Toking up may help marijuana users to stay slim and lower their risk of developing diabetes, according to the latest study, which suggests that cannabis compounds may help in controlling blood sugar.
Although marijuana has a well-deserved reputation for increasing appetite via what stoners call “the munchies,” the new research, which was published in the American Journal of Medicine, is not the first to find that the drug has a two-faced relationship to weight. Three prior studies have shown that marijuana users are less likely to be obese, have a lower risk for diabetes and have lower body-mass-index measurements. And these trends occurred despite the fact that they seemed to take in more calories.
Why? “The most important finding is that current users of marijuana appeared to have better carbohydrate metabolism than nonusers,” says Murray Mittleman, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the lead author of the study. “Their fasting insulin levels were lower, and they appeared to be less resistant to the insulin produced by their body to maintain a normal blood-sugar level.”
Even after these adjustments, the current marijuana users showed fasting insulin levels that were 16% lower than those of former or never users, along with a 17% reduction in another measure of insulin resistance as well. Higher levels on both tests are associated with Type 2 diabetes, which is linked with obesity. Marijuana users also had higher levels of high-density lipoprotein, the so-called good cholesterol, which can protect against heart disease. And the regular smokers also boasted smaller waistlines: on average, they were 1.5 in. (3.8 cm) slimmer than the former users and those who had never smoked cannabis.
Researchers don’t yet know how to explain these correlations — and since the study was not a controlled trial, it’s not clear whether marijuana or some other factor in marijuana users’ lifestyles actually accounted for the beneficial effects. Studies showed, however, that the cannabinoid brain receptors affected by marijuana are deeply involved in appetite and metabolism. But the exact details of how the compound alters the relationship between appetite, caloric intake and insulin response isn’t obvious yet.
One clue, however, may lie in the effects of a diet drug that was developed to have the opposite effect that marijuana has on the brain. That drug, rimonabant, produced significant weight loss and a drop in fasting insulin levels by affecting certain cannabinoid receptors in the exact opposite way that THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, does. This action is complex: rimonabant doesn’t simply block the receptor and keep the natural cannabinoids from activating it. Instead, while the natural cannabinoids elevate the normal level of activity already going on in the system, rimonabant lowers it so the result is precisely the reverse of activating the receptor naturally. However, because of psychiatric side effects like increasing suicide risk, rimonabant was pulled from the European market and never approved in the U.S.