Updated on January 3, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Richard Koffler, MD, Board Certified Physiatrist
When you have anorexia, you don’t eat enough to maintain a healthy weight or rate of weight loss. It can happen as an eating disorder, where the patient fixates on food and weight. Or, it appears as a side effect from treatments for severe illnesses that causes a large decrease in appetite.
Both marijuana users and non-users alike joke about the drug’s tendency to give you “the munchies.” But, what acts as a joke or inconvenient side effect for some folks serves as a lifesaver for some patients. Marijuana’s ability to stimulate the appetite helps patients with conditions like anorexia get the nutrition they need.
Gérard et al. had a great interest in the endocannabinoid systems of patients with anorexia because of previous evidence showing marijuana’s effects on appetite. They considered the system a possible target for eating disorder treatment and wanted to investigate the presence of CB1 receptors in patients with bulimia and anorexia.
The researchers worked with 16 bulimia patients and 14 anorexia patients. To observe the cannabinoid receptor activity in their brains, they used positron emission tomography to see how their brains worked without any invasive procedures.
Compared to healthy control subjects, the patients with anorexia had significantly more CB1 receptors in their brains. The subjects with bulimia also had an increased number of CB1 receptors, but in different areas of the brain. Regardless of the eating disorder, these patients had more receptors to compensate for an underactive endocannabinoid system in parts of the brain related to reward, emotion processing and sensation.
Due to a lack of evidence of successful pharmacological treatment for anorexia, Andries et al. investigated dronabinol’s ability to help anorexic patients recover. They wanted to see if the synthetic cannabinoid could promote weight gain and improve scores on the Eating Disorder Inventory-2 (EDI-2), which measures the emotional aspects of eating disorders.
Over the course of three years, the team treated 25 adult women with dronabinol or a placebo. The patient would take one treatment for four weeks, then switch to the other. Andries et al. recorded their weights and EDI-2 scores.
Dronabinol allowed the patients to gain about 0.73kg/1.61lbs more than they did while taking the placebo. Plus, they didn’t experience any psychoactive or mind-altering side effects when they took the medicine due to the lack of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The patients didn’t have any significant changes in EDI-2 results, but they only participated for 12 weeks each. Overall, dronabinol was a safe and effective treatment.
While cancer and its treatments can already reduce your appetite, it can also change the way you taste and smell. This symptom makes it even harder for cancer patients to get proper nutrition. To help find a solution, Brisbois et al. examined whether THC could make food smell and taste better for cancer patients and improve their appetites.
A total of 46 advanced cancer patients took either THC or a placebo for 18 days. Then, they reported on their appetite, taste and smell, as well as other aspects like quality of life.
Patients who took THC had an improved sense of taste and smell and stated that food tasted better. They had bigger appetites before eating a meal and also ate a higher proportion of protein. These results indicate that THC could help people with anorexia find the motivation to eat.
Whether you have anorexia as its own condition or due to a treatment procedure you are undergoing, you can learn more about medicinal cannabis in our condition guide. If you live in a state with legal medical marijuana, use our directory to find a cannabis-positive doctor near you.