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Diabetes can be debilitating, both physically and financially. This severe disease costs the United States $245 billion annually, but the human toll is even more costly.
In 2016, diabetes killed 1.6 million people worldwide, with another 2.2 million deaths in 2012 attributable to high blood sugar. Unfortunately, the death rate for diabetes is on the rise, increasing by 14 percent between 2019 and 2020. It is estimated that, by 2030, diabetes will become the world’s seventh biggest killer.
Contrary to Type 1 diabetes, where the body does not produce enough insulin, Type 2 diabetes is often associated with high blood glucose levels (hyperglycemia) and is by far the most common type of diabetes, with 90% of all cases of diabetes being Type 2.
What can cannabis do for people with Type 2 diabetes? Particular cannabinoids in the cannabis plant can reduce inflammation and decrease insulin resistance and leptin resistance, both associated with Type 2 diabetes.
Research indicates that the use of marijuana could result in better outcomes for people with diabetes. Discover the potential benefits of cannabis in treating and preventing type 2 diabetes.
Benefits of Cannabis for Diabetes
Medical cannabis may benefit diabetic patients in several ways, starting with pain reduction. Neuropathic (nerve) pain is a troubling and common symptom of diabetes. Cannabis has shown potential to treat the four main types of neuropathic pain, including:
- Peripheral Neuropathy (PN). The most common neuropathy among people with diabetes and typically affects the arms, legs, and sometimes hands and feet. Between one-third and one-half of people with chronic diabetes of any kind develop PN.
- Autonomic Neuropathy (AN). Damage to the nerves that control your internal organs, causing problems with heart rate, blood pressure, digestive system, eyes, bladder, sweat glands, and sex organs. The damage also means that the person with diabetes may not notice when their blood sugar is dangerously low (hypoglycemic). The fact that cannabis may help food taste sweeter may help in this regard.
- Proximal Neuropathy. A rare type of neuropathy that usually affects the buttocks, hip and/or thigh, usually localized in a small area. Rarely does the pain spread to other areas.
- Focal Neuropathy (FN). Neuropathy that affects a single nerve, usually in the hands, torso, head, or leg. Carpal tunnel syndrome is one such example of focalized neuropathy. Such types of neuropathy are often caused by nerve entrapment or compression.
When a chronic condition involves inflammation, you can rest assured that neuropathic pain is around the corner. As the nerves’ exposure to high amounts of glucose and fat eventually takes its toll on the body’s tissue, the nerves begin to "frazzle," and incorrect pain signals are sent to other pain centers.
So, how does cannabis come into play? The cannabinoids CBD, CBDA, THC, THCV, and THCA, may benefit neuropathic pain. CBD may also help form a layer of protection around the nerves, preventing inflammation and insulin resistance.
Partial or total loss of vision through diabetic retinopathy is one more complication of diabetes. CBD, in particular, has been shown to connect to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and reduce the risk of developing retinopathy.
This finding could have enormous implications for people with diabetes; 16 million have diabetic retinopathy in the United States alone. Diabetic retinopathy is also the leading cause of blindness in all adults of working age, according to researchers at the Medical College of Georgia.
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Risks of Cannabis for Diabetes
While cannabis does not carry as many risks as other drugs, it can still present certain complications for people with diabetes. Additionally, cannabis may interact with some diabetes medications. Marijuana can reduce the effectiveness of prescription diabetes medications, which can have dire consequences.
Diabetic ketoacidosis is the primary concern for cannabis users on diabetic medication. This potentially fatal condition can result from forgetting to take diabetes medication or if the medicine doesn’t work as intended due to drug interactions. One study even found that the use of cannabis may double the risk of developing ketoacidosis, whether or not the individual is on prescription medication.
When diabetic ketoacidosis occurs, the body is not receiving adequate glucose to convert to energy. A buildup of ketones (blood acids) is followed by severe symptoms, including fatigue, confusion, and possible coma. Therefore, exercise extreme caution and consult with your physician before using medical marijuana if you take any medications for diabetes.
