Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Marijuana and Diabetes: Does Pot Make You Thin?

Teasing out the insulin effect.

On the face of it, the study seems to come out of left field: A group of researchers claimed that marijuana smokers showed 16 per cent lower fasting insulin levels than non-smokers. The study, called “The Impact of Marijuana Use on Glucose, Insulin, and Insulin Resistance among US Adults,”  is in press for The American Journal of Medicine. The authors are a diverse group of medical researchers from Harvard, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. The study concluded: “We found that marijuana use was associated with lower levels of fasting insulin and HOMA-IR [a measure of insulin resistance], and smaller waist circumference.”

Of course, it was that last tidbit about waist circumference that was picked up by the media. “Why Pot Smokers Are Skinnier,” headlined the Atlantic. However, the important implications are not so much for weight control, or the discovery of some built-in offsetting mechanism for the marijuana munchies, but rather for insulin control and the treatment of diabetes.

But in a clinical study, remarkable observations require remarkable documentation. What does the research actually say?

There are problems with the study worth noting. While researchers took blood samples after a 9-hour fast to determine insulin and glucose levels, they relied on self-reporting for marijuana use data. And self-reporting for alcohol and drug use has its limitations as an investigative tool. Namely, lack of honesty. But let’s get beyond that for a moment: From a database of 4,657 men and women who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the researchers determined that 579 were current marijuana users, while 1,975 were pot smokers in the past.

The marijuana-smoking cohort tended to be young males who also smoked cigarettes. After running everything through a series of complicated multivariable-adjusted models, marijuana came out associated with lower insulin levels, and “lower waist circumference” than those who reported never using marijuana. And the results didn’t change much after adjusting for BMI numbers and excluding participants who actually had diabetes. Furthermore, the association was strongest in current smokers, “suggesting that the impact of marijuana use on insulin and insulin resistance exists during periods of recent use.” (It should also be noted that other health habits can affect glucose and insulin activity, including cigarettes, alcohol, and lack of physical activity.)

The investigators don’t offer a solution to the increased appetite/decreased waistline conundrum they claim to have identified. “We did not find any significant associations between marijuana use, and triglyceride levels, systolic blood pressure, or diastolic blood pressure,” they concluded.

We know marijuana has a complicated relationship with appetite mechanisms, as evidenced by its use with chemotherapy patients who need to eat. The theory is that the metabolic effects are mediated by a complex mix of cannabinoid type 1 and type 2 receptor interactions, since type 1 receptor antagonists like rimonabant improve insulin resistance in humans, and type 1 knockout mice also show resistance to diet-induced obesity.

Does marijuana smoking protect against diabetes? Wisely, the researchers don’t go that far, on the basis of this one uncontrolled study.  The researchers’ conclusions neatly hedge the bets, suggesting that with recent trends in the direction of marijuana legalization, “physicians will increasingly encounter patients who use marijuana and should therefore be aware of the effects it can have on common disease processes, such as diabetes mellitus.”

As it happens, the findings aren’t entirely new. Anecdotal reports abound. Back in 2010, on the Diabetes Daily support board, there was a long discussion of marijuana’s effect on blood glucose levels in diabetics. And there are several mouse models showing the same effects. In a prepared statement, lead investigator Murray A. Mittleman of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston conceded that previous epidemiological studies have found “lower prevalence rates of obesity and diabetes mellitus in marijuana users compared to people who have never used marijuana, suggesting a relationship between cannabinoids and peripheral metabolic processes.” However, he believes that “ours is the first study to investigate the relationship between marijuana use and fasting insulin, glucose, and insulin resistance.”

Perhaps so. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded that “the prevalence of obesity is lower in cannabis users than in nonusers.” And the British Medical Journal featured a finding in 2012 by Los Angeles researchers that marijuana use was “independently associated with a lower prevalence of diabetes mellitus.” But the online patient guide for marijuana offered by Mayo Clinic  says without equivocation that “cannabis may lower blood sugar. Caution is advised in patients with diabetes or hypoglycemia, and in those taking drugs, herbs, or supplements that affect blood sugar.” In fact, Mayo Clinic advises that patients may want to monitor their blood glucose levels if they smoke medical marijuana.

Regarding the current study, the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Medicine said in a statement that there is a need for “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.” Editor Joseph S. Alpert also called on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to collaborate in “developing policies to implement solid scientific investigations that would lead to information assisting physicians in the proper use and prescription of THC in its synthetic or herbal form.”

Penner E.A., Buettner H. & Mittleman M.A. (2013). The Impact of Marijuana Use on Glucose, Insulin, and Insulin Resistance among US Adults, The American Journal of Medicine,    DOI:

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