Type 1 and type 2 diabetes have completely independent causes. But interestingly, preliminary research suggests that both conditions may be treatable with the same medication: marijuana. So far, only a few studies with a limited number of participants have taken place, trialling cannabinoid treatments, but this is still more extensive cannabis research than some conditions have been afforded.
It has been suggested that marijuana may help autoimmunity and improve insulin sensitivity, although the data on that must be reviewed. However, cannabis may help with several symptoms connected to diabetes.
Cannabis is touted as a possible medicine for a few autoimmune conditions, with type 1 diabetes a prominent example. Type 1 diabetes is caused by an overexcited immune system attacking and damaging the pancreas. A well-functioning pancreas is essential in staving off diabetes, since the organ makes insulin, a hormone tasked with transporting sugar from the blood to the cells.
The immune system’s attack on the pancreas stops the system from producing insulin, thereby preventing it from modulating the body’s blood sugar levels. There are few treatment options for a damaged pancreas, with replacing the hormone (insulin) the most viable solution. Type 1 diabetics are typically required to take insulin throughout their life, and always have a supply on hand for emergencies.
Despite not being able to produce insulin, marijuana may still be beneficial for diabetics, by treating the problem at its source – the immune system. Some cannabinoids in cannabis, such as cannabidiol (CBD), can have a calming effect on the immune system, which may be of use to diabetics. By reducing overactivity in the immune system, cannabis limits the damage that it can do the pancreas.
In-depth: treating autoimmune diabetes with marijuana
The first major test of cannabis as an autoimmune diabetes treatment was conducted in 2001, when mice with the condition were treated with THC, a psychoactive cannabis compound, often the most abundant chemical in the plant. A dose of 150mg/kg was administered, with the researchers finding that the treatment drastically reduced the loss of pancreatic insulin and decreased the likelihood of hyperglycemia.
Lower inflammatory markers gave the researchers a clue that THC was helping to suppress the immune system and therefore limit the damage being done to the pancreas.
However, being psychoactive, you must be somewhat careful with THC, and 150mg/kg is a whopping dosage that simply won’t be practical – and maybe not even comfortable – for many. But that’s where cannabidiol (CBD), the plant’s most effective non-psychoactive compound comes to the rescue. A 2008 study revealed that CBD slows the onset of insulitis and reduces inflammatory markers. Insulitis is the name given to the process of immune system cells attacking the pancreas’ insulin-creating cells.
In essence, CBD coaxes the immune system to produce an anti-inflammatory response rather than a pro-inflammatory one. This demonstrates the significance of the endocannabinoid system in treating inflammatory condition, with the study showing that, in animals at least, CBD products help to correct chemical imbalances that lead to autoimmune disease, such as type 1 diabetes.
The next step is for these cannabinoid trials to be replicated in humans. Rodent models are useful, since they have many of the systems that us humans do, but there’s no substitute for human research. What the animal trials have shown us is that cannabis for diabetes is a treatment option worth pursuing.
It’s important to stay grounded. Nobody is suggesting that cannabis and its compounds are an outright cure for type 1 diabetes, merely that the anti-inflammatory and immune-regulating effects of CBD may be useful for patients with the autoimmune condition. Simply having a medicine that can control symptoms is often enough to massively improve the wellbeing of diabetics.
Cannabis and type 2 diabetes
As stated earlier, type 2 diabetes is a completely different condition to type 1 and is connected to poor carbohydrate metabolism. The pancreas is forced to produce more and more insulin to combat the sugars from carbohydrates that are not being metabolized. A person’s blood sugar levels rise to dangerous levels due to poor carbohydrate metabolism.
The sugars are situated in cells which eventually become resistant to insulin after being faced with so much of it. The ineffectiveness of the insulin and the overwork of the pancreas causes fatigue in the organ. As the pancreas suffers, blood sugar levels continue to soar.
Carbohydrates are found in pretty much everything, from pasta and grain to confectionery items – the body breaks them down into glucose and then blood sugar. One of the best ways to combat type 2 diabetes is by going on a low-carbohydrate diet. This makes perfect sense, since by reducing your sugar intake, you give the pancreas a break. Depending on the extent of your type 2 diabetes, you may still require insulin injections from time to time.
So, how can type 2 diabetes patients benefit from cannabis? The plant’s therapeutic effects consist of repairing the body’s metabolism and, to a lesser extent, providing anti-inflammatory effects. But on the whole, its impact is sharply different to how it treats type 1 – a nod to the complexity and versatility of the marijuana plant. Some non-psychoactive cannabinoids are thought to improve insulin sensitivity.
