Is pot-smoking healthy?

Smoking marijuana is perhaps not a lifestyle habit that many would classify as ‘healthy’. However, a study published this week in the American Journal of Medicine discovered that pot-smoking is associated with improvement in a range of health markers including lowered waist circumference, body mass index and fasting insulin levels, as well as improved blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity [1]. After taking into account a range of potential ‘confounding factors’ such as age, physical activity and smoking, marijuana use was still found to be associated with improvement in measures of fasting insulin, insulin sensitivity, ‘healthy’ HDL-cholesterol and waist circumference.

This sort of ‘epidemiological’ study cannot, however, prove that cannabis use brings these benefits for health, and only tell us that it’s associated with these benefits. At first sight, the findings actually appear to fly in the face of common sense. As the authors point out, marijuana users tend to consume more calories than non-users. The authors also refer to an increase in ‘acute intake’ with marijuana use (meaning that using marijuana can cause people to eat or drink more shortly after). Back in the day, we referred to this ‘increase in acute intake’ as ‘the munchies’.

I can certainly bear personal testament to this phenomenon. I still have vivid recollections of smoking pot in a former life (well, I was at medical school for 6 years) and the effect this had on me. After initially feeling ‘bombed out’, I would find something hilariously funny (that, in the cold light of day could only really be viewed as mildly amusing). Shortly after, I’d be driven to consume industrial quantities of, say, chocolate Hob Nobs (a type of biscuit/cookie) and tinned custard. How, on heaven’s earth could carb- and calorie-fest which invariably came as part and parcel of dope-smoking possibly lead to lower weight, reduced waist circumference and improved markers for diabetes, one might ask?

The authors of this research suggest some mechanisms that have to do with substances (such as cannabidiol) which bind to ‘cannabinoid’ receptors in the brain and may influence physiological factors. It’s been found, for instance, that mice genetically bred to lack one of the two main cannabinoid receptors (receptor number 1) are resistant to weight gain, suggesting a role for this receptor in obesity. Cannabidiol partially blocks cannabinoid receptors which might have some role in any weight reducing effect marijuana has. Adding strength to this idea is the findings of research which finds that giving cannabidiol to mice induces weight loss [2]. Also, giving cannabis to obese rats has been shown to have the same effect [3].

Unless these studies are replicated in humans, then we’re still in the dark about the effect cannabis has on weight and associated aspects of health. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that even if beneficial from these perspectives, cannabis may have the potential for harm too. Notably, there is some thought that cannabis has some ability to trigger psychotic illness.

However, there exists evidence that cannabis (and in particular cannabinoid substances found in it) offers the potential of doing more good than harm. Here’s an extract from a summary of an article about the impact of cannabinoids on health [4]:

Despite the mild addiction to cannabis and the possible enhancement of addiction to other substances of abuse, when combined with cannabis, the therapeutic value of cannabinoids is too high to be put aside. Numerous diseases, such as anorexia, emesis, pain, inflammation, multiple sclerosis, neurodegenerative disorders (Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease), epilepsy, glaucoma, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, cardiovascular disorders, cancer, obesity, and metabolic syndrome-related disorders, to name just a few, are being treated or have the potential to be treated by cannabinoid agonists/antagonists/cannabinoid-related compounds. In view of the very low toxicity and the generally benign side effects of this group of compounds, neglecting or denying their clinical potential is unacceptable…

In a way, one might possibly think of cannabis or cannabinoids in a way similar to our general attitude to licenced ‘drugs’ or other conventional therapies (such as surgery): these invariably pose risks, but have considerable benefits to offer too.

References:

1. Penner EA, et al. The Impact of Marijuana Use on Glucose, Insulin, and Insulin Resistance among US Adults. Am J Med [epub 16 May 2013]

2. Weiss L, et al. Cannabidiol lowers incidence of diabetes in non-obese diabetic mice. Autoimmunity. 2006;39:143–151

3. Levendal R, et al. Cannabis exposure associated with weight reduction and β-cell protection in an obese rat model. Phytomedicine. 2012;19:575–582

4. Kogan NM, et al. Cannabinoids in health and disease. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2007;9(4):413-30

27 Responses to Is pot-smoking healthy?

  1. KD 17 May 2013 at 8:27 am #

    I believe that cannabis is unfairly maligned (Compare it with alcohol, a legal and incredibly harmful drug.) and, given the increase in articles like the above, we’ll soon be seeing it decriminalised, and lauded.

