Medically reviewed by Alexander Tabibi, MD
January 11, 2023

Treating Anorexia with MarijuaTreating anorexia nervosa, a debilitating eating disorder characterized by persistent food restriction, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image, poses significant challenges for both patients and healthcare professionals. While traditional treatments exist, a growing body of research has piqued interest in the potential therapeutic effects of marijuana or medical cannabis in addressing anorexia. This article will delve into the complex world of anorexia nervosa, exploring its definition, prevalence, and associated health risks. We will then shift our focus to the intriguing realm of medical marijuana, examining its historical use, its interaction with the endocannabinoid system, and the science behind its potential efficacy in treating anorexia. Finally, we will weigh the potential benefits of using marijuana against traditional treatments, discussing appetite stimulation, mood enhancement, and overall well-being.

This post is intended as information and for general knowledge only. It is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is recommended that you talk to a healthcare professional about this before introducing cannabinoids into your daily routine (especially if you have been diagnosed with any medical conditions or are under any medication). It is not recommended to drive or operate any machinery when using cannabis- or hemp-derived products. Use responsibly!

Understanding Anorexia Nervosa

Definition and Diagnostic Criteria

Anorexia nervosa, often referred to simply as anorexia, is a severe psychiatric disorder recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). To meet the diagnostic criteria, an individual must exhibit a persistent restriction of food intake, leading to significantly low body weight. Furthermore, individuals with anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even when they are underweight. They possess a distorted body image, perceiving themselves as overweight despite objective evidence to the contrary. The term “anorexia” is derived from the Greek words “an” (without) and “orexis” (appetite), reflecting the disorder’s primary characteristic – the lack of appetite and extreme avoidance of food.

It’s crucial to differentiate anorexia nervosa from other eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. While all these disorders share elements of disordered eating, they have distinct diagnostic criteria and patterns of behavior. Anorexia is defined by severe food restriction and low body weight, whereas bulimia is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviors like self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise. Binge-eating disorder, on the other hand, involves frequent episodes of overeating without the compensatory behaviors seen in bulimia.

Prevalence and Demographics

Anorexia affects individuals across various demographic groups, but it is most commonly observed in adolescent and young adult females. Approximately 0.6% of the U.S. population will experience anorexia nervosa in their lifetime, according to data from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). However, it’s essential to recognize that anorexia can impact anyone, regardless of gender, age, race, or socioeconomic status.

Contributing factors to the development of anorexia include societal pressures, unrealistic beauty standards, and the influence of social media, all of which contribute to body image issues and low self-esteem. The relentless pursuit of an idealized body can lead to the development of this devastating disorder.

Health Risks Associated with Anorexia

Anorexia nervosa carries a multitude of health risks, both physical and psychological, for those who suffer from it. One of the most immediate dangers is malnutrition, which can lead to a host of complications, including electrolyte imbalances, cardiac arrhythmias, and osteoporosis. Over time, anorexia can have severe consequences on various organ systems, impacting the heart, liver, and kidneys. In extreme cases, it can be fatal.

Moreover, the cognitive and psychological effects of anorexia are equally alarming. Individuals with anorexia often experience mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, which can exacerbate their condition and hinder recovery. The mental strain associated with anorexia can lead to isolation, strained relationships, and a diminished quality of life.

Marijuana and Anorexia An Overview

Brief History of Marijuana as a Therapeutic Agent

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The history of marijuana as a therapeutic agent dates back thousands of years. Ancient civilizations in China and India were among the first to recognize its medicinal properties, using it to treat various ailments. In more recent history, marijuana gained popularity in Western medicine during the 19th century, with cannabis-based remedies available over-the-counter for a range of conditions.

The road to legalization and medicalization has been long and complex. While marijuana was initially criminalized in many countries, including the United States, the latter half of the 20th century witnessed a shift in public perception. Medical cannabis programs began to emerge in various states, allowing patients with specific medical conditions to access marijuana for therapeutic purposes.

How Marijuana Affects the Body and Mind

Marijuana contains a multitude of compounds known as cannabinoids, with delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) being the most well-known. THC is responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana, inducing the “high” commonly associated with its use, while CBD lacks these mind-altering properties.

The human body possesses an endocannabinoid system (ECS), comprising receptors (CB1 and CB2) and endocannabinoids produced within the body. The ECS plays a vital role in maintaining homeostasis, including the regulation of appetite, mood, pain perception, and immune function. When a person consumes marijuana, the cannabinoids in the plant interact with the ECS, influencing various physiological processes.

The Endocannabinoid System and Its Role in Appetite Regulation

The endocannabinoid system plays a crucial role in regulating appetite and food intake. CB1 receptors are primarily located in the brain, particularly in areas associated with appetite control and the reward pathway. Activation of these receptors can stimulate appetite and increase the motivation to eat.

