Anorexia nervosa is a well-known but uncommon eating disorder that affects less than 2% of the worldwide population. However, for those who have anorexia, the complications can be serious, sometimes leading to osteoporosis as a result of bone thinning, digestive issues, heart problems, and even death.
The “munchies” are a phenomenon long associated with cannabis. Could the appetite-stimulating effects of cannabis benefit individuals with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders? The answer may not be so simple, as eating disorders tend to have a strong underlying mental health component. If treating anorexia were as simple as encouraging appetite, then the disorder would likely not exist.
What cannabis may be able to help with, however, are the comorbid conditions associated with anorexia, such as anxiety and depression.
Current research demonstrates that cannabis could treat some of the conditions that often coexist with anorexia.
In 2013, a Danish study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that dronabinol, a synthetic form of cannabis, may help anorexic patients gain weight. The medicine was reportedly well-tolerated and linked to weight gain in subjects who took 2.5 milligrams of dronabinol twice daily compared with those who took a placebo.
Anxiety is frequently experienced alongside anorexia, and it has also been cited among the top five reasons for using medical cannabis in North America. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that cannabis significantly lowered anxiety levels, stress, and depression in the short-term. Caution should be exercised over the long term, however, as this study also found that depression symptoms (but not anxiety) could get worse when cannabis is used for prolonged periods.
Interestingly, researchers revealed that women experienced a greater reduction in anxiety than men in the short-term. This is an important consideration, given that women are three times more likely to experience anorexia than men.
However, the relationship between anxiety and cannabis use is complex. A meta-analysis of 31 separate studies published in 2014 in BioMed Central Psychiatry found that there was a positive relationship between cannabis use and anxiety. That is, anxiety is more common in cannabis users than non-users. Whether cannabis is simply a common coping strategy for these individuals, or alternatively, contributing to mood disorder, remains unclear. Randomized controlled trials examining the effect of cannabis on anxiety are much needed.
While cannabis has demonstrated the ability to help people suffering from anorexia, it's important to note that research has also found that when people with anxiety use cannabis to cope, it could potentially lead to misuse or dependence on cannabis. A 2019 study published in the journal Substance Use & Misuse found that social anxiety may be associated with using cannabis to decrease negative effects, which could increase the frequency of cannabis use and potentially cause a dependency risk.
Missy Hope, who requested her real name not be disclosed, had never heard the term “anorexia nervosa” when her eating disorder developed. At 15, insecure about her body and depressed after her parents' recent divorce, Hope began to starve herself.
“At first, I didn't realize I was starving myself,” Hope shared in a phone interview with Weedmaps. “I just thought I was being really disciplined by eating only fruits and vegetables every day. When I dropped down to 95 pounds, I didn't realize that my appearance was scaring people.”
Now 32, the real estate agent has conquered her anorexia, through an inpatient treatment program that was supplemented by medical cannabis use. According to Hope, she discovered cannabis around the same time she entered the program.
Like many former anorexia patients, Hope still battles with the adverse effects of this disorder from time to time, but cannabis use provides her with much-needed relief to this day.
“Smoking a joint here and there has helped with my anxiety and depression, but I still battle with them,” she explained. “But I feel like I'll always struggle to some extent with these issues and even with food.”
What the Experts Say
Hope's continued efforts to deal with her depression and anxiety are common among individuals recovering from anorexia. Some medical experts believe that cannabis may be beneficial in helping to manage these ongoing psychological symptoms.
The authors of a 2017 study published in the Israeli Journal of Psychiatry Related Science concluded that THC “may be an effective component in treating the psychological symptoms of AN (anorexia nervosa).”
This assertion stems from the results of the physicians' study of nine anorexic women who reported improvements in self-care and mood following treatment with 1 to 2 milligrams of THC daily administered over four weeks.
The Bottom Line
Cannabis may help ease anxiety, stimulate appetite, and uplift mood, all of which make medical cannabis a potential complementary treatment option for anorexia nervosa. However, anyone with anorexia should consult with a physician before beginning any course of treatment while addressing the psychological factors that contribute to the disorder.