According to a 2012 study, CBD outshone CBN and CBG as a treatment to reduce appetite in rats. The research showed that CBN increased appetite, CBG had no influence on appetite while CBD oversaw a reduced appetite. Following CBD treatments, the rats’ overall food intake decreased. The investigation demonstrated that cannabinoid medicine may, in time, be a vital tool in treating type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is not solely caused by eating too much but suppressing appetite can be beneficial for patients looking to treat their diabetes by eating healthier. If you don’t have that insatiable appetite, you might not go back to the cupboard for that extra bag of chips.
While overeating is far from the primary contribution to diabetes, appetite-suppressing qualities may be beneficial for those trying to majorly transform their diets as a part of diabetes treatment.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease may also be treatable with cannabidiol. Some research has found that CBD and THCV work together to reduce the accumulation of fat in the liver.
Fatty liver disease is a possible resultant of metabolic syndrome, a term which covers several conditions, such as high-cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes. The CBD and THCV study involved tests on zebrafish, obese mice and cultured cells. Every condition covered by metabolic syndrome is found among type 2 diabetes patients.
Interestingly, THCV was shown to facilitate a reduced glucose intolerance, a boost in energy expenditure and a refined insulin sensitivity, when administered to two obese mouse models. These findings indicate that THCV acts as an engine-starter for the metabolism of rodents. Furthermore, cells that had become resistant to insulin could also have their insulin signalling repaired thanks to THCV.
Intrigued and optimistic about the results of CBD and THCV treatment in animals with diabetes, a team of British cannabis researchers carried out some human trials.
In 2012, a group of 62 patients with type 2 diabetes were given cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), two non-psychoactive cannabis compounds, as part of a study by GW Pharmaceuticals. GW makes Britain’s only approved cannabinoid medication, Sativex.
The study’s participants enjoyed an improvement in the function of their pancreatic cells and an improvement in insulin response. Reductions in glucose levels, blood pressure were reported by patients, in addition to a fall in inflammation markers and an increase in fasting insulin.
GW’s study used a gold-standard methodology to trial the cannabinoids – it was double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled, which scratches out the chance for bias, whether deliberate or not. The GW drug administered to patients contained CBD and THCV in a certain ratio, and the positive results from the study have encouraged the company to carry out a more comprehensive placebo-controlled study in the future.
But the benefits of cannabis for diabetes patients do not stop at modulating the autoimmune system and restoring metabolic function. The plant’s compounds can also help diabetics to cope with their symptoms, so they can experience a higher quality of life. Let’s look at some common symptoms.
It is quite common for patients with debilitating conditions to also suffer from depression. Diabetes is no exception. However, CBD and, in some circumstances, THC display antidepressant properties. A study on the endocannabinoid profiles of rodents from the University of Buffalo found that endocannabinoid levels were reduced by exposure to chronic stress. Endocannabinoids are compounds in the endocannabinoid system, which are naturally-produced by the body and have close chemical similarities to THC.
Cannabis compounds can help to restore endocannabinoid function and rebalance the endocannabinoid system. For example, a well-regulated endocannabinoid system helps to tackle depression and prevent mood swings.
Another study in early 2016 confirmed not only that CBD works as an antidepressant for rodents, but that it takes effect far quicker than standard antidepressant medication. The positive results were visible after just one dose of CBD, unlike from traditional drugs which can take several weeks to work as they should. The next step is to scientifically establish the potency of CBD as an antidepressant is for humans, and if it as fast-acting for us as it is for rodents.
Neuropathy, or nerve damage, can occur if the body is exposed to high blood sugar levels for a long period of time. Nerve damage can be extremely painful. In diabetics, neuropathy is often apparent in the form of chronic pain and numbness.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetics are vulnerable to neuropathy, and estimates suggest two in three people with diabetes suffer from some level of the condition.
An investigation into nerve damage in the feet was carried out in 2015, consisting of 16 diabetic participants. The researchers studied the effects of THC, administering four different treatments: a low-THC dose, a mid-THC dose, a high-THC dose and a placebo. The patients were given a fortnight after each dose before being treated with the next, to remove the possibility of THC lingering in the system and spoiling the results. The study reported fascinating findings, with patients getting relief from their neuropathic pain through THC.
