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Is There A Connection Between Marijuana and Eating Disorders?
Marijuana advocates promote the legalization of the substance because of its medical potential. Various anecdotes serve as evidence of marijuana’s medical application and effectiveness. Many patients report improvements in their conditions, such as relief from pain and better mental health. There are also patient testimonies regarding the positive effects of marijuana consumption on eating disorders. Patients suffering from eating disorders describe how marijuana allowed them to become more self-aware which helped treat their illness. However, the scarcity of studies regarding the relationship between marijuana and eating disorders prevents researchers from understanding the connection between the two.
Marijuana contains various chemicals, each having different effects on the human body. One of these, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical that is responsible for marijuana’s ability to treat eating disorders. Avraham et al. (2017) conducted a study that found that the consumption of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol led to improvements in body care, asceticism, and depression in patients with anorexia nervosa. The study, which utilized questionnaires for their methodology, implied that consuming delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol can be an effective treatment for the symptoms of anorexia nervosa.
There are multiple types of eating disorders that have detrimental effects on human health. However, most studies regarding the relationship between marijuana use and eating disorders revolve around anorexia nervosa. This mental illness causes an individual to develop restrictive eating behaviors to prevent weight gain (Anorexia Nervosa, 2020). Patients tend to have a distorted body image that causes them to avoid gaining weight, up to the extent where they starve themselves and reduce energy intake significantly. This illness leads to significant weight loss that is unhealthy for the human body.
Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental illness that can even lead to death. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), eating disorders are second to opioid overdose in terms of lethality. Eating disorders cause more than 10,000 deaths annually, and 26% of patients attempt suicide. This high fatality is due to the effects of the disorders on mental health that can lead to depression. Disorders like anorexia nervosa can also promote self-starvation, preventing the body from getting the nutrients it needs which can be fatal.
Lack of Evidence
Since marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, researchers cannot perform clinical trials legally under federal laws. This prevents them from gathering data on the effectiveness of marijuana as a treatment for diseases, such as eating disorders. This limitation leads to most data about marijuana’s medical application coming from anecdotes and case reviews. Most studies are reviews of existing research or a reusing of existing data. This is a significant limitation in marijuana research that prevents the federal legalization of the substance.
One example of these reviews is Rosager et al.'s (2020) study on the effects of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and dronabinol on anorexia nervosa patients. The study involved the analysis of four studies, but the researchers found that three studies utilized similar data from existing research. This shows the lack of available data for research as well as the challenges that marijuana researchers face. In the study, the researchers found out that a high dosage of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol did not have any effect while the dronabinol led to a weight increase (Rosager et al., 2020). Since marijuana plants contain delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the research indicates that the substance does not affect anorexia nervosa patients. Furthermore, the results from dronabinol consumption, which also contains THC, indicate that placebo is in effect. The researchers also noted the limited number of studies and low evidence, recommending future research on marijuana and anorexia nervosa.
Substance Use and Eating Disorders
It is not only marijuana that has a relationship with eating disorders. Most eating disorders tend to co-occur with substance use disorder (Pryor, n.d.). Individuals with eating disorders would either develop substance use disorder or vice versa; which is where substance use disorder results in eating disorders. For instance, an individual with anorexia nervosa may start using substances to alleviate their symptoms and begin to develop drug reliance and addiction. Alternatively, an individual who is already using a drug may develop eating disorders as a result of their substance abuse. This connection between eating disorders and drug use indicates the potential adverse effect of using marijuana as a treatment.
Other studies have also concluded this complex relationship between eating disorders and substance use. In Ganson et al. (2021), the researchers concluded that the connection between eating disorders and drug use will complicate drug-related treatment and even have compounded negative effects. Substance use does not only mean marijuana use but also includes other drugs, such as methamphetamine, benzodiazepine, and more. Eating disorder patients may gain higher risks of substance use disorder if they opt to have marijuana-related treatment.
