A hormone is defined as “any member of a class of signaling molecules, produced by glands in multicellular organisms, that are transported by the circulatory system to target distant organs to regulate physiology and behavior.” In more secular terms, hormones are substances produced by your endocrine glands that have a significant effect on a wide array of bodily processes – including growth and development, metabolism, body temperature, mood, sexual function, and reproduction.

Those who have experience with medical cannabis know that it can alter a patient’s sleep, mood, and appetite. This interaction is an indication that cannabis affects hormones on some level, but to what extent? In this blog, we will explore the relationship between medical cannabis and the hormones of two very important functions – appetite and stress management.

The Endocannabinoid & Endocrine Systems

The endocannabinoid system is an essential regulatory force in the human body. This system plays a role in many vital functions, such as sleep, mood, metabolism, appetite, bone growth, and fertility. Researchers believe the main function of the endocannabinoid system is to bring all of these functions of the body into balance, known as homeostasis.

The endocrine system is a complex network of glands and organs; whose function is to secrete hormones, or chemical messengers, into the body. The major endocrine glands which drive this system are the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, pancreas, pineal gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid gland, adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes.

Even with much to learn on this topic, there is evidence to support that the endocannabinoid system is influential in how both appetite and stress affect us.

The Relationship Between Cannabis, Hunger, and Metabolism

Everyone is aware of the infamous “munchies” which can accompany cannabis use. It is this attribute of medical cannabis that has provided the basis for treatment for those undergoing chemotherapy and other protocols, which may cause nausea and a lack of desire to eat.

Hormones Involved in Appetite

Ghrelin: In a study published in February 2020 by Nature.com, researchers discovered that ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” which encourages appetite and food intake, occurred in higher levels after patients consumed cannabis orally. (as opposed to smoking or vaporizing cannabis).

This adds to the 2016 ScienceDirect article, which presented evidence of interaction and collaboration between the endocannabinoid system and ghrelin.

Leptin: Cannabis also has an impact on the body’s leptin hormone levels. Leptin is secreted by the fat cells and sends signals to the hypothalamus regulating food intake and energy expenditure, according to  Dr. Patricia Frye, MD, a board director for the Society of Cannabis Clinicians,. Studies have shown that medical cannabis smokers have lower leptin levels than non-smokers, as well as lower BMI, waist circumference, and obesity rates overall.

Insulin and Glucose: Research indicates that cannabis has an influence regarding the concentration of insulin, the hormone tasked with regulating glucose through the human body. When the appropriate insulin concentration is circulating in the bloodstream, glucose is properly transported into cells, then becoming fuel to maintain energy.

In the same 2020 study cited above, participants given a placebo brownie experienced a spike in blood insulin concentrations, which was expected. However, when participants consumed a brownie infused with THC, the insulin spike was minimized. Insulin levels remained lower than the control group, regardless of the method of consumption – edible, smoking, or vaporizing.

CBD has also been linked to improved glucose metabolism, possibly due to the substance’s anti-inflammatory and stress-relieving effects.

Hormones Involved in Stress Levels

The body’s main stress hormone is cortisol. When cortisol is activated, non-essential bodily functions are restricted so that the body can enter “fight or flight” mode.

The THC in medical cannabis generally raises cortisol levels; however, experiences may vary based on the individual’s frequency of use. For those who only use cannabis occasionally, the cortisol spike can cause high blood pressure and incite anxiety.

However, cortisol is also essential for getting up and going in the morning—the hormone peaks in the morning hours and is slowly reduced throughout the day. Chronic cannabis users may find this morning cortisol effect to be muted, making them sleepier and slower to get going when they wake up.

Experts recommend finding the optimal amount of medical cannabis to be effective for the condition you are treating. While the right level of use can be highly beneficial and work with your endocrine system, too much may begin to manifest undesirable effects, such as blunting the effect of cortisol to give us energy.

Ask a Sarasota Physician

While it seems clear that hormones and cannabis work in tandem in the body, just how they affect each individual user is a complex formula. If you are looking to utilize medical cannabis for your qualifying medical condition but have concerns or questions as to its effects, call Dr. Daniel P. Stein. One of the country’s leading experts on medical cannabis use, Dr. Stein is happy to meet you remotely during the pandemic and when able, in person at his Sarasota office, in order to begin your journey towards better overall health through medical cannabis.