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Obesity. It’s one of the most compelling health care challenges facing the United States, contributing to spiking rates of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and even some forms of cancer. Nearly 40 percent of all American adults – that’s 93.3 million people – are considered obese.

Could medical marijuana possibly be part of the solution?

Seems odd, since a common stereotype has cannabis users treating their “munchies” by reaching for the nearest bag of Doritos. But while medical marijuana can be a valuable appetite stimulant for cancer-treatment patients and others whose weight loss can hamper recovery, researchers are uncovering an intriguing flip side. Cannabis use, they’re finding, might actually help reduce obesity rates.

Medical marijuana and weight

Consider the results from these landmark studies:

  • Adult marijuana users gain less weight and are less likely to become obese than their non-using peers, say Michigan State University researchers reporting in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers tracked the health of 33,000 people in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Over the course of three years, most participants gained weight, but those reporting marijuana use, including those new to cannabis and those who used it persistently, gained less and were “under-represented” among those who were obese. The difference could be due to marijuana users’ heightened consciousness of food intake, or it could be “the cannabis use itself, which can modify how certain cells, or receptors, respond in the body and can ultimately affect weight gain,” said one researcher.
  • Body mass index, or BMI, is lower among young male marijuana users than non-users, report researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Arizona State University. Plus, users showed better body fat around the waist, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and fasting glucose and triglycerides – the signs that predict higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
  • Marijuana use can improve insulin resistance among obese people, lowering their risk for developing diabetes. That’s the finding from Canadian Institute of Health researchers who recently scrutinized insulin levels among women and men of varying weights. Those who were obese showed less resistance to insulin, the hormone that regulates glucose and, if insufficient, causes sugar build up that leads to diabetes, the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S. Even those who had frequently used marijuana in the past but stopped showed more promising results.

Marijuana, weight, and the endocannabinoid system

As researchers across the spectrum are finding, the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) controls a wide range of functions. Interestingly enough, marijuana contains cannabinoids that can interact with and regulate the ECS.

In the case of obesity, the ECS could be overactive, encouraging the accumulation of fat. Marijuana, some believe, might slow down the cannabinoid receptor that contributes to obesity.

That’s one theory. Another says that the cannabinoids of marijuana help minimize inflammation, which is known to have a link to obesity.

Some researchers are speculating that weight loss and weight gain inspired by cannabis spring from the same effect – helping the ECS system find balance and function properly in achieving a healthy weight.

New frontiers in obesity research and medical marijuana

Pennsylvania does not list obesity as a serious medical condition qualifying patients for medical marijuana ID cards, although many of those conditions are associated with weight challenges.

Meanwhile, research continues into possible links. The latest study comes from University of California, Riverside scientists, who received a $1.7 million National Institutes of Health grant to study the mysteries of the endocannabinoid system’s role in weight.

Researchers say their work will “identify novel gut-brain endocannabinoid signaling pathways that control feeding behavior and become impaired in obesity.” The work will “will support the discovery and development of novel therapeutic strategies to safely treat obesity and related metabolic disorders,” said researcher Nicholas DiPatrizio. “Currently, a critical barrier to effective treatment of obesity is a lack of reliable therapeutic options.”

DiPatrizio’s recent studies on mice, whose ECS system mirrors that of humans, show that the ECS plays a critical role in signaling fullness to the brain. When a “Western diet” high in fats and sugars caused obesity, the ECS became impaired, so the mice steadily gained weight and didn’t feel full even after eating large amounts.

“We think the endocannabinoid system gets remodeled after exposure to high-energy nutrients and contributes to overeating in diet-induced obesity,” said DiPatrizio, who has already begun studying the effect of cannabis on glucose equilibrium and, therefore, a path to preventing type 2 diabetes.