Marijuana and Eating Disorders
Despite the lack of evidence regarding the relationship between marijuana and eating disorders, some studies provide insights into the potential connection between the two. An example of this is a study from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. The study found that women with anorexia or bulimia have underactive endocannabinoid systems (Wenk, 2021). The endocannabinoid system helps in allowing an individual to feel the taste or the pleasure of eating. The underperformance of the system in anorexia and bulimia patients indicates that their disorders may be related to this underdevelopment. Since endocannabinoids function similarly to THC, marijuana consumption may help treat an underactive endocannabinoid system. Consumption of THC can cause a reaction in the brain and potentially activate the endocannabinoid system, allowing a patient to experience the pleasure of eating food.
Specialists have also observed the potential positive effects of marijuana on eating disorders in their patients. Dr. Beth Braun stated in a VICE interview that clients who smoke marijuana had better success rates than patients who take other drugs (cited in Tatera, 2015). This observation illustrates that the specific chemicals in the marijuana plant are potentially responsible for treating eating disorders. Furthermore, Pryor (n.d.) also stated that one of their EDCare patients experienced improvement after marijuana consumption. Marijuana slowed down the mind of the patient and allowed her to become self-aware. She understood that her thoughts about not eating food were irrational and could lead to serious health effects. This allowed her to enjoy the act of eating and take pleasure in consuming food.
However, it is important to note that these cases are not from clinical trials. They are from individual patient claims and not all eating disorder patients experience the same effects. Marijuana consumption can intensify eating disorders and even lead to substance dependency (Pryor, n.d.; Tatera, 2015). For example, eating THC-infused munchies can help eating disorder patients but intensify the binge-purge behavior of people with bulimia. The patients may become addicted to the munchies, increasing their weight and causing them to purge the additional gain. In Denver, a low percentage of eating disorder patients have developed symptoms of substance dependency with an estimated 50% of patients using substances (Pryor, n.d.). Since THC is an addictive substance, dependency is an issue that challenges the cost-benefit of marijuana use. Patients may treat their eating disorder, however, they may acquire an unhealthy addiction that can have life-threatening consequences.
Researchers fail to assess the connection between marijuana and eating disorders because of the illegal status of cannabis under federal law. This leads to limited resources and methods to prove the medical application of marijuana. However, anecdotes from some patients indicate a positive relationship between marijuana and eating disorders. They claim that marijuana consumption cleared their mind and allowed them to experience pleasure from eating food. This counteracts their self-starvation behavior which often leads to fatal conditions. Despite this positive correlation, marijuana use can also lead to substance dependency and intensification of symptoms. Without the ability to conduct extensive studies on the topic, medical practitioners cannot identify whether the benefits of marijuana outweigh the potential cost.
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Ganson, K., Murray, S., & Nagata, J. (2021). Associations Between Eating Disorders and Illicit Drug Use Among College Students. International Journal of Eating Disorders, vol. 54(7). Available at https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23493. Accessed June 23, 2022.
Healthdirect.gov.au. (2020). Anorexia Nervosa. Health Direct. Available at https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/anorexia-nervosa . Accessed June 23, 2022.
Pryor, T. (n.d.). Budding New Considerations about the Use of Cannabis in Eating Disorder Treatment. EDCare. Available at https://eatingdisorder.care/cannabis-use-eating-disorder-treatment/#. Accessed June 23, 2022.
Tatera, K. (2015). Smoking Weed May Help Treat Eating Disorders. The Science Explorer. Available at http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/smoking-weed-may-help-treat-eating-disorders. Accessed June 23, 2022.
Rosager, E., Møller, C., & Sjögren, M. (2020). Treatment Studies with Cannabinoids in Anorexia Nervosa: A Systematic Review. Eating and Weight Disorders, vol. 26(2). Available at DOI: 10.1007/s40519-020-00891-x. Accessed June 23, 2022.
Wenk, G. (2012). The Connection Between Anorexia, Bulimia, and Marijuana. Psychology Today. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/your-brain-food/201204/the-connection-between-anorexia-bulimia-and-marijuana. Accessed June 23, 2022.