Using cannabis to treat diabetes and help lose weight is a strange concept for many people. “Surely, the penchant for sugary and salty snacks, aka the ‘munchies’, is a bad thing for diabetics and those looking to control their weight?”
Interestingly, it turns out that while cannabis does increase appetite, research indicates that cannabis users tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who do not use cannabis. BMI is not the only indicator of health, but it is still a rather important one. So, can cannabis help with weight loss and diabetes, and if so, how? In this article, we explore the existing research and several potential ways for cannabis to manage weight and control diabetes.
The Role of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) in Weight Gain and Diabetes
As we’ve explored in previous articles, the endocannabinoid system plays a role in many physiological functions, including that of appetite and weight management. In patients experiencing diabetes, research has observed changes in the expression of cannabinoid receptors in liver cells,, inflammatory cells, fat cells and some neurons in the kidneys, liver, heart, fatty tissue and skeletal muscle.
Diabetes and weight gain has been shown to cause additional disruption to the ECS, and changes in CB1 and CB2 receptors:
- CB1 Receptors: ECS disruption leads to a decrease in metabolism, an increase in fat storage, as well as insulin and leptin resistance. If CB1 receptors are over-activated, it may result in greater food-seeking behavior and an increased appetite.
- CB2 Receptors: A high-fat diet can cause abnormal retention of lipids, and lead to inflammation of the pancreas and liver.
How does cannabis help with diabetes?
Diabetes is a hugely debilitating condition, costing the US $245 billion annually. It is quite common, and people often pay little attention to it, thinking of it as controllable. In this sense, diabetes can be considered a “silent killer” (not unheard of when going hypoglycemic during sleep), and in 2016 killed 1.6 million people worldwide, with another 2.2 million attributable to high blood-glucose in 2012. It is estimated that, by 2030, diabetes will become the world’s seventh biggest killer.
Particular cannabinoids in the cannabis plant can be used to attenuate inflammation and decrease insulin and leptin resistance, which are both usually associated with Type 2 diabetes. 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.
Type 1 diabetes (diabetes mellitus, DM) is a genetic/autoimmune condition associated with low blood-glucose levels (hypoglycemia) or rapidly fluctuating blood-glucose levels. Type 1 diabetes may also arise as a complication of conditions such as lupus, Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS). While there is no known cause of Type 1 diabetes, some speculate that a disruption of the ECS could be one of them. Indeed, there is a genetic link between Crohn’s disease and Type 1 diabetes, the former a common qualifying condition for medical marijuana use.
The question of whether sufferers from such autoimmune disorders lack the gene that allows for the natural production of endocannabinoids body has not yet been answered. However, as the ECS plays such a fundamental role behind the body’s immune response and inflammation, it could well be a factor. Some studies have shown that regulating the ECS may help maintain control of wildly fluctuating blood-glucose levels.
Gestational diabetes (diabetes that occurs during pregnancy) and diabetes arising from steroid use (often as a result of organ transplants, cystic fibrosis, various inflammatory bowel diseases, and chemotherapy) occur rarely, but 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 worth taking caution before using cannabinoid-based medications. We have few if any studies on using medical cannabinoids for pregnant women.
Which cannabinoids and terpenoids help with diabetes?
Cannabidiol (CBD) and Diabetes
We have mentioned CBD’s and cannabidiolic acid’s (CBDA) anti-inflammatory properties before. As inflammation plays a big part in developing diabetes, it stands to reason that cannabinoids may be used to help control diabetes and maintain a healthy weight. CBD could help prevent inflammation, potentially even suppressing or reversing the onset of diabetes.
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Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) and Diabetes
THCV is an interesting cannabinoid. At low doses, THCV can buffer the intoxicating effects of THC, yet strengthen the effects of THC at higher doses . Interestingly, cannabis strains high in THCV – often sativa-based and from equatorial regions (e.g. Durban Poison) has 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). As disruption to the CB1 receptors causes a decrease in metabolism and an increase in fat storage and insulin and leptin resistance, it could be said that THCV helps increase cell metabolism and improve insulin sensitivity, allowing the body to break down lipids more effectively.
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Humulene and Diabetes
Humulene, aka 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 an appetite inducers.
Cannabis for Neuropathic (Nerve) Pain
There are four main types of neuropathic pain associated with diabetes and diabetics can potentially suffer from one or more of them. They include:
- Peripheral Neuropathy (PN) – The most common kind of neuropathy amongst diabetics, typically affecting 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 diabetic may not notice when their blood-sugar is dangerously low (hypoglycemic). That cannabis may help food taste sweeter may actually 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 a 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. Inflammation effectively stresses the body, especially the body’s tissue, as the nerves’ exposure to high amounts of glucose and fat eventually takes its toll. The nerves begin to “frazzle” and incorrect pain signals are sent to other pain centers. CBD, CBDA, THC, THCV and THCA may all be beneficial for neuropathic pain, and CBD may also help form a layer of protection around the nerves, preventing inflammation and insulin resistance.