Cannabis Lowers Obesity and Diabetes Risk

By John Levy

A recent study suggests that lighting up may help cannabis lovers maintain a healthy weight and lower their risk of diabetes. The study found that the compounds in marijuana help to control blood sugar levels. Despite having a notorious reputation as an appetite stimulant, causing what stoners call “munchies,” the new study is not the first to discover the drug’s unique effect on weight.

Cannabis and Weight Gain

This study, published in the American Journal of Medicine, has similar findings to three previous studies showing that pot users are less likely to suffer obesity, have lower diabetes risk, and have lower Body Mass Index scores. They all found these trends occurring, despite the fact that weed users consume vastly more calories than non-stoners.

How is this possible? Lead author of the study and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Murray Mittleman, said, “The most important finding is that current users of marijuana appeared to have better carbohydrate metabolism than nonusers. Their fasting insulin levels were lower, and they appeared to be less resistant to the insulin provided by their body to maintain a normal blood-sugar level.”

For their research, the group analyzed more than 4,600 male and female participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for the period between 2005 and 2010. Of them, 48 percent had tried weed at least once, and 12 percent were using it currently. Researchers also controlled for other factors that could alter diabetic risks, such as sex, age, physical activity, income, and alcohol use.

However, even after adjusting for these factors, those that were using marijuana at the time had fasting insulin levels at least 16 percent lower than former users or those who had never tried it, as well as a 17 percent reduction in other measurements of insulin resistance too. On both tests, higher levels are an indicator of Type 2 diabetes, which already has a well-known link to obesity.

Those still using marijuana also had higher levels of high-density lipoprotein, the healthy cholesterol that protects against heart disease. Regular consumers also had smaller waistlines, with average measurements approximately 3.8 centimeters thinner than previous users and those who had never consumed it before.

More Cannabis Research Is Necessary

For scientists, these correlations remain difficult to explain. More research is necessary. Since this was not a controlled trial, it is still unclear if cannabis or another factor in the user’s lifestyle is responsible for the beneficial effects. Research demonstrates, though, that the brain’s cannabinoid receptors play crucial roles in appetite and metabolic function.

Despite this, the exact nature of how cannabinoids influence the relationship between caloric intake, appetite, and response to insulin is not obvious yet. However, there is a potential clue, and it lies in the effects of diet drug designed to have an opposite effect on the brain than what marijuana has. Rimonabant is an interesting drug indeed.

By manipulating specific cannabinoid receptors in the complete opposite way that weed’s main psychoactive ingredient, THC, does, Rimonabant drops fasting insulin levels and weight significantly. It uses a complex action: Rimonabant does not simply block receptors and prevent activation by cannabinoids. Instead, despite natural cannabinoids elevating normal activity levels in the system, Rimonabant reduces it so that the result is exactly the reverse of natural receptor activation.

However, Rimonabant never gained approval for use in the United States. The European market pulled it. This is because the drug caused dangerous psychiatric effects, including the risk of suicide. It highlights an important question, though: How can both cannabis and a molecule that causes opposing effects cause weight loss by acting on the same brain receptors?

Is it A Matter of Tolerance?

In its natural state, marijuana contains hundreds of different active molecules. One of them may be responsible for causing this effect, and it is not THC. Cannabidiol, which also influences the body’s cannabinoid receptors, is one possible candidate, but it does so in a different way that Rimonabant or THC does.

Tolerance is another possibility: Using a drug repetitively can desensitize receptors over time. According to Daniele Piomelli, a pharmacology professor at the University of California in Irvine unassociated with the study, “The most likely explanation is that prolonged cannabis use causes the receptors to lose sensitivity and become inactive.”

Piomelli continued, “This has been shown to happen in people who smoke marijuana. This weakening of these receptors translates into a lower risk for obesity and diabetes because the inactive receptor would be unable to respond to our own cannabis-like molecules, which we know are important in keeping us chubby.”

Although pot may stimulate appetite and promote overeating initially, it has the opposite effect over time because it desensitizes cannabinoid receptors in the body, which will prevent obesity. However, do not put flame to the bong just yet, as there is still insufficient data to determine if weed, like alcohol, can be beneficial to health in moderation.

According to Mittleman, the research relied heavily on self-reporting of marijuana use, which is unreliable at best. Nevertheless, he notes that because people are more comfortable hiding use than falsely proclaiming it, the study’s results could actually be an underestimation of the effects of marijuana. Whether that is true or not, and whether pot may prevent diabetes by controlling insulin and glucose, remains inconclusive.

As Mittleman says, “It is much too early to say. We need much more research to understand better the biological responses to marijuana use. We really need more research to allow physicians and patients to make decisions based on solid evidence.” Accompanying the study is an editorial urging the federal government to act now and remove all barriers to such studies.

Even with marijuana legal in more than half of the United States, pot politics will always snuff out research efforts to understand how the brain reacts to cannabinoids, and how they affect disease. However, as Piomelli explains, “The study suggests that smoking marijuana may protect people against obesity and diabetes,” but researching these findings could shed new insight in how to cope with the nation’s biggest health problems.

About the Author

John Levy is a cannabis enthusiast and a professional blogger covering the latest health topics related to medical marijuana. Currently, he is associated with Pot Valet – an online marijuana store in California. John has extensive experience writing about medical marijuana and related products.

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