However, when GW Pharmaceuticals conducted trials on 30 patients with neuropathy back in 2009, using their one-to-one CBD to THC approved drug Sativex, the cannabinoids failed to deliver pain relief. As a clinical trial, we simply cannot discard the findings from this study.
With two studies saying different things, it’s clear that further research into cannabinoid treatment for neuropathy is required. However, we do know that nerve response can be improved by cannabis compounds in rodents. Moreover, it may be possible to repair rats’ thermal pain perception throughout marijuana, without disrupting their blood sugar levels. Hopefully funding for more research in this area can be made available, too.
Diabetes can also be responsible for eye damage – specifically, retinopathy, a condition which carries a worst-case scenario of blindness. Retinopathy is caused when the blood vessels situated behind the retina become damaged. Patients who’ve had diabetes the longest are most prone to retinopathy, a type of ocular degeneration. Retinopathy is the primary cause of blindness among the ages of 20 to 64.
However, there is research showing that CBD may prevent or limit eye damage, by ensuring it isn’t harmed from “a growing plethora of leaky blood vessels.” Ischemia, a condition which prevents various organs in the body from getting the necessary amount of oxygen, is quite prevalent in diabetics.
Blood vessels are forced to try and procreate to make up for the reduced oxygen levels, but this doesn’t work very well. The process of making new blood vessels puts the system under strain, damaging pumps in the eyes responsible for modulating the signals sent between nerve cells. This failure leads to sight difficulties.
However, cannabinoids can reduce some of the stress, according to Dr Gregory I. Liou, the lead author of a study into retinopathy. Cannabis protects neurons, and ensures that microglial cells, an important immune cell found in the central nervous system, stays in its original form.
The therapeutic potential of CBD for treating inflammation and degeneration symptoms of diabetic neuropathy is unlike any we’ve seen before – the specifics were documented in a paper written by Liou and his fellow researchers. CBD limits the stress that ocular nerve cells are put under through the compound’s potent antioxidant effects.
Best cannabis strains for treating diabetes
While high-CBD strains are becoming more common, THCV remains fairly obscure and therefore it’s not easy to find strains which are potent in both cannabinoids. We must wait for growers to develop strains especially suited for treating type 1 and type 2 diabetes, but until then, there are still plenty of cannabis strains that can be beneficial for diabetics.
A good starting point for CBD novices is Charlotte’s Web Hemp Oil, which consists of extract from top-shelf CBD-rich Charlotte’s Web cannabis. This hemp-derived cannabis oil is legal for all US residents.
If you want a strain to smoke or vape, check out Durban Poison, a high-THCV strain, and CBD-rich Cannatonic.
Some diabetics like to medicate with Blue Dream, a strain also potent in THCV. However, be careful when you buy Blue Dream, as the strain has two common phenotypes, meaning the cannabinoid profiles of each will be vastly different.
Cannabis proving helpful for diabetics
Catrina Coleman suffers from diabetes and wanted to lose weight. Originally, she had an appointment to have her stomach stapled, but cancelled in favor of a cannabis and exercise program. The canna-fitness regime helped Catrina to lose 80lbs.
Coleman doesn’t claim that cannabis is the only reason she has her weight and diabetes under control but maintains that the herb was a key component of her recovery. Catrina’s friend was keen for her not to go under the knife, and introduced her to the benefits of exercise and, crucially, cannabis. Coleman was convinced – after all, had this natural way of losing weight failed, she could always have had surgery then. But the cannabis route yielded success.
A healthy diet and regular trips to the gym made all the difference for Catrina. She spoke of how her use of cannabis busted an age-old myth that marijuana makes people lazy. For her, getting high provided a surge in energy which enhanced her exercise.
Basic research has shown us that cannabis and cannabinoid drugs could be life-changing for type 1 and type 2 diabetics. Cannabinoids help to modulate the endocannabinoid system, which ensures the immune system functions as it should. By reducing inflammation and halting attacks on the pancreas, cannabinoids treat the root of diabetes.
By combatting the problem which causes diabetes, cannabis is more effective than other medications which only manage symptoms. Cannabis may help to improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity among type 2 diabetics.
Diabetics will not find all the answers in cannabis, but along with an optimum sleep cycle, a good exercise routine, effective stress management and a healthy diet low in carbohydrates (to reduce sugars), patients have more tools for relief than ever before. Next, we will receive results from clinical trials which are studying the potential of cannabis as a treatment for diabetes in human.
If you have used medicinal cannabis for your diabetes or have a related story, please share it with us!