People with anorexia have a tortured relationship with food. Photo: Jade Jackson
People with anorexia have a tortured relationship with food. Photo: Jade Jackson

People with anorexia nervosa usually possess a distorted image of themselves, perhaps the result of the thinness culture that prevails in the media, childhood sexual abuse or some other trauma or peer pressure. They are driven to avoid food for fear of becoming fat. Anorexia can also develop due to stomach disorders, reactions to medication or illegal drugs like cocaine or heroin. It has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness – 12.8 percent.

What it means

One way anorexics approach food is to purge themselves after consuming it, perhaps by forcing themselves to vomit, abusing laxatives or exercising to excess. Alternatively, they restrict calorie intake in the first place, starving themselves. The condition is more common in females, affecting one in 250, but has become increasingly common in males in recent years, affecting one in 2,000. It typically first strikes at the age of 16 or 17.

How cannabis helps

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) gets you stoned because it’s of a similar shape to the endocannabinoids your body produces naturally, so it can tap into the network of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). There are cannabinoid receptors throughout the body, governing sleep, appetite, mood, motor control, immunity, fertility, pleasure, pain, memory and temperature regulation.

It’s the ECS that’s wonky in people with anorexia nervosa. This was first discovered in 2011 by scientists from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium who employed positron emission tomography to gauge the status of the ECSs of 30 women with anorexia or bulimia, which is binge eating followed by purging. These wimmen’s ECSs were drastically underactive in the area of the brain that manages taste and the emotional response to eating; they were unable to completely experience the pleasure of food. The THC in cannabis activates the ECS’s CB1 receptor, increasing sensitivity to taste and smell and raising the pleasure of eating.

”Recommended” medications are dire

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) produces a 128-page document of guidelines for treating eating disorders. More than 50 percent of folk diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are prescribed psychotropic drugs. The APA’s document lists the medications that can help, which include anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, benzodiazepines, lithium and topiramate. These can have awful effects. The side-effects of anti-psychotics and anti-depressants are worse for malnourished people. Some anti-depressants carry a black box warning of the heightened risk of seizure in underweight people. Benzodiazepines can be extremely addictive.

So we need cannabis

Cannabis is not on the APA’s list of useful drugs, but maybe it should be. One who thinks thusly is Dr Alien Andries, a doctor at the University of Southern Denmark. He has published three peer-reviewed studies concerning the relationship betwixt cannabinoids and anorexia nervosa. He believes that what he calls “the appetitive effect of cannabis” – the munchies – on anorexic patients should be investigated. It would be “the purest study environment,” since anorexia is purely psychiatric, unlike, say, AIDS, Alzheimers or cancer. There has been little research on this to date.

There has at least been research into cannabis as an appetite stimulant for people suffering from HIV/AIDS and cancer, indicating that cannabis would be useful in treating anorexia.

Header Image via – Greatist

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