    The smoking isn’t so good for you, though…

  2. JT 17 May 2013 at 9:23 am #

    When I read the news article yesterday on this study it originally reminded me of what regular smoking is thought to help do, keep weight off. It always surprised the large number that would smoke just to remain thin, despite the reported risks. When I worked in the health food industry, what was humorous in a poor way is how many people smoked. Where I worked at the building would nearly empty during break time, with just about everyone outside lighting up. Figured that must be an odd sight for those driving by.

    I’ve wondered in the past if marijuana would help with IBD conditions. That’s a common mention on internet boards. Despite being a jovial person naturally by nature, I’ve not tried this idea myself. Others on boards swear by it.

    It has been a great week for the gut! It has me quite giddy, largely with the diet being followed and a recent change made. Hopfully this will continue. I’m loving the new energy. Now later this morning I need to call an oral surgeon to mention why I didn’t take the course of antibiotics he wants me to. Figured I’ve been sick to the stomach 20 plus years. WIth just coming into decent gut health the last thing I want to do is become ill once again. Decisions to make, healthy gut or gap tooth look.

  3. hm 17 May 2013 at 10:17 am #

    haha. takes me back. i gave it up when i stopped laughing like a loon on it. make me cough too…..

  4. George @ the High Fat Hep C Diet 17 May 2013 at 10:48 am #

    There was a recent observational study in which cannabis produced improvement in Crohn’s disease:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21910367
    Of the 30 patients 21 improved significantly after treatment with cannabis.

    Anandamide is the endogenous cannabinoid receptor ligand, it is produced from arachadonic acid and produces increased appetite for fructose and a few other potentially obesigenic effects. Anandamide antagonists have been used for obesity but have a high rate of side effects of depression and anxiety. Cannabinoids are likely to be anandamide agonist/antagonists. They can also have TLR4 activity which may be similar to that of Naltrexone which would account for the effect on Crohn’s disease.
    http://www.jleukbio.org/content/82/3/532.long

    Of course it may be that the increased appreciation of music after smoking weed is what is responsible for all the benefits. Further testing is needed and I for one am willing to volunteer if it will help the advancement of evidence-based medicine.

  5. Nigel Kinbrum 17 May 2013 at 11:14 am #

    I tried pot, but my brain didn’t like it. Everything became too weird. Maybe it was skunk. Lol at George!

  6. Dr John Briffa 17 May 2013 at 11:21 am #

    Nigel

    I don’t think the effects were overwhelmingly positive for me either. One thing I noticed is that smoking dope would make me drained of energy and groggy-headed the next day – a bit like a monstrous hangover but not the same.

    Weirdly, it took me quite a while before I made the link but it was actually this realisation that prompted me to stop.

  7. Calc 17 May 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Yes, Marijuana is very healthy!
    The only reason Marijuana has been “illegal” since 1937 is that alcohol and tobacco(the two most lethal drugs) lobbyists paid congress to make it illegal because they knew Americans would totally prefer marijuana to their rotgut cancer causing garbage. Started smoking daily in VN when I was 19, I’m 65 now and the only member of my family NOT to have diabetes or cancer! Marijuana is God’s gift to mankind. The DEA is satan’s army of evil doers. Every word from the gov’t about all drugs is a damn lie! How many millions of lives have to be lost or ruined to satisfy the alcohol and tobacco legal drug peddlers? Marijauna substantially increases one’s intelligence, enhances sexuality, improves appetite, relieves pain, and is an all around blessing from our Creator. Stop the war on innocent drug users! Peace

  8. alan 17 May 2013 at 11:51 am #

    smoking either cigarettes or herbs cannot be really healthy for one’s lungs. other effects i do not know. i believe that most of the people that hold the firm , nearly dogmatic, thought that pot is good for oneself are a little addicted to the drug, but in denial.
    not much different from other substances, e.g.: alcohol, sugar, etc.
    everything seems fine until it starts to interfere with one’s life

