With reports that preteen cases of anorexia are on the rise in the U.K with the number of hospital admissions for eating disorders doubling in the past 6 years, it’s clear that anorexia is a condition that requires further investigation by healthcare professionals and the general public alike. So, what are the symptoms of anorexia and can cannabis help to treat this condition?
What is anorexia?
Anorexia is a serious eating disorder and mental illness that is characterised by a person reaching a low body weight through restricting their food intake, exercising excessively or sometimes through a combination of these two actions.
The affected person may also experience distorted body image, believing they are in fact much fatter than their underweight or healthy weight suggests. An intense fear of gaining weight is also typically experienced by sufferers, with them often objecting to the suggestions that they should put on weight to be healthier.
For many people affected by the disorder, this fear of gaining weight may be linked to the fear of losing control of this area of their lives, as suggested by the eating disorder charity BEAT: ‘many people who have spoken to us about their anorexia have said that they felt they could control what they ate and their body weight when they didn’t feel they could control other aspects of their lives’.
Other symptoms and signs of the disorder the NHS recommends being aware of include:
· An unusually low BMI for affected adults (with height and weight being lower than expected in children under 18 years old)
· The affected person skipping meals, avoiding foods they regard as fattening or unhealthy and generally eating very little
· The cessation of periods or periods not starting if you’re of a younger age, this is sometimes known as amenorrhea
· Physical symptoms like hair loss, dry skin and dizziness
In many cases other factors such as excessive exercise and laxative or appetite suppressant use may also be taking place.
Anorexia can affect anyone regardless of their gender, age and ethnicity, although the illness is certainly more common in young women, with the disorder tending to start in the mid-teens.
It’s also important to note that in some cases a sufferer’s symptoms may not match a doctor’s diagnostic criteria perfectly, for instance their weight may still be considered normal. If this is the case, the affected person may be diagnosed with another disorder like atypical anorexia or something more specific to the more unique symptoms they’re experiencing.
If left untreated, anorexia can lead to multiple health problems as the affected person becomes malnourished due to a lack of dietary nutrients.
Possible resultant health problems include:
· Increased feelings of weakness and tiredness
· Poor circulation
· Irregular heartbeat
· Low blood pressure
· Heart failure
· Fertility problems
· Difficulties with memory and concentration
· Bowel and kidney problems
The potential health problems with anorexia should not be overlooked as the disorder is one of the major causes of death related to mental health issues.
At the same time, we should remember that recovery is possible and many of the health problems associated with the disorder can improve when the sufferer returns to normal eating habits.
How is anorexia treated?
Recovery is a process that is different for everyone affected so no one method of treatment is recommended above others.
Those suffering from anorexia are encouraged to seek help from a medical professional as soon as they possibly can to reduce the impact of detrimental symptoms that could potentially have long term effects.
When getting assessed by a healthcare professional, a treatment plan that is suitable for the specific individual should be devised so that any concurrent issues that need to be addressed (e.g. bulimia, anxiety, or depression) can be recognised and dealt with.
However, common treatments offered include talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Maudsley anorexia nervosa treatment for adults (MANTRA) or specialist supportive clinical management (SSCM). If the affected person is under the age of 18, they will generally be offered some kind of family therapy. These therapies are often carried out alongside supervised weight gain.
Can cannabis help?
In a pilot study conducted by Avraham et. al (2017), low dose delta-9-THC was found to help in the reduction of psychological symptoms in self-reported assays such as depression, asceticism and self-body-care. However, the researchers observed no changes in body-mass index. Further research is needed in anorexia patients with different dosing regimens and investigation into the effects of co-consumed medications and life-style choices is still needed.
In a study by Volicer et. al. (1997) looking at anorexia and disturbed behaviour in Alzheimer’s patients using Dronabinol, there was a small trend showing improvement in weight gain, appetite, mood and quality of life for some patients. However, it should be noted that this was only a small study of 15 elderly patients with Alzheimer’s and various other conditions. More research is certainly needed on Dronabinol use in elderly populations, but cannabinoids do still display some therapeutic potential here.
Wilson et. al. (2007) carried out a small-scale pilot trial with 28 patients looking at anorexia in ageing populations being treated with Dronabinol. The researchers found that the addition of Dronabinol was significant in producing healthy weight gain in this cohort of patients.
As indicated by the studies above, much more in depth research needs to be carried out in this area to know for sure how effective cannabis might be in treating anorexia. Larger patient studies certainly need to be carried out if results are to be deemed appropriate and accurate for the wider public rather than just a select group of individuals.
Also, as suggested by the Avraham et. al. study, more research is needed for anorexia patients with varying lifestyle factors, different dosing regimens and different co-consumed medications, as in everyday life people’s specific needs will differ as their lives vary greatly.
For more information on these studies and the treatment of anorexia using medical cannabis, take a look at our evidence base, a ground-breaking systematic review of the history of research in this area and a global first-of-its-kind searchable database for clinical referencing.
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