The use of medical marijuana in countries where it’s legalized is becoming more popular as information about its health benefits is becoming more widely available. Among the many conditions and symptoms marijuana is recommended for, diabetes is one on the list.
Diabetes is one of the most common chronic conditions impairing the lives of millions worldwide and causing long-lasting complications if left untreated. There are many approaches to treating diabetes and using cannabis is a somewhat novel one.
Clinical research on the use of medical marijuana for diabetes is limited because it’s still ongoing, but nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that it may be helpful.
In this article, we’ll discuss diabetes and medical marijuana, and focus on the specific clinical trials whose results point toward weed’s beneficial effects on diabetes.
What You Need to Know About Diabetes
Diabetes (or diabetes mellitus) is a metabolic disorder that occurs when the body’s ability to process blood sugar (glucose) is impaired, resulting in high blood sugar levels. Glucose is very important for the body and the brain because it’s one of the main suppliers of energy for the cells.
Glucose levels in the blood are regulated by insulin, the hormone produced in the pancreas. This hormone helps with the absorption of glucose into the cells of the body. However, sometimes the body doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t use it well, so glucose doesn’t get absorbed, and its levels in the blood rise.
When high levels of blood glucose are left untreated for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to serious complications, like stroke and heart disease. It can also lead to diabetic retinopathy (eye damage), neuropathy (nerve damage), or kidney disease.
Diabetes is a very common condition. According to a 2019 report by the International Diabetes Federation, the prevalence of diabetes worldwide was estimated to be 9.5% (463 million people), and this number is expected to rise to 10% (578 million) in 2030 and 10.9% (700 million) in 2051.
Therefore, there are different types of treatments and approaches to treating and preventing diabetes, depending on the type. The most common types are:
- Type 1 diabetes – less common and a condition where the pancreas is mistakenly attacked by the body’s immune system causing it to produce little to no insulin. It’s usually thought to be caused by genetics.
- Type 2 diabetes – much more common and a condition where the body gradually develops insulin resistance or doesn’t use insulin properly. It’s usually caused by lifestyle factors, especially when there is a genetic predisposition.
- Prediabetes – a condition when the blood glucose levels are significantly high, but not high enough for it to be considered diabetes. However, prediabetes increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
What Is Medical Marijuana?
Medical marijuana is a term that refers to the same marijuana plant used for recreational purposes, but it’s used in different ways and in different doses for medicinal purposes. This usually involves the whole, unprocessed cannabis plant or extracts of its cannabinoids CBD and/or THC to treat symptoms of various medical conditions and diseases.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved marijuana for widespread medicinal use, much to the dissatisfaction of users who claim its benefits (Pacula et al, 2017). However, due to increasing evidence of scientific research on the medical benefits of its extracts, some cannabinoid-containing medications have been approved.
The research on this topic is ever-growing, so more evidence may lead to cannabis use being approved for medical purposes. In fact, medical marijuana has already been legalized to use in 33 states and the district of Columbia, most commonly for chronic pain and neuropathic pain relief, muscle cramps, and even mental conditions such as PTSD.
Medical cannabis can be used through various different methods, like capsules, lozenges, tinctures, oils, weed edibles, vaping, and smoking, and in some countries, there are synthetic cannabinoids available for prescription.
Among the growing mass of research on the medical benefits of cannabis, there are a number of human and animal-based studies that suggest the potential health benefits for diabetes.
How Can Marijuana Help With Diabetes?
Our bodies naturally have large endocannabinoid systems that are in charge of regulating and balancing various processes, like immune response, appetite, pain, communication between cells, and others. These systems have receptors called CB1 and CB2 that react when they come into contact with the cannabinoids present in marijuana, which is how they influence the body.
The cannabinoids are known to have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects (Ataley et al, 2019), making them suitable for the treatment of various medical conditions. According to a report by the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis (AAMC), marijuana use for diabetes patients can:
- Stabilize blood sugar levels;
- Reduce arterial inflammation that can lead to cardiovascular disease;
- Reduce neuropathic pain by lowering inflammation;
- Acts as a vasodilator, meaning it keeps blood vessels open to improve circulation, which over time may help to lower blood pressure;
- Lessen pain from muscle cramps;
- Relieve gastrointestinal pain;
- Help with restless leg syndrome – a common complication of diabetic neuropathy.
Scientific Studies on Marijuana and Diabetes
As we mentioned earlier, research regarding the medicinal uses of marijuana is still ongoing, but there are a number of human and animal studies investigating its effects. Overall, the evidence regarding whether medical marijuana can prevent diabetes is conflicting, but there is enough evidence that suggests marijuana as a potential diabetes treatment. So far, this is some of what has been discovered:
Lower Risk of Diabetes
According to a clinical study published in 2013 in The American Journal of Medicine, cannabis can be very beneficial for diabetes patients. The study has found that compared to non-users, marijuana users:
- Had lower fasting insulin levels;
- Had lower body mass index (BMI), which is one of the biggest risk factors for developing diabetes;
- Their waist circumference was also smaller;
- Their metabolism was overall better at processing carbs.
Better Insulin Sensitivity
Diabetic patients have lowered insulin sensitivity which makes their bodies less responsive to its effects. A 2016 pilot study published in the journal Diabetes Care has examined the effects of cannabinoids Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) on blood glucose levels. The participants were people with type 2 diabetes who were not taking insulin. In this trial, it was discovered that:
- THCV decreased fasting blood sugar;
- The overall production of insulin was improved;
- Regulates the levels of adiponectin, the protein involved in regulating blood sugar levels
Neuropathic Pain Relief
Neuropathy is a very common complication of diabetes, usually experienced in the feet and legs, and diabetic patients often seek relief because the pain is usually chronic. A 2015 study by the University of San Diego, California, has discovered that the THC in marijuana can provide significant relief from neuropathic pain for a few hours, especially with higher doses.
Another 2014 study published in the European Journal of Pain has suggested that topical application of combined CBD and THC reduced the pain and tingling sensations associated with neuropathy.
Suitable Marijuana Strains for Diabetes
Despite the evidence that marijuana can help diabetes, you should never start taking it on your own before you consult with a professional. This is mostly because knowing the right dosage for you is crucial, as well as knowing about the side effects. Moreover, some marijuana strains are more suitable for treating diabetes symptoms than others.
Using marijuana for diabetes may cause low blood sugar levels, which can lead to complications. So, always get as much information as you can, and consult with someone who’s experienced in the field.
The following strains of marijuana have properties that can help relieve symptoms of diabetes.
- Harlequin (Sativa dominant) is high in CBD and good for reducing neuropathic pain and inflammation. It can also help with anxiety and stress.
- Doug’s Varin (Sativa dominant) is very high in THCV, which makes it suitable for regulating blood glucose levels and fasting insulin levels.
- Black Beauty (Hybrid strain) has both THC and THCV, has significant anti-inflammatory effects, and may improve insulin sensitivity.
Medical marijuana can be used to relieve symptoms of various disorders, some of which are backed up by scientific data. The research regarding the effects of marijuana on diabetes is still ongoing, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that cannabis can help stabilize blood sugar levels, help relieve neuropathic pain, and improve the production of insulin.
As marijuana still hasn’t been officially approved as a diabetes treatment, always consult with a professional before taking marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Pacula, Rosalie Liccardo, and Rosanna Smart. “Medical Marijuana and Marijuana Legalization.” Annual review of clinical psychology vol. 13 (2017): 397-419. doi:10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032816-045128