Cannabis for the Treatment of Diabetes

By Gooey Rabinski | September 28, 2015

Diabetes, also called hyperglycemia, is a disease in which the body causes blood glucose (sugar) levels to rise higher than normal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, “diabetes is [a] condition in which the body does not properly process food for use as energy.” According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2012, 29.1 million Americans (9.3 percent of the population) had diabetes. Of this number, 21.0 million were diagnosed, while 8.1 million were undiagnosed.

Symptoms of diabetes include chronic fatigue, frequent urination, excessive thirst, unexplained weight loss, extreme hunger, sudden vision changes, tingling or numbness in hands or feet, very dry skin, sores that are slow to heal, and more infections than usual. Diabetes can result in heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and lower-extremity amputations.

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Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, with about 76,000 people dying each year from the disease. Blacks are 1.7 times more likely to develop the condition than whites. Of sufferers, 26 percent are age 65 or older. It is estimated that this disease costs Americans $245 billion per year — and this figure reflects only diagnosed cases.

A 2005 research paper published by the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis (AAMC) states that cannabis has the following benefits for diabetes patients:

  • Stabilizes blood sugars.
  • Acts as an anti-inflammatory that may decrease arterial inflammation.
  • Acts as a “vasodilator” to help keep blood vessels open and improve circulation.
  • Lowers blood pressure (over time), a critical benefit for diabetics.
  • Relieves neuropathic pain and tingling in the hands and feet when applied topically as creams, balms, and salves.
  • Helps still diabetic “restless leg syndrome” (RLS), improving sleep.

Two Types

There are two varieties of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1, previously known as “juvenile diabetes” or “insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus” (IDDM), afflicts children and young adults, but is responsible for only five percent of all cases of diabetes. Type 2, previously called “adult-onset diabetes” or “non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus” (NIDDM), is the most common form of the disease. Diabetes patients suffering from Type 2 cannot use insulin properly, a condition called insulin resistance.

One variety of Type 2 diabetes is metabolic syndrome, which is the combination of diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Metabolic syndrome significantly increases a sufferer’s chances of heart disease or stroke. Although many diabetes patients are able to sufficiently moderate their insulin levels using conventional drugs (often supplemented by cannabis), it remains a life-threatening disease that impacts the lives of tens of millions of Americans daily.

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Diabetic Retinopathy

Cannabis can also be used to treat diabetic retinopathy, a condition that can result in blindness that is the most common form of diabetic eye disease. Retinopathy, which typically only afflicts patients who have had diabetes for several years, involves intra-ocular pressure, similar to glaucoma.

It is caused by changes in blood glucose levels that result in swelling retinal blood vessels (a condition called macular oedema), after which they sometimes leak fluid into the eye. Any diabetic patient can develop retinopathy. As with glaucoma, cannabis use significantly decreases pressure within the eye, relieving the condition.

Cannabis works well as an anti-inflammatory treatment due to the fact that diabetics frequently suffer arterial inflammation. Steroids and corticosteroids (such as cortisone, hydrocortisone, and prednisone) can be used to treat this condition, but they cause many negative side effects, including suppression of the immune system (something not experienced with cannabis). However, a class of diabetes drugs called NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) that is commonly used in place of steroids can cause liver and kidney damage (again, not experienced with cannabis).

The Studies

Research published in 2012 by GW Pharmaceuticals in England revealed that THCV and cannabidiol (CBD) have an effect on the body’s fat level and how patients respond to insulin. The research found that THCV increases sensitivity to insulin in animals while simultaneously protecting cells that make insulin.

The research also found that THCV and CBD boosted the metabolism of the test animals, resulting in a reduction in fat in their livers and lower cholesterol levels. According to professor Mike Cawthorne, the director of metabolic research at the University of Buckingham and director of the animal studies:

“Overall, it seems these molecules [THCV and CBD] increase energy expenditure in the cells of the body by increasing the metabolism.”

A 2013 study published in The American Journal of Medicine found that regular cannabis users had lower levels of the hormone insulin after fasting, a sign that cannabis consumers, who were also shown to have reduced insulin resistance, are somewhat protected against diabetes. The research involved nearly 5,000 patients who answered a questionnaire regarding their drug use.

Joseph Alpert, professor of medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and editor-in-chief of the journal, said:

“These are remarkable observations that are supported by basic science experiments that came to similar conclusions.”

Previous surveys revealed that, although cannabis users consume more calories, they have a lower body mass index. This indicates a more efficient metabolism and points toward better use of insulin and other systems of the body related to the burning of fat and blood sugar levels.

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Need for Research

Until cannabis is reclassified from Schedule 1 under the Controlled Substances Act in the United States, no credible human trials or clinical studies will be conducted into the efficacy of cannabis medicine for conditions like diabetes. Because it affects nearly 10 percent of the population, robust investigation into the benefits of any treatment therapy — be it a traditional, pharmaceutical drug or an alternative medicine like cannabis — should be actively underway at government and university research laboratories throughout the country.

Given the suffering of tens of millions of Americans and the tremendous cost of diabetes to the national economy (about a quarter of a trillion dollars annually), researchers who desperately desire to investigate the efficacy of cannabis for diabetes simply cannot. Until reform finds its way to Congress, any credible research will necessarily be conducted in countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, and even Mexico.

Said University of Arizona researcher Alpert:

“We desperately need a great deal more basic and clinical research into the short and long term effects of marijuana in a variety of clinical settings such as cancer, diabetes, and frailty of the elderly.”

Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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