Marijuana and Mental Health: Eating Disorders

Oct 29, 2019

The legalization of marijuana continues to storm the nation and surprisingly, plenty of research on its medical benefits continue to emerge. One of these benefits is the treatment of eating disorders, a feat of which no drug has ever done before. According to studies, the psychoactive component of marijuana allows those affected by eating disorders a mental respite from their ordeals with food. There’s also the “munchies” that come with being high, which allows those suffering from extreme underweight problems to feel hungry enough to consume food. 

About 30 million people in the United States live with an eating disorders, as estimated by the National Eating Disorder Association. That number is more than the population of people suffering from depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia combined. Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming number, the US Department of Health & Human Services only allots an annual budget of $30 million for research on eating disorders, which is about $1 per person affected. To compare, $404 million is allotted for research on depression every year, which is around $122 per person. 

The numbers reported are quite unfortunate – eating disorders symptoms poses serious threat to the body system, as lack of proper nutrition causes the heart to work overtime, which in turn leads to failure. This is why eating disorders have the highest mortality rate – living with an eating disorder is both a mental and physical battle. Of course, such measures are being developed to help combat the rising numbers. The American Psychiatric Association has released a document of 128 pages, which contains guidelines on eating disorder treatments, including an extensive list of medications. These psychiatric medications include SSRIs, anti-psychotics, benzodiazepines, and even lithium. Although for noble intentions, these drugs come with shadows; some of these increase risks include seizures in underweight individuals, SSRIs leading to further weight loss, the addictiveness of benzodiazepines. Although a treatment, these can actually cause further damage on the afflicted. This is where the role of marijuana comes in, as it is quickly gaining popularity as an alternative solution to bulimia, anorexia, and other eating disorders. 

According to some specialists, there is greater success rate with their patients who smoke marijuana than those who take psychotropic drugs. Unfortunately, not all psychologists can recommend and prescribe marijuana just yet, as in some states marijuana is still considered illegal. However, if it gives their patients relief from their anxieties and encourages them to eat, then their choice to use marijuana is supported. 

However, it is integral to understand that the use of marijuana causes different reactions. In fact, even regular smokers can come across strains like paranoia and neuroticism. Considering that eating disorders have a high state of comorbidity, their symptoms are often ignited further by underlying problems, which includes depression and anxiety. For eating disorders, then, smoking marijuana could lead to two directions: it can either bring relief or worsen the situation. For instance, the munchies that come with using marijuana can prove beneficial to those suffering from anorexia, but disastrous for those struggling with bulimia. 

There are, however, testaments to the calming effects of marijuana. A man called Joey for instance, has struggled with restrictive eating throughout his teenage years. As he continues his battle, he has learned to lean on marijuana for some respite. He often reaches for it at the worst of times, but he recognizes that marijuana is not a magic solution. Smoking marijuana, he recounts, continues to help him realize that life could be both possible and desirable for him. 

Another testament by a person named Angela states that her first encounter with marijuana helped her forget to count calories, an act of which she does obsessively. Forgetting the “necessity” of counting calories felt like a great weight was lifted of her shoulders, as for the first time in many years, she’s reminded of what life could be like without her compulsive tracking of her nutrition.

Then there was a man named Chris, who recalls his lowest weight of 70 pounds.  He shares that he has utilized marijuana as a coping mechanism during the first stages of his recovery. Luckily, it was able to quell his stress, anxiety and depression. More importantly, it stimulated his appetite, something which he had lost. For the first time since the onset of his eating disorder, he was able to shift his attention to normal things, such as conversing and watching shows. The most intriguing effect, however, came in the form of finally seeing himself – frighteningly thin – something which he could not see when he was sober.  

Most of the afflicted has also shared a single effect – that marijuana has opened parts of their minds that allowed them to take control, something which they feel like they have no access to prior to taking marijuana. Such is the case with Anna, who discovered the benefits of using marijuana five years before. Now, she believes she’s on her way to recovery. Smoking three times a day before meals and bed has helped her eat and sleep normally. 

There are, of course, others who do not believe in the benefits of marijuana. Such is the case with Dr. Kim Dennis, a Medical Director. She does not believe in marijuana and its link to true recovery, as there is a risk of that person becoming dependent on marijuana. One may break free from the eating disorder, but what of the possibility of developing a marijuana addiction? According to her, marijuana is yet another prison to break out of – there is no true healing unless they uncover all underlying issues. 

This view is also shared by Anna herself, as she worries that she has become dependent marijuana. As soon as she smokes less, her appetite diminishes once more and her anxiety spikes. With the help of marijuana, she becomes a “normal, functioning person”. 

Clearly, marijuana isn’t a universal cure for eating disorders. Each person who struggles with a specific eating disorder has their own respective stories; bearing this in mind, smoking marijuana will affect them differently. Apart from drugs, cognitive-behavioral therapy is integral to a full recovery. However, one cannot deny the empowering influence of marijuana, as it helps people get through their battles every day, sometimes even changing their levels of self-criticism radically. Although frowned upon by others, there’s no shame in getting high to stay alive. 

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