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By John Schieszer
For Senior Voice 

Marijuana showing significant promise for many conditions


Attitudes about marijuana and its use are changing nationwide. Alaska, along with Washington, Colorado and Oregon, has lifted the prohibition on its use. The voter-approved changes in each state are expected to bring in millions of dollars through taxes. However, the real windfall may be for Alaska residents and others with chronic health problems. The active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is now showing promise for treating chronic pain conditions, nerve pain and nausea from chemotherapy, weight loss caused by chronic illnesses, and the list is continuing to grow.

Marijuana and diabetes

Regular marijuana use may have a role in fighting diabetes. Researchers recently reported that current marijuana users had significantly lower fasting insulin levels and were less likely to be insulin resistant. Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes. These findings, which were reported in The American Journal of Medicine, are important because diabetes rates have been skyrocketing in the US over the past 20 years.

Researchers studied data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES) between 2005 and 2010. The analysis included 4,657 patients who completed a drug use questionnaire. The researchers found that those adults who reported using marijuana in the past month had lower levels of fasting insulin and higher levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), the so-called good cholesterol. In this study, the associations were weaker among those who reported using marijuana at least once, but not in the past 30 days. The data suggested that current users had 16 percent lower fasting insulin levels than adults who had never consumed marijuana.

Inflammation and autoimmune disorders

Currently, there are two FDA-approved drugs derived from marijuana and they are sold under the names Marinol (dronabinol) and Cesamet (nabilone). However, there may be several new ones coming on the market in the not too distant future. A new study from researchers at the University of South Carolina (USC) showed marijuana may be beneficial in treating adults with autoimmune disorders. The researchers looked at microRNAs and found that it may be possible to grow specific types of marijuana plants that can combat autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, suggests that marijuana can act as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it may be able to suppress inflammation and thereby increase susceptibility to certain diseases. However, on the other hand it can serve as an effective treatment modality against inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Many older adults with severe arthritis are turning to marijuana as a treatment option and not waiting for clinical trials. However, the effectiveness and safety of medical marijuana to treat symptoms of rheumatic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or fibromyalgia are unknown. Part of the problem is that concentrations of THC, which provide pain relief and alter brain function, may vary in the plant material by up to 33 percent. One study suggested that absorption rates may vary between 2 percent and 56 percent, making the dosing of herbal cannabis unreliable.

Recent findings show that THC can change critical molecules of epigenome called histones, leading to suppression of inflammation. It is theorized that drugs can be derived from marijuana to treat arthritis, lupus, colitis, and multiple sclerosis (MS). In these diseases, chronic inflammation plays a central role.

Slowing Alzheimer’s

Currently, the push is on to develop varieties of marijuana that are easily absorbed and carry plant traits that may help combat a specific disease. A recent study found that extremely low levels of THC may slow or halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Neuroscientists at the University of South Florida (USF) used a cellular model of Alzheimer’s disease and showed that extremely low doses of THC reduced the production of amyloid beta. The researchers, who reported their findings in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, said this is the first report that THC can directly affect Alzheimer’s pathology by decreasing amyloid beta levels.

“Decreased levels of amyloid beta means less aggregation, which may protect against the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Since THC is a natural and relatively safe amyloid inhibitor, THC or its analogs may help us develop an effective treatment in the future,” said study investigator Chuanhai Cao, PhD, who is with the USF College of Pharmacy.

The researchers now plan to investigate THC use in a genetically-engineered mouse model of Alzheimer’s. Cao said the dose and target population are critically important for any drug, so careful monitoring and control of drug levels in the blood and system are very important for therapeutic use, especially for a compound such as THC.

Acceptance is growing, but concerns remain

The latest surveys suggest that attitudes about marijuana are dramatically changing and this is affecting how it is viewed in the medical community. It is hoped that important new medicines may be derived from new breeds of marijuana plants. These plants could become the first effective treatment for a host of untreatable diseases and conditions.

Dr. Joseph Alpert, MD, who is a professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, said there is a need for more basic and clinical research into the short-term and long-term effects of marijuana in a variety of clinical settings such as cancer, diabetes and frailty of older adults.

For now, researchers caution that no one should self-medicate with marijuana due to safety concerns. Side effects from taking marijuana can include mood changes, dizziness or fainting symptoms, fatigue, and feelings of intoxication, just to mention a few.

Author Bio

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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