Nutrition and Health Effects of Cannabis

Written by Kelsey Schaffstall Young MS, RDN, LDN

More than 100 different cannabinoids have been identified, the most well studied being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which have both been shown to have therapeutic and medicinal properties.1 The health effects of cannabis are directly related to our body’s innate ability to bind cannabinoids. Interestingly, the human body naturally produces cannabinoids and therefore is equipped with an entire network of cannabinoids receptors, also known as the endocannabinoid system. 1

What does the research say?

According to a review conducted by the American Heart Association conducted in 2020, there is strong scientific evidence to support the use of cannabis for a variety of medical conditions. First, cannabis has been shown to improve pain caused by neuropathy and fibromyalgia. 1 Cannabis is also effective at increasing appetite and promoting weight gain in people suffering from cancer or HIV related weight loss. 1 In addition to benefitting appetite, cannabis has also been shown to prevent chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. 1 Other conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis and Epilepsy have also been studied, for which cannabis has been shown to improve pain and spasticity and seizures, respectively. 1 Moderate evidence also exists to suggest that cannabis could be effective in treating opiate withdrawal and dystonia. 1 Despite this, research on cannabis has been limited due to decades of cannabis being classified as a controlled substance. However, advancements have been made in the area of medical marijuana with three prescription cannabinoids (Marinol, Cesamet, and Epidiolex) now being authorized for use in the US. 1

Are there any risks associated with cannabis use?

Despite the potential therapeutic benefits, cannabis use does not come without risks. Chronic long-term use of cannabis can reduce the availability of CB1 receptors, impacting the systemic response when used long term. 1 For example, use in moderation can improve nausea and vomiting while chronic daily use can result in uncontrolled vomiting known as hyperemesis syndrome. 1 Use in adolescents younger than 16-18 years of age has also shown increased risk of psychosis and schizophrenia as well as poorer attention. 1 CBD can also inhibit some enzymes in the CYP450 family and alter the metabolism of certain drugs, either decreasing or increasing their concentration in the bloodstream. 1

Lifestyle Considerations

If you are trying to decide whether or not to use cannabis to support your health, there are a number of things to consider. First, in terms of dosing, a responsible approach would be to begin with the lowest possible dose and increase slowly until you feel the desired benefits. Also, be sure to choose high quality products and seek out reputable companies that provide consumers with a certificate of analysis detailing the cannabinoid content as well as the presence of any heavy metals or pesticides. Proof of third-party testing is also important as it can ensure the purity and potency of the final product.

Most importantly, pay attention to whether cannabis is promoting or inhibiting health behaviors. For example, is it enhancing appetite to the point that you are overeating or making poor nutrition choices? Is the quality of your sleep improving or declining? These are important questions to ask yourself when making any behavior change, and a Registered Dietitian can help you to examine the impact of cannabis on your nutrition and health behaviors. Finally, be sure to consult your doctor to ensure that cannabis use will not interfere with any of your current medications.

It is an exciting time to explore the wide array of THC and CBD products on the market, and hopefully as legalization efforts continue to evolve so will the scientific research on the use of cannabis to promote health.

  1. Page, Robert L., et al. “Medical marijuana, recreational cannabis, and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.” Circulation 142.10 (2020): e131-e152.

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