Marijuana – Good for Diabetes?

by Ben Ong

Twenty-eight states in America have legalized marijuana for medical use and since July 2018 it can now be prescribed in the U.K.  In terms of the benefits for diabetes, marijuana can be extremely helpful in treating nervous disorders. However, in many cases it has been difficult to confirm claims that the drug is good for treating other medical problems.

There is a stigma attached to cannabis use and general opinion can be biased. However, as we are learning more about the properties of marijuana and active cannabinoids, more legitimate research has become available. Diabetes is of particular interest because not only can the symptoms be so dangerous, but it also affects so many of the population – over 100 million adults in America and 4 million in the U.K. Can marijuana actually help with this condition?

There has been some preliminary research that suggests that marijuana can be used to improve insulin resistance and glucose control – this in turn, helps improve the risk of developing diabetes. However, there hasn’t yet been a large-scale randomized, controlled study that has been undertaken with human subjects. The majority of the evidence has been as a result of observational studies that have shown a correlative link. In saying this, these kinds of studies could demonstrate vital evidence on how the cannabinoids in marijuana affect diabetes.

marijuana and diabetes

For instance, The American Journal of Medicine published a study in 2013 that researched cannabis use in 600 current users and 2,000 previous users. After a night of fasting, they all had their blood taken and analysed for health markers. They also had measurements taken such as BMI, waist circumference and blood pressure

The people who were currently using marijuana had lower measures of both insulin resistance and fasting insulin levels than those who didn’t. Their measurements were between 16 and 17% lower – a significant amount. On average they also had smaller waistlines. This is of significance as Type 2 diabetes and weight are known to be intrinsically linked.

Marijuana and weight

Generally, people who are using marijuana consume more calories than those that don’t – cannabis increases the appetite. However, the study showed that they had a lower BMI as well as waistline. This may be due to a protein called adiponectin, which marijuana stimulates the production of in humans – it has been linked with improved insulin sensitivity. A study done on obese mice found that marijuana helped their beta cells to function better, producing more insulin.

marijuana and diabetes

We can link this to another study – the NHANES III study,  which was published in BMJ Open in January 2012 in which 11,000 participants took part.  The researchers found that those who used cannabis were 58% less likely to develop diabetes mellitus – a condition that affects those living with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

The other side

However,  research published in Diabetelogia in 2015 contradicted the  findings from the NHANES III Study.  Instead, it linked marijuana use to diabetes risk in a negative way.

They found that young adults using marijuana regularly were 65% more likely to develop problems such as prediabetes by middle age. This was in comparison to the people that had never used the drug.

Who can we trust?

One of the biggest problems in getting accurate results in studies is that it relies on the honesty of participants. People need to give valid data to researchers about the quantity and frequency of their marijuana use in order to get fully relevant results. Whilst there continues to be a stigma attached to cannabis use, this is not always possible.

Relieving symptoms

The jury may still be out on using marijuana to help prevent or treat diabetes. However, when it comes to relieving some of the symptoms that are associated with diabetes, marijuana may be helpful.  Some people that have diabetes develop a condition that is known as diabetic neuropathy. It leads to chronic high blood sugar and painful nerve damage. Marijuana can help this condition by stimulating the cannabinoid receptors that are located in the brain, spinal cord and central nervous system. These reduce the transmission of pain signals and inhibit the discomfort caused.

As a form of pain relief, marijuana is extremely effective. However whether or not it can help prevent or cure diabetes is difficult to say. One of the biggest hurdles is the fact that the drug is still a controlled substance even when legalised.  Researchers have to overcome numerous regulatory hurdles in order to conduct experiments and studies. Research on diabetes and marijuana is still very much in its infancy. Until there are more reliable studies, then it is too early to recommend the use of marijuana to treat or prevent the condition. However, it will be interesting to see what the future holds in terms of scientific advancement.