Negative feedback system

Study: Patients with binge eating disorder should be wary of cannabis

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In the U.S., 28 million people will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to a Harvard study from 2020. Anorexia and bulimia nervosa disorders are the most commonly acknowledged. But many Americans are also affected by lesser-known disorders like pica (compulsively eating non-food items), rumination disorder (eating previously regurgitated food) and night eating syndrome. 

The most common eating disorder by far is binge eating disorder (BED). According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), BED affects 1.25% of adult women (4.15 million) and 0.42% (1.5 million) of adult men in the U.S., accounting for 20% of national eating disorder cases. 

For those men and women, cannabis use can be risky, a new study from Drexel University suggests. In examining the relationship between cannabis use and BED symptoms, alcohol consumption and depression, researchers found evidence indicating that BED patients who use cannabis tend to experience more severe eating disorder symptoms. 

Megan Wilkinson, lead author and doctoral student in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences started pursuing this line of research after realizing that lots of research exists on the relationship between cannabis use and eating disorders, but very little that looked specifically at BED. 

Wilkinson and a team of researchers at the university’s Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science (WELL Center) got to work. 

“Distinguishing the relationship between cannabis use, eating disorder severity and other psychiatric symptoms in binge eating patients is necessary for informing screening and clinical recommendations,” Wilkinson said in a press release

When someone is affected by BED, they experience out-of-control eating and are often unable to stop until they are uncomfortably full or even sick. It most often affects women in early adulthood and middle-aged men, and commonly results in obesity. 

Many people who use cannabis can relate to feeling out of control while eating. Cannabis use has a common side effect known as “the munchies” that notoriously makes users compulsively eat whether they’re hungry or not. 

Thanks to research done on worms (Weed Between The Lines, “Breaking down ‘The Munchies,’” Nov. 20, 2023), we know that this results from cannabis enhancing one’s sensations of taste and smell. 

To find out what happens to people with BED who use cannabis, Wilkinson and her team surveyed 165 individuals who experienced BED events at least once a week and were actively seeking treatment. Respondents reported both their cannabis and alcohol use throughout the study. 

The researchers found that 23% (38 participants) reported cannabis use at least once within the past three months, with most reporting use once or twice or monthly. Most of the patients who reported cannabis use also reported BED symptoms in association with it. 

Notably, the research also found that those patients who used cannabis also reported significantly higher alcohol consumption. And BED patients who consumed both alcohol and cannabis were more likely to report alcohol-related BED symptoms compared to those who used alcohol alone. 

“Both alcohol and cannabis can impact an individual’s appetite and mood,” Wilkinson said. “Our finding that patients with binge eating who use cannabis also drink more alcohol may suggest that these individuals are at a higher risk for binge eating, given the compounded effects on appetite and mood from these substances.” She recommended that any treatments for BED should examine the relationship between substance use, hunger, mood and eating.

When BED patients were asked how cannabis use affected their symptoms, they reported that their condition made the urge to use cannabis particularly strong — which often triggered a person’s BED, resulting in a feedback system. 

In the paper, published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, researchers conclude that “results from the present study support screening for cannabis and alcohol use patterns in patients with BED.”

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