  9. Deborah 17 May 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    Ho Ho Ho… talk about memory lane – my boyfriend in late sixties London was a newly qualified doctor, who legally prescribed us all Tincture of Cannabis, (Victorian foot callous remedy apparently) and we would take a large teaspoon of this disgusting dark green liquid disguised in neat orange squash. Half an hour later whooooosh! Did you know about this legal cannabis John Briffa??? I can’t remember when it was finally withdrawn.
    The munchies favourite was two people eating a whole pot(!) of chocolate spread! Yuk!

    Now, aged 63 I occasionally indulge in a friend’s choccy hash cake, but if I am honest a good glass of local red hits the spot better.

  10. Dr John Briffa 17 May 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    Did you know about this legal cannabis John Briffa???

    Never heard of it until now. Sound like have a callous in the 60s could have been a lot of fun for some.

  11. Dr John Briffa 17 May 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    Did you know about this legal cannabis John Briffa???

    Never heard of it until now. Sounds like have a callous in the 60s could have been a lot of fun for some.

  12. Kristine 17 May 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    I had a great time in the 60′s and 70′s smoking dope, gave it up when the kids came along and I went tea total. A couple of years ago at age 63 I went to a Joe Cocker concert in New Zealand and some young friends of my brothers offered me a toke, omigosh, I was so out of it, that NZ green is very potent stuff :) It was a great night, concert was great, but I’m in no hurry to repeat the experience, like my feet on the ground……

  13. Karen 17 May 2013 at 4:36 pm #

    Doesn’t have to be smoked of course – a friend of mine uses a nebuliser. Or you can make hash cookies – but that might offset the weight-loss benefits!

  14. eddie 17 May 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    i don’t think pot *smoking* is beneficial due to the smoking element of it

    been there, stopped it as a regular thing: think it leads to brain fogginess and lack of concentration and drive
    plus got fed up of conversations like this one
    friend: did you have a good weekend?
    me: yes it was nice
    friend: what did you do?
    me: er nothing, but it was nice

    also i think if you’re in a bad place it can cause all the psychological issues people refer to. it messed me up when i was in a job i hated.
    but then again, do people in crappy situations turn to drugs to take their mind off it and feel good, however temporarily? i think that happens too.

  15. Dr David Unwin 17 May 2013 at 9:25 pm #

    I have quite a number of patients who are addicted to cannabis and who cannot relax without it For them it is incredibly difficult to give it up -so I’m always annoyed on their behalf when I read nonsense like this !

  16. Dr John Briffa 17 May 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    Dr David Unwin

    Are you a practising doctor and are you aware that in order to judge the risk/benefit balance of any drug or intervention then we sometimes need to look beyond our often-narrow experience and weigh up the available evidence?

    Nothing is without risk, but does that mean nothing has merit either?

  17. julie 17 May 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    I smoke it regularly. I don’t get the munchies, it doesn’t make me giggle, I’d say it’s just a little emotionally numbing. When I eat it in a cookie or coconut truffle, I fall asleep. It sure seems to help people with cancer and AIDS, however, though for healthy folks like me, maybe neutral, other than the smoking, which is likely never good for lungs.

  18. justine 18 May 2013 at 4:00 am #

    I started smoking in my 40′s for persistent and debilitating migraines. The cannabis stops the vomiting, quells the pain and reduces the anxiety associated with my 12+hour migraines. I have recently switched to vaporizing, which does not irritate like smoking does (though there is some evidence that cannabis smoking does NOT cause the same issues as tobacco smoke). Calc is correct in describing the history of cannabis prohibition, and I would add that the term “marijuana” is a tainted relic from that time, when the herb was painted as an import associated with “dirty” Mexicans and would corrupt Our American Youth. Yes, it was a racist political effort. Read your history. Why do we condone alcohol and tobacco use (they are legal for adults) but decry cannabis use, when cannabis is a plant with many medicinal, recreational, spiritual and other uses. Oh, yeah, because of the industries behind tobacco and alcohol….and because cannabis is a confrontation to BIg Pharma. The “science” is tainted by politics.