Cannabinoids in marijuana, particularly THC, mimic the effects of endocannabinoids and can bind to CB1 receptors, thereby influencing appetite. This interaction has led to growing interest in the use of marijuana to address conditions characterized by disorderedeating, such as anorexia nervosa.

The Science Behind Marijuana and Anorexia

Research on Cannabinoids and Appetite Stimulation

Scientific studies have explored the appetite-stimulating effects of cannabinoids, shedding light on the potential benefits for individuals with anorexia. THC, in particular, has been shown to increase food intake by interacting with CB1 receptors in the brain. This effect can be particularly beneficial for those who struggle with restricted eating and a lack of appetite.

Additionally, CBD, while lacking the psychoactive effects of THC, may also contribute to appetite regulation by modulating the endocannabinoid system. The combined actions of THC and CBD could offer a holistic approach to addressing the disordered eating patterns seen in anorexia.

Neurobiological Mechanisms of Marijuana in Addressing Anorexia

The neurobiological mechanisms through which cannabinoids influence appetite are complex and multifaceted. Beyond directly stimulating CB1 receptors in the brain, cannabinoids can impact neurotransmitter systems involved in appetite regulation. For example, they can affect the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which play key roles in mood and reward pathways.

Anorexia nervosa often involves disturbances in these neurotransmitter systems, leading to anxiety and depression symptoms that can further perpetuate the disorder. Marijuana’s ability to modulate these systems offers a potential avenue for addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of anorexia.

Clinical Studies and Findings Related to Marijuana as a Potential Treatment


Several clinical trials and research findings have explored the use of marijuana in anorexia treatment. While the results are still emerging and more research is needed, some studies have shown promising outcomes. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC, increased food intake and body weight in anorexic patients.

Furthermore, anecdotal evidence from anorexia sufferers who have turned to medical cannabis as a treatment option suggests that it can help alleviate symptoms. While these personal accounts cannot replace rigorous clinical research, they highlight the potential for marijuana to make a positive impact on anorexia disorder recovery.

Potential Benefits of Using Marijuana for Anorexia

Appetite Stimulation and Increased Food Intake

One of the primary potential benefits of using marijuana for anorexia is its ability to stimulate appetite and increase food intake. Anorexia sufferers often struggle with a lack of appetite and may engage in severe food restriction. Marijuana’s effects on appetite, driven by its interaction with the endocannabinoid system, can help break the cycle of restrictive eating and support weight restoration.

Moreover, by increasing food consumption, marijuana may provide essential nutrients and energy to the body, addressing malnutrition and associated health risks. This potential benefit aligns with the fundamental goal of anorexia treatment restoring a healthy body weight and addressing physical complications.

Reduction of Anxiety and Depression Symptoms

Individuals with anorexia frequently experience comorbid anxiety and depression, which can exacerbate the disorder and hinder recovery efforts. Marijuana’s anxiolytic and mood-enhancing properties may offer relief from these symptoms, promoting a more positive mindset and reducing the psychological distress associated with anorexia.

While marijuana’s effects on anxiety and depression can vary from person to person, some anorexia patients report improved mood and reduced anxiety levels when using medical cannabis. However, it’s crucial to recognize that the relationship between marijuana and mental health is complex, and not all individuals may experience these benefits.

Improved Sleep and Overall Well-being

Anorexic individuals often struggle with disrupted sleep patterns, which can further contribute to their physical and mental health challenges. Marijuana may have the potential to improve sleep quality, helping anorexia patients achieve more restful and restorative sleep.

Additionally, the overall sense of well-being that some individuals report after using marijuana may contribute to their recovery. Anorexia nervosa can be an isolating and distressing experience, and any intervention that enhances a patient’s quality of life and mental outlook is a valuable consideration.

Comparison with Traditional Treatments

It’s essential to compare the potential benefits of using marijuana for anorexia with traditional treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and nutritional counseling. Traditional treatments have long been the mainstay of anorexia therapy, focusing on addressing the underlying psychological factors, promoting healthy eating behaviors, and providing emotional support.

While marijuana may offer appetite stimulation, mood enhancement, and improved sleep, it is not a standalone treatment for anorexia. Rather, it could be considered as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. The choice between traditional treatments and medical cannabis should be made in consultation with healthcare professionals, taking into account individual patient needs and preferences.


Treating anorexia nervosa is a multifaceted challenge that requires a holistic approach, addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of the disorder. While traditional treatments remain crucial in the management of anorexia, the potential use of marijuana as a complementary treatment option has garnered increasing attention.