anxiety. But more than half of anorexia patients are also prescribed some type of psychotropic medication.
Unfortunately, it’s not all that clear whether these medications actually work. While one study suggests they may assist in the treatment of anorexia, later meta-analyses of the research argues that psychotropic medications aren’t helpful in addressing the condition.
Can Cannabis Help With Anorexia Recovery?
Interestingly, cannabis may be able to help with anorexia. Research suggests it can assist treatment in a few different ways:
- Appetite stimulation and weight gain: Anorexic patients have a very hard time eating and thus putting on weight, so appetite stimulation can be very helpful in the treatment process. Certain cannabis strains known for inducing the munchies could be just the thing to help.
In addition to stimulating appetite, cannabis actually increases the sense of pleasure many people feel while eating. It does this by intensifying sensitivity to taste and smell. For those anorexic patients who are working hard to recover and start eating more, this can prove beneficial. Studies show that taking cannabis can actually help those with anorexia put on more weight, which is a key part of the recovery process.
- Anxiety reduction: Of course, anorexia is more complicated than having a simple lack of appetite. It also involves wanting to be in control and having an intense anxiety about weight.
"[Anorexia patients] feel power in not giving in to the desire to eat, so stimulating their appetite can't necessarily overcome the neurobiological issues that are also intimately involved with their disorder," explains Tamara Pryor, director of clinical research at the Eating Disorder Center of Denver. Still, cannabis may help with these neurobiological issues directly by lessening the intense sense of anxiety associated with anorexia.
Research shows that when patients are treated with cannabis, both their subjective levels of stress and the levels of biological markers like cortisol are decreased. While patients should seek out cognitive behavioural therapy to help develop healthier habits around eating, cannabis may help reduce extreme levels of anxiety while they’re working through these issues.
- Balancing the ECS: While treating these symptoms of anorexia is helpful, cannabis may even help with one of anorexia’s root causes: an imbalanced ECS. Scientists previously believed that anorexia was a disorder with purely sociocultural causes such as:
- Familial interaction patterns
- Parental attitude towards weight control
- Desirability for slimness and thinness
But studies are beginning to show that anorexia, along with other eating disorders, is also associated with an imbalance in the endocannabinoid system. This important system of receptors is found throughout the body and regulates a number of functions including mood and appetite. While it’s stimulated and activated by endocannabinoids, which are produced naturally in the body, sometimes we have deficiencies in our endocannabinoid level. This can lead to imbalances as seen in anorexic patients.
Luckily, cannabis can also activate this crucial system with its own cannabinoids, and this can help restore balance when an endocannabinoid deficiency is present.
Consuming Marijuana for Anorexia
For those interested in taking cannabis as part of a treatment plan for anorexia, the best first step is to talk to a doctor who’s familiar with cannabinoid medicine and anorexia treatment. Anorexia is an extremely serious disorder because of the risk of death involved, and cannabis is just one aspect of the treatment. It’s important to work with qualified medical professionals to ensure you’re on the best route to recovery.
Once you’ve consulted with your doctor, cannabis can be a helpful way to increase appetite, reduce anxiety and restore balance to your system.
There are many different options when it comes to cannabis, and people vary in terms of which route works best for their symptoms. That said, certain marijuana strains—usually indicas or hybrids—tend to produce higher levels of appetite stimulation.
This list includes cannabis strains such as:
Many report that a small dose of one of these strains before a meal can help stimulate appetite and make the meal more enjoyable. One or two inhalations from a joint or vaporizer or a 5 mg dose of an oil should be enough to do the trick.
While the higher tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) strains listed above are great for getting appetite going, and can also help some with anxiety, they may lead to increased anxiety for others. If you find this to be the case, try a higher cannabidiol (CBD) option.
While CBD won’t give you the munchies, it can relieve anxiety—both the anxiety associated with anorexia and the anxiety that may be caused by consuming THC. A marijuana oil high in CBD is a great option to mitigate both types of anxiety.
By taking an oil or a homemade cannabis edible on a daily basis, you’ll not only help reduce your anxiety, and stimulate your appetite, you’ll also supply your body with the cannabinoids needed to rebalance your ECS. This can help address anorexia and other eating disorders.
Photo credit: Zohre Nemati