Eating disorders are an often unrecognized or hidden illness, despite affecting a reported 30 million people of all genders and ages in the U.S. Sadly, reports indicate that only 1 in every 10 of those affected will receive treatment.
When considering that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, the numbers begin to paint a brutal portrait of the devastation this disorder wreaks.
As such, it’s important to find an effective method of treating this disorder. Cannabis is now emerging as a key in unlocking the path to recovery.
The most obvious effect of treating an eating disorder with cannabis, be it anorexia or bulimia, would be stimulation of appetite. THC has been shown to work as an effective appetite stimulant. However, while certainly useful, this factor alone may not be enough in the treatment of most eating disorders. It would be foolish to pretend that anorexics and bulimics never feel hungry—certainly they do—but the anxiety associated with eating is overwhelming.
Rebecca, whose name has been changed for anonymity, was officially diagnosed with bulimia at age 16, but her eating disorder started in childhood and progressed to severe starvation by age 13.
She recalled her experience, “An eating disorder is all about anxiety and control. Some girls develop them when their lives feel out of control, and eating is the only thing they have absolute control over. All eating disorders are run by anxiety. My anxiety about gaining weight was quelled because I had 'control' over my body. So later, when I was trying to be in recovery, my anxiety went into overdrive. If I ate a meal and didn't purge, I would think about all those calories being soaked up and turned into fat. “
It wasn’t until college that Rebecca finally accepted help, and began to enter recovery. It was also around this time that she first discovered cannabis.
“Cannabis was the only thing that helped with [the eating] anxieties.” She says, “If I was hesitant to eat, it made me hungry. If I wanted to purge, it reasoned with me. I usually purged out of anxiety and discomfort. Cannabis calmed both my fears and discomfort, every single time.”
In fact, many report that the sensation of feeling “full” can induce negative feelings which lead to purging or the avoidance of food altogether. Here, also, many have found cannabis to be an aid.
“The biggest trigger for me to purge was the feeling of fullness.” Rebecca explained, “ I hate to feel full, it makes me sick. But cannabis relieves that feeling! So I could eat a proper meal, and if I felt compelled to purge, I could use cannabis instead. My stomach felt better, and my obsessive fears were quelled. It truly felt like magic to me. It allowed me to enjoy food again. I can't tell you what a gift that was.”
Now, studies have begun to support the positive link between cannabis and recovery from eating disorders. One such study showed a correlation between those with eating disorders and an impaired or deficient endocannabinoid system. The study showed type 1 cannabinoid receptor dysregulation in both anorexic and bulimic patients, specifically in the insular cortex, which relates specifically to integration of reward, emotion processing, as well as interoceptive and gustatory information – both of which relate specifically to processes of eating.
This new science suggests that correcting the endocannabinoid balance in patients with eating disorders may be exactly what is needed to pave the way to recovery. As future research emerges, and patients like Rebecca continue to speak out about their experiences, cannabis will be considered more readily as a treatment and more medical cannabis states will add eating disorders to their list of qualifying conditions. Then, perhaps as a result, the 1:10 ratio of patients seeking help can be reduced to 1:1.