  19. Jean 18 May 2013 at 9:24 am #

    From a social point of view, the cannabis smokers at Glastonbury are far less trouble than the drinkers!

  20. Walter 18 May 2013 at 11:31 am #

    This documentary by scientist Dr David Suzuki is worth watching…

    http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/natureofthings/2010/downsideofhigh/

  21. Ted 19 May 2013 at 3:35 pm #

    Has anybody looked into the reason for weight loss possibly being reduced appetite due to reduced gastric acid secretion & GI motility? Anecdotally I know many people who have trouble eating throughout the day with moderate to heavy pot smoking – appetite only returns when smoking leading to a vicious circle. After a few days of not smoking, appetite returns to normal. I suspect the low stomach acid & reduced motility may play a role here.

    Check out this review: http://gut.bmj.com/content/48/6/859.long

  22. majkinetor 19 May 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    Let me address some of the confusions I see here:

    1. Smoking per se is bad.

    Smoking in such a small amounts (people typically smoke up to 2 joints per day, and those are typically not smoked alone so you finish with maybe 1 entire joint). In such dose smoking is not harmful, it is even thought to be positive for health (probably via hormesis). 2 cigs per day is something doctors sometimes prescribe to people with allergies or abdominal problems. Also, Claire, the longest living woman on this planet smoked 2 cigs per day for a century or more…

    2. Smoking stoned me and effects were there the next day..

    This is something that depends on type of weed (i.e. the ratio of different cannabinoids). If the weed does make you feel like that you should try another type.

    3. Munches

    The munches also depends on type of weed, primarly CBD/THC ratio. CBD is anorexic while THC is anti-anorexic. The problem is to find high CBD plant because its not psychoactive and people smoke to get high. If weed was legal, we would most definitely see more high-CBD types.

    4. Gateway to other drugs

    This is nonsence and disproven multiple times.

    5. Its a drug

    Its a plant. “Drug” is political, not scientific therm.

  23. Deborah 20 May 2013 at 8:59 am #

    I think more people should listen to MAJKINETOR above….. I also firmly belive that if it were properly legal, controlled, (taxed even!) then we could obtain the decent weed/tincture etc that was freely and easily available in the 60′s.

  24. Megan 23 May 2013 at 11:08 am #

    the only reason it is illegal is because it cannot be taxed (you can grow it yourself in your garden if you wish). the government would hate to think that someone is using something as a replacement for alcohol but isn’t paying a huge taxation on it.

    That said i don’t smoke it and never would. I value my lungs too much…

  25. Jonathan Bagley 24 May 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    In addition, there is no “breathalyser” stoned-driving test available for recent use. Apparently convicts prefer other more harmful drugs because all traces leave the system within days rather than weeks.

  26. Jessica Nicole 6 June 2013 at 7:09 am #

    Hello,

    Thanks for the information. It is really interesting. I have diabetes and I enjoy smoking weed. A couple years ago, the doctors said that smoking pot for diabetics was dangerous because of the munchies. However, I learned to control my munchies and eating healthier things.

    Now the new studies show that marijuana can actually help diabetics in lowering the levels of fasting insulin and insulin resistance. Great news!

    http://asweetlife.org/jessica-apple/blogs/diabetes-research/diabetes-and-marijuana-marijuana-users-could-have-better-blood-sugar/32874/

  27. Soul 22 August 2013 at 9:34 pm #

    Since developing an IBD, I’ve always been hungry. In the past, and before I took up weight lifting to gain some lean weight, for those that saw me eat a meal it could be surprising as I appeared thin and yet ate generously. And when not at the dinner table, I was always munching on foods such as chocolate. I suppose it was as if I was a pot smoker, always had the munchies.

    Here of late on a new limited diet it seems I’m more similar to a typical low carb eater. Before I could eat 4 meals a day and yet still feel hungry. Now I eat 3 meals, yet that is more out of habit. For the last couple of weeks I probably could eat two meals and feel satisfied.

    I would guess this eating change is due to digesting foods better.

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