This article looks at how the medicinal properties of marijuana might benefit people by alleviating some of the symptoms of diabetes.
It also looks at the possible risks of using marijuana to treat diabetes and the legal implications.
Scientists are looking into ways in which substances in marijuana might help treat a range of conditions.
Marijuana contains many different chemicals. More than 100 of these are known as cannabinoids. This term means they are related to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Of all the cannabinoids in marijuana, THC and cannabidiol (CBD) are the most commonly studied.
THC is the primary psychoactive component in cannabis. It produces the "high" that people associate with the drug.
CBD is not considered psychoactive, and this component of cannabis has a number of medicinal uses.
Cannabinoids interact with receptors found in the central nervous system of the body.
This can affect several processes, such as:
Some cannabinoids, such as CBD, may also have anti-inflammatory properties.
The various cannabinoids all have different properties, and they may be useful for treating a range of health conditions.
What is medical marijuana?
The term "medical marijuana" means the use of the whole, unprocessed cannabis plant or extracts from it to treat certain health conditions.
People should know that, until now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have only approved one product, containing an extract of marijuana, and this is CBD (Epidiolex).
In June 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared Epidiolex safe and effective for two forms of epilepsy known as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. The seizures that occur with these conditions are difficult to control with other medications.
Canada, the United Kingdom, and some European countries have also approved the use of Sativex, a mouth spray incorporating both CBD and THC that can help relieve pain and muscle spasms related to muscular sclerosis (MS) in adults.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), research and trials for other uses of marijuana and its compounds are ongoing.
Benefits for diabetes
Marijuana affects the body through cannabinoid receptors, which are part of the endocannabinoid system. As part of this system, the body creates some cannabinoids naturally.
Use in medication, some of the chemicals present in marijuana might relieve some of the symptoms of diabetes.
These cannabinoid receptors play a role in regulating:
- energy balance
- insulin sensitivity
- pancreatic cell function
- metabolism of lipids
An advocacy group, the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis (AAMC), suggest that marijuana might:
- stabilize blood sugar levels
- have antioxidant properties that may help lower arterial inflammation
- offer neuroprotection, which could reduce neuropathic pain, a complication of diabetes
- keep blood vessels open, lowering blood pressure over time and improving circulation
- relieve muscle cramps
- reduce gastrointestinal pain and cramping
However, the AAMC caution that information on these benefits is contradictory.
Research is still ongoing and will continue to help us better understand the medicinal and adverse effects.
Marijuana may offer other benefits for people with diabetes.
Smaller waist size and less risk of obesity
Being overweight or obese is one of the most significant risk factors in the development of type 2 diabetes. According to Diabetes U.K., obesity may account for 80 to 85 percent of the risk of developing the condition.
Studies show that marijuana may help reduce the risk of diabetes.
For example, researchers in a 2013 study of 4,657 people, including 579 current marijuana users and 1,975 past users, found that smaller waist size was associated with marijuana use.
On average, regular users had waists that were 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) slimmer than people who had smoked marijuana in the past, or those who never had.
This supports previous research, which indicates that obesity occurs less often among cannabis users than in non-users.
Increased insulin sensitivity
Being able to use insulin effectively is vital for health. However, those with type 2 diabetes are less sensitive, or more resistant, to the effects of insulin in the body.
Research has shown that marijuana users may have increased insulin sensitivity.
In a large study of 4,657 people, as mentioned above, scientists observed that the fasting insulin levels of users were 16 percent lower than former users and non-users. Their levels of insulin resistance were also 17 percent lower.
A 2015 study of people with non-insulin-treated type 2 diabetes indicates that a form of THC:
- significantly decreased fasting blood glucose
- improved the production of insulin
- raised levels of adiponectin (a protein that regulates blood sugar)
Inflammation appears to play a role in the development of type 1 and type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Some 2015 research suggests that the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD can treat the inflammation contributing to diabetes and associated complications.
Protection against retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of vision loss in those with diabetes.
According to the National Eye Institute, it is also the most common cause of blindness in adults of working age.
The results of research carried out on animals suggests that 1 to 4 weeks of CBD treatment provided 'significant protection' from diabetic retinopathy.
Diabetic neuropathy is a common complication of diabetes. It is a form of nerve damage that occurs most often in the legs and feet, but also in other parts of the body. Neuropathy can be extremely painful and fatal in some cases.
A 2015 study on people with neuropathic foot pain suggests that inhaling cannabis can provide relief from diabetic neuropathic pain for several hours.
Researchers found that the higher the dose of THC, the greater the pain relief.
Marijuana use for people with diabetes may have several benefits, but there are also disadvantages.
If cannabinoids affect the metabolic system, insulin sensitivity, and appetite, this might also mean that frequent cannabis use could disrupt these functions.
Here are some other possible problems.
High blood sugar
The main disadvantage of using cannabis for diabetes is related to an increased appetite. This is a common side effect, which some people call "the munchies." It may lead people to crave and eat large amounts of carbohydrates.
This can be an issue for those with diabetes, as carbohydrates cause blood sugar to rise rapidly. Very high blood sugar levels may result in a medical emergency.
Low blood sugar
Abnormally low blood sugar levels can also be dangerous for those with diabetes.
Low sugar levels occur when there is too much insulin and not enough glucose in the blood.
- rapid heartbeat
There are some concerns that marijuana users may not notice their blood sugar levels have dropped when they are intoxicated. It is also a worry that they may attribute symptoms of low blood sugar to the drug use.
Other disadvantages and risks of marijuana use
Other potential undesirable side effects of marijuana use include:
- addiction, which may occur in 9 percent of adults using marijuana recreationally
- faster heart rate
- interactions with prescription or over-the-counter medications
- breathing issues
- withdrawal symptoms
- slower reaction times
- problems with concentration, learning, and memory
How the person uses marijuana will affect their risk of adverse effects. Also, smoking marijuana will affect a person differently from using a medical preparation that a doctor has recommended.
Also, since the FDA has not approved the use of marijuana or its compounds for treating diabetes, a person cannot be sure of the ingredients or quality of the product they obtain.
It is best to speak to a doctor before using any form of marijuana or other complementary therapy for diabetes.
Topical CBD hemp oil
Hemp oil may help relieve neuropathic pain in people with diabetes.
A study published in 2014 suggests using topical marijuana treatments that combine CBD and THC to treat pain.
People can apply these directly to their hands and feet using a spray, to reduce the pain and tingling sensations associated with diabetic neuropathy.
A variety of CBD and hemp oils, lotions, and balms are available to purchase online.
You should always purchase from a reputable supplier and check with a doctor first to ensure these products are safe for you to use. You should also check that the product is legal in your state.
Products that contain only CBD are non-psychoactive. Those with THC may have psychoactive effects.
In the U.S., marijuana is illegal in a number of states, although some states that ban marijuana do allow it on prescription for medicinal use.
Before obtaining or using marijuana for any purpose, people should check if it is legal in their state.
It is also best for an individual to ask a doctor's advice to ensure that they can safely use marijuana or any other complementary therapy or supplement.
Medicinal marijuana is a complementary therapy. It is vital to follow the treatment regime for your condition alongside supplemental therapies and not to replace them.
If I want to use marijuana for diabetes, is it better to use whole marijuana, or CBD only, or a preparation that contains THC as well?
There have been studies that showed how the whole plant was more effective than the single-molecule compounds of one CBD or another.
This was true even when the whole plant had lower doses of the active components.
There is some theory that the different parts of the plant work together to boost effectiveness, without increasing dose or side effects.
I think more research will come but, currently, the whole plant is still illegal in many places so using only one component of the plant might be your only legal choice.Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.