The Many Health Benefits of Marijuana

Whether or not the legalization of marijuana in the early twentieth century was motivated by a drive to protect corporate profits, one thing is clear: the scientific community at the time was ill-equipped to determine if the drug was harmful. A flurry of recent research, however, is shining a light on what may be a large body of misinformation. For instance, researchers from the Boston Medical Center have reported that there is no link between marijuana usage and hospital stays. Nor is there, the researchers claim, any link between its usage and the overall health status of an individual. This is not to say that irresponsible use can’t lead to negative consequences. In fact, according to the National Comorbidity Survey, around 9% of heavy cannabis users will develop habitual smoking behavior. Still, recreational users may experience an overall health boost from regular use.

Physical Health 

Blood Sugar Control

It’s no surprise that type 2 diabetes is a threat to individuals who consume the typical Western diet. Prominent components of this diet include refined sugars and starches in the form of high fructose corn syrup as well as white flour. Overconsumption of sugar of any form—as well as carbohydrates which the body converts into sugar—leads to weight gain, and weight gain leads in turn to insulin resistance. Once cells become resistant to insulin, the body loses its ability to safely modulate blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes has been linked to an increased risk of stroke, microvascular events, vision loss and myocardial infarction. While a balanced diet and frequent exercise are the best defenses against type 2 diabetes, recent research published in the American Journal of Medicine found that moderate use of marijuana can reduce fasting insulin levels as well as overall insulin resistance.

One reason for this, according to researchers, is that individuals who smoke cannabis tend to have lower BMIs. This is despite the fact that marijuana has been proven to promote appetite. It is unclear how the relationship between cannabis usage and fat formation works, however. The finding of lower fasting blood sugar is significant in that fasting blood sugar levels are a primary indicator of the presence or progression of diabetes. When an individual forgoes food for any period, the body responds by releasing stored energy from fat cells. Individuals with diabetes present with high blood sugar levels when fasting because the cells of the body are unable to absorb this energy form the blood. It appears that cannabis aids the body in absorbing the energy it needs to continue to function normally. 

Cancer

Researchers have long known that cannabis is an extremely complex drug. In fact, the plant contains over 400 chemicals. These chemicals are known collectively as “cannabinoids.” While a few of them, such as THC, make you high, the exact effect of the others is largely unknown.  Researchers the world over are working non-stop to determine how these complex molecules affect the body.  A recent paper from British oncologist Wai Liu makes a few startling claims in particular.  Liu and his team claim that certain chemicals found in cannabis halt the life cycle of leukemia cells.  According to Liu, the chemicals “target and switch off” metabolic processes that allow these cancer cells to grow unchecked.

Around 50,000 new leukemia cases are reported per year, costing taxpayers millions.  Liu expects clinical trials to begin soon on a medication derived from marijuana that can target these cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed.  Additionally, Liu and other researchers have reported that compounds within cannabis may be just as effective against many other types of cancers.  Interestingly, the researchers also claim that drugs derived from the plant may prove just as effective as any medications produced by pharmaceutical giants such as Pfizer and Bayer.  As these compounds are studied in more detail, the end result could be cheaper cancer medications, most likely developed by smaller companies with lower overhead.  This, in turn, increases the probability that cheap generics will be brought to market quickly.  The National Cancer Institute has also weighed in, stating that weed can cause cancer cell death and inhibit the blood vessel growth required for tumors to grow.

Cognitive Function

Creativity

While creativity is often associated with the arts, the ability to connect two disparate concepts to create a new idea is essential to any endeavor.  After all, even the most structured job can benefit from a creative and fertile mind.  Schafer and associates, writing in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, suggest that the psychoactive ingredients in cannabis cause completely unrelated concepts to link in the mind, which can in turn result in several new ideas occurring to an individual simultaneously.  The effect is similar to the process that occurs in the brain when an individual creates a mind map.  This creativity tool requires the user to start with a central concept and then draw branches that contain related concepts.  As the mind map grows, the user may come up with branches that they would not have thought of otherwise.  Schafer’s research suggests that cannabis can jump start this process as well as amplify it.

Scientists have often noted the use of psychoactive drugs to spur creativity in cultures throughout the world.  Prominent examples include the Chinese with their plum wine and the ancient Central American medicine man’s use of peyote.  Hemingway attributed his creativity to heavy alcohol use, to say nothing of the countless rock bands who drew heavy inspiration from various psychoactive compounds over the last few decades.  While heavy drugs such as LCD and peyote can cause permanent changes in brain structure, marijuana causes a creativity boost without the potentially life-altering side effects. 

Depression

Everyone knows what depression is, but few truly understand how crippling it can be.  Depression robs an individual of their will to excel, and sometimes, even their will to live.  Depression—by altering brain chemistry—can make an individual feel as if they’re dragging a hundred-pound stone behind them wherever they go.  Worse yet, antidepressants come with a long list of side effects—even, amazingly, suicidal thoughts.  Although cannabis has a well-known effect on the human brain, new research published in European Neuropsychopharmacology suggests that the drug is capable of much more than basic mood enhancement.  In fact, the study reports that THC activates the brain’s endocannabinoid system, changing the way that it processes negative emotions.

The endocannabinoid system is a group of lipids within the brain that modulate appetite, mood, pain sensation and memory.  As this part of the brain is activated by chemicals found within cannabis and other plants, weed may prove to be essential in treating many mental illnesses.

Utilizing fMRI technology, researchers were able to watch the brains of high study participants in real time.  They determined that those who tended to focus on negative emotions began to focus instead on positive emotions.  In other words, researchers found that the THC-laced brain is less active while processing emotions such as dread, fear and anger than it would be otherwise.  This tends to counteract the effect of destabilized neurochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine caused by depression.

Sources:

Boston University Medical Center.  (2013, September 23).  No association between frequency of marijuana use and health or healthcare utilization. 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies.  Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.  HHS Pub.  No.  (SMA) 11–4658, Rockville, MD: SAMHSA, 2011. 

Elsevier.  (2013, May 15).  Marijuana users have better blood sugar control. 

Wai Man Liu.  (Oct, 2013) Enhancing the Activity of Cannabidiol and Other Cannabinoids In Vitro Through Modifications to Drug Combinations and Treatment Schedules

Cummings, N.  A.  (2012).  How it was and how it was disrupted.  In Cummings, N.  A.  & O’Donohue (Eds.).   Restoring Psychotherapy as the first line intervention in behavioral care (pp.36-62).  NY: Ithaca Press.

Matthijs G.  Bossong (Dec, 2,2012) The endocannabinoid system and emotional processing: A pharmacological fMRI study with ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol.  The European Neuropsychopharmacology journal