Medical Cannabis & Weight Loss

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Nov 29, 2023
Last updated:
Dec 12, 2023

You’ve probably heard of the ‘munchies’ – a common term in recreational cannabis culture for the appetite-stimulating effect of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

But it turns out the effect cannabis has on appetite is more complex – some small studies have highlighted the need for increased research in this area to fully understand the complex relationship between THC - appetite, metabolism and the potential for weight loss in some people, as well as allowing people with chronic conditions to be more active and improve mental health.

How Does Medical Cannabis Affect Appetite?

Medical cannabis contains cannabinoids, which are compounds that affect us in a variety of ways. These cannabinoids interact with our endocannabinoid system (ECS) – a complex network of cells that help regulate our appetite and metabolism as well as a variety of other bodily functions. The ECS has two receptor types: CB1 (found in the brain and central nervous system) and CB2 (found in peripheral tissues and immune cells).

THC acts primarily on the CB1 receptors and is largely responsible for any changes in appetite you might experience after consuming medical cannabis. THC might make you feel hungrier, and many people report eating more after using cannabis. After administration of a cannabis product, the cannabinoids begin to interact with your endocannabinoid system and are thought to impact appetite through interaction with the endocrine system, specifically stimulating the release of hormones such as ghrelin, (also known as the ‘hunger hormone)  and changes to insulin signalling and secretion.

Appetite stimulation has medical as well as recreational relevance: people undergoing cancer treatment often experience nausea and struggle to eat – medical cannabis may help overcome this. For people who are trying to lose weight, appetite stimulation obviously isn’t a desirable side effect. However – although it might sound counterintuitive – some evidence suggests that medical cannabis may lead to weight loss in some cases.

Can Medical Cannabis Cause Weight Loss?

A meta-analysis from 2018 found that cannabis use is sometimes associated with a lower body mass index (BMI). The researchers found that the reduced BMI seen in some cannabis users may be due to how THC affects the CB1 receptors. They suggest that the CB1 receptors may experience downregulation (lowered activity) after the initial stimulation caused by consuming THC, causing a prolonged reduction in appetite after the initial increase.

A more recent study also found an association between people who used cannabis and lower BMIs. The study is observational, however, meaning it doesn’t attempt to control variables that might have influenced results. The authors note that, while the results are interesting, there isn’t enough evidence yet to suggest that cannabis is a viable weight-loss method.

Another explanation for how cannabis might cause weight loss is that it may ease symptoms in people with mobility issues, allowing them to live a more active lifestyle. Some studies support this idea, while others find that medical cannabis didn’t cause any changes in weight.

Because of the conflicting evidence and lack of high-quality studies, we can’t say with confidence how medical cannabis might affect weight in people with pain or mobility issues, or why there appears to be an association between lower BMI and cannabis use. More research needs to be done to determine the exact relationship between cannabis and weight.

Can Mental Health Issues Affect My Physical Wellbeing?

Mental health issues can have a significant effect on your wellbeing and physical health, which can include weight. People with depression often overeat as a way of coping with negative feelings, and sometimes find physical activity difficult due to persistent fatigue or feeling ‘run down.’

Medical cannabis, particularly CBD-based formulations, may help manage certain mental health conditions. A 2019 study on cannabidiol (CBD) focused on how it might reduce anxiety and improve sleep over several months. The researchers found that 79.2% of the 72 participants experienced reduced anxiety in the first month, while 66.7% had improved sleep, although the improved sleep was not consistent over time.

CBD may also have some effect on serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is involved in emotional regulation, mood and stress, and is a target of several traditional antidepressants. Researchers have primarily explored CBD’s potential antidepressant effect using animal studies, so more human research is needed before we can say with any confidence that CBD might help manage depression.

Speak with your doctor if you experience anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. Sometimes when people find treatments that work for them, they’re able to develop more active lifestyles, further improving their mental and physical wellbeing.

Addressing Health Concerns With Your Doctor

If you’re interested in medical cannabis, you can book an appointment with your healthcare provider or with a medical cannabis clinic. To be eligible for a prescription, you’ll need to have tried some conventional treatments first, but found them to be ineffective or that they caused unacceptable side effects.

While there’s some interesting research around medical cannabis and weight loss, there’s no definitive evidence yet to suggest that it’s a viable way to lose weight. If you’re concerned about how your weight might be affecting your health, make sure to speak with your doctor to get their recommendation on the best treatment options for you.

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