We have long associated medical marijuana with benefiting sufferers of illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Now a new study concludes the plant can help diabetes patients, too.
Research published in the American Journal of Medicine has linked regular marijuana use to lower insulin levels, smaller waistlines and higher “good” cholesterol levels. The find has inspired debate about whether medical cannabis could be used as an effective diabetes treatment.
“Epidemiological studies have found lower prevalence rates of obesity and diabetes mellitus in marijuana users compared with people who have never used marijuana, suggesting a relationship between cannabinoids and peripheral metabolic processes,” the study’s authors wrote.
Researchers Elizabeth Penner, Hannah Buettner and Dr. Murray A. Mittelman, MD studied 4,657 adult men and women from the National Health and Nutrition Examinations Survey (NHANES) between 2005 and 2010. Those who currently smoked marijuana exhibited lower levels of fasting insulin and lower levels of insulin resistance than those who never or occasionally smoked. Marijuana smokers also had smaller waist circumferences and higher HDL cholesterol levels than those who never or sometimes smoked marijuana.
Dr. Mittelman wrote that the research “is the first study to investigate the relationship between marijuana use and fasting insulin, glucose and insulin resistance.”
Doctors and Patients React
Dr. Joseph S. Alpert, MD, editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Medicine and Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona, wanted to know if it is “possible that THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent of the cannabis plant) will be commonly prescribed in the future for patients with diabetes or metabolic syndrome alongside anti-diabetic oral agents or insulin for improved management of this chronic illness?”
In an attempt to answer this question, The Medical Marijuana Review spoke with doctors and diabetes patients to learn more about medical marijuana’s potential as a treatment for a disease which affects nearly 19 million Americans, with nearly 2 million new cases reported each year, according to 2011 figures from the American Diabetes Association.
“A minority specifically say that cannabis reduces their blood sugar. Most are using it to treat ancillary symptoms or unrelated symptoms,” says Dr. William Eidelman, MD, a Los Angeles–based natural medicine advocate. Eidelman also says medical marijuana is especially helpful with appetite stimulation.
“Sometimes if [patients] have taken insulin, but have no appetite, cannabis enables them to eat the food they must have to avoid a crisis,” he said, adding that the plant is also “helpful in treating the pain of peripheral neuropathy,” the pain or numbness caused by nerve damage.
That’s exactly why David Larkin smokes medical marijuana. The 54-year-old retail manager from Portland, Oregon, who has had type 1 diabetes for a decade, told The Medical Marijuana Review that cannabis is an “indispensable” part of his treatment regimen. Larkin described symptoms that include “burning pain” in his lower extremities, as well as nausea and loss of appetite. He said medical marijuana helps alleviate nearly all of his symptoms.
Some doctors are skeptical of medical marijuana’s usefulness in treating diabetes. Dr. Domenico Accili, Professor of Medicine at Columbia University and Director of the Columbia University Diabetes and Endocrinology Research Center in New York City, told The Medical Marijuana Review that “there is no solid, case-controlled, mechanism-based evidence to indicate that cannabis use would be beneficial for diabetes treatment.” The American Diabetes Association also took exception to the new study’s findings, noting that the research was an observational study rather than a controlled experiment.
Dr. Accili, who just won the 2013 Steiner Award for outstanding achievement in diabetes, added that medical marijuana faces additional obstacles “given the complexity of approving new treatments for diabetes.”
A Canadian diabetes patient also was unwilling to embrace medical marijuana as a treatment for her illness. Louise Gullion, a 62-year-old Grimshaw, Alberta resident with type 2 diabetes, said in an interview that she suffers from “tummy troubles” – namely, lack of appetite and nausea – as a result of her insulin regimen. Grimshaw takes NovoRapid before each meal, Levemir in the morning and evening and Gliclazide twice a day. She’s gained about 35 pounds on insulin.
“I’ve heard that medical marijuana helps with treatment, but I don’t smoke and am not about to start at my age,” Gullion said.
Researchers stressed that more studies are needed to determine the efficacy of cannabis in treating diabetes.
“We desperately need a great deal more basic and clinical research into the short-and long-term effects of marijuana in a variety of clinical settings, such as cancer, diabetes and frailty of the elderly,” Dr. Alpert wrote in the American Journal of Medicine. “I would like to call on the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) to collaborate in developing policies to implement solid scientific investigations that would lead to information assisting physicians in the proper use and prescription of THC in its synthetic or herbal form.”
But with the U.S. government classifying cannabis as a schedule I drug – meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use” – conducting more diabetes–marijuana research remains a tricky proposition.