You should also speak with your doctor before using cannabis if you have comorbidity with diabetes, such as heart disease or hypertension (high blood pressure). Smoking cannabis may increase your risk of having a heart attack, particularly if you already suffer from cardiovascular disease.
Other Cannabinoids and Diabetes
Research is emerging on how certain cannabinoids may impact diabetes. Two of these cannabinoids, CBD and THCV, have exhibited encouraging possibilities for the treatment and prevention of diabetes.
Cannabidiol (CBD) and Diabetes
CBD and its acidic precursor, CBDA, both have significant anti-inflammatory properties. As inflammation plays a big part in developing diabetes, it stands to reason that cannabinoids may help control diabetes and maintain a healthy weight.
CBD could help prevent inflammation, potentially even suppressing or reversing the onset of diabetes. However, animal studies offer only current evidence, and clinical trials are needed to support this theory.
Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) and Diabetes
THCV can buffer the intoxicating effects of THC at low doses and strengthen the effects of THC at higher doses. Interestingly, cannabis strains high in THCV (often Sativa-based and from equatorial regions such as Durban Poison) have been reported by users to suppress hunger rather than increase it.
THCV’s ability to block THC may also explain why THCV has appetite suppressant properties.
THCV is both a CB1 receptor agonist (acts on them) and antagonist (prevents cannabinoids from acting on them).
Disruption to the CB1 receptors causes a decrease in metabolism and an increase in fat storage and insulin and leptin resistance. So, THCV could help boost cell metabolism and improve insulin sensitivity, allowing the body to break down lipids more effectively.
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Terpenes and Diabetes
In addition, certain terpenes (naturally occurring compounds that give the cannabis plant its flavors and aromas) may be beneficial for preventing diabetes. Humulene is one example of a terpene that has shown therapeutic promise for diabetes.
Humulene and Diabetes
Humulene, A.K.A. alpha-humulene or alpha-caryophyllene, is the terpene responsible for beer’s "hoppy" taste and aroma. Humulene has antibacterial, anticancer (especially in combination with beta-caryophyllene), and anti-inflammatory properties.
Humulene is also an anorectic, meaning that it suppresses appetite. Humulene and THCV may work synergistically in some strains, making some types of cannabis potential appetite suppressants rather than as appetite stimulants.
Marijuana and Type I Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes (diabetes mellitus, DM) is a genetic/autoimmune condition associated with low glucose levels (hypoglycemia) or rapidly fluctuating blood sugar. Type 1 diabetes may also arise as a complication of lupus, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS). Is it possible for the use of cannabis to help treat Type 1 diabetes as well?
Indeed, there is a genetic link between Crohn’s disease and Type 1 diabetes, the former a common qualifying condition for medical marijuana use. While there is no known cause of Type 1 diabetes, some speculate that a disruption of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) could be one of them. Some studies have shown that regulating the ECS may help maintain control of wildly fluctuating blood sugar.
Gestational diabetes (diabetes that occurs during pregnancy) and diabetes arising from steroid use (often due to organ transplants, cystic fibrosis, various inflammatory bowel diseases, and chemotherapy) rarely occur. But these types of diabetes can be an issue and cause other health problems or make existing health problems significantly worse.
While cannabinoids may help most types of diabetes, gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy, and it is crucial to exercise caution before using cannabinoid-based medications. We have few, if any, studies on using medical cannabinoids for pregnant women. Furthermore, research has shown that cannabis can harm the brains of developing babies.
Bottom Line: Can Marijuana Help Treat or Prevent Diabetes?
Cannabis could serve as an additional treatment option for some people with diabetes. But cannabis should not be the primary course of action and may only indirectly benefit people with diabetes. Some people with diabetes (especially those on prescription medications or with heart disease) may benefit more from other treatment options. Furthermore, pregnant women with gestational diabetes should avoid using cannabis.
In terms of prevention, as some studies have indicated a decreased prevalence of diabetes in marijuana users, the plant could be highly beneficial. Cannabis users have also been reported to have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than the general population, which could be one reason why diabetes isn’t as prevalent.
Reach out to a Leafwell physician today to learn how a medical marijuana card can help you safely access cannabis. We’ll guide you through the process from start to finish with our convenient online appointments.