Outside of my little social bubble, I know cannabis still has a social stigma. Especially if you’re a female. And even more so if you’re a mom. I’ve always preferred cannabis over drinking. If you knew me around ages 18–21, you knew this. I’m not really sure why, but I just kind of phased it out after turning 21. It seemed the cool thing to do in the mid 00’s was to go to clubs and bars downing copious amounts of vodka. That’s what I did instead. After entering my 30’s, I became a daily cannabis user.
I also have an eating disorder that will never really go away. One which was absolutely raging during that club/bar hopping vodka consuming time of my life. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve been dealing with my eating disorder in various ways since I was in middle school. It started then, when I suddenly became a vegetarian. That was me dipping my toe into the good food bad food pool. It slowly built up momentum from there over the next two decades.
I’m not unique. It’s approximated that around 9% of the US population struggle with an eating disorder (ED) in their lifetime. I suspect more of my known female peers were struggling with similar issues than I’ve been cognizant of. It’s not something I’ve been good at openly discussing. I’ve had an easier time talking about my anxiety and depression than I’ve had about my struggles with disordered eating, even though they are not separate issues. It was this private little world in my head that I didn’t have to share with anyone. Or I was too ashamed.
Just because I’m not unique, doesn’t mean that the beast of disordered eating, body image struggles, and body dysmorphia didn’t eat me alive while I starved and purged myself. I almost caused premature birth of my youngest son. Something which will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Not eating for days. Drinking teas that make you shit out every ounce of liquid in your body if I did choose to eat the smallest amount of food. Diet pills. So many diet pills. Every brand I came across, I’d pop them. I have one specific memory, standing in a Walgreens in my early 20s, likely looking rather underweight to the outside world but looking much different to myself. This time, the pills were locked up. I contemplated my next steps, and worked up the courage to take action. I asked the pharmacist to open the case. She looked me up and down, seeing a small, thin, young adult who should not have been taking them (no one should, really, but I digress) She battled with whether to open the case or not. I remember her scolding me a bit, saying something about me not needing them. Still, she opened the case and handed them to me and rang me up. I avoided her eye contact at all costs. I consumed the whole bottle until it ran out and I needed to go to a different store to buy more. I wasn’t going to risk running into her again.
Then, there’s my wedding. On the big day, my dress was too big. I brushed this off, saying it had been because of a wisdom tooth surgery a month prior, so I must have lost a pound or two and at my small stature, a pound or two can make a big difference, right? The truth, though, was much different. I wasn’t eating. In fact, I didn’t even eat on my wedding day. A groomsman accidentally spilled a drink on my dinner and even though the staff profusely offered to get me a new meal, I said I was fine. It made it easier to get away with not eating that night. With my vodka cranberry in hand (cranberry is a diuretic so it was my go-to drink because even when drinking, purging was on my mind) my family tried their best to tape and pin me into my dress, but being strapless, it kept falling down. But it was just from the surgery, I was totally fine!
With my first child, I seemed to do better. I think those close to me exhaled for the first time in a long time. I gained an appropriate amount of weight and I fussed a bit less over food. I fell in love with ice cream again. I worked out a lot, but I was eating and gaining weight and my unborn child was thriving in my uterus. My disorder wasn’t gone, it was just dormant, lingering in the background, ready to pounce when those pregnancy and breastfeeding hormones faded into oblivion.
With my second child, I really struggled. I barely ate, and there were good foods and bad foods, created through my own evaluation. I was lucky to gain 20 pounds that pregnancy. Again, I brushed it off. Oh I work out. Oh I’m chasing around a toddler. I’m just active. My mom begged me to speak to a specialist that was skilled in helping pregnant women with eating disorders. I said I was fine! I didn’t need help or to talk to any shrink. I.was.fine. And I refused to talk to the doctor. Then, I landed in the hospital at 35 weeks pregnant with dangerously low amniotic fluid and almost had to deliver him pre-term. I was banned from working out, put on a pseudo bed-rest type of activity level. I could do things with my other son, but under no circumstances was I to run or workout. The day before I ended up giving birth, at 39 weeks, I got on the treadmill and went for a run, unable to stand it any longer, feeling the need to work off things I’d eaten. Contractions started later that afternoon.
It may come across as bizarre that I’d already been pregnant once before, I knew what I needed to do in order to have a healthy pregnancy, and then I just didn’t do those things. But the eating disorder affected brain doesn’t operate that way. I wasn’t in control that year, my eating disorders, anxiety, and OCD were in complete control. Stacy Pershall writes, “people with eating disorders — especially the restrictive type — often operate according to a strict set of rules that may not make sense to people without eating disorders. For example, a person with anorexia may deem foods “safe” and “unsafe” based on reasons other than calories or nutrient content, or develop rituals around how they cut food and where they place it on the plate. It’s not so different from having to turn the lights on and off a certain number of times before leaving the house, or having to wash one’s hands a certain number of times before going to bed, behaviors typically associated with OCD.”
Things spiraled for me after he was born and it got to the point that I needed professional and medicinal help for the variety of mental health crises I was struggling to deal with. Between what was clearly PPD/A, a raging eating disorder that at this point had been lingering for over a decade, insomnia that fed my severe panic attacks and my regular anxiety, mixed with a fun dip of depression here and there, I was contemplating suicide all while smiling and pretending to the outside world that I was fine and happy and my perfect home and children and husband were all sunshine and roses. I was not. Things were bad. Unequivocally. My husband knew it. My parents knew it. My brothers knew it. But, no one else did.
That’s when I started the gold standard of treatment that worked for me. Therapy. Carefully prescribed anxiety medication. And, yes, this is where cannabis comes back into my life.
Humans naturally have an endocannabinoid system (ECS). Even if you don’t use cannabis products, this system is there in your brain, regulating processes in your body. The ECS was discovered in 1992 by Lumir Hanus, a Czech chemist. The medical world is really only beginning to explore the many ways we’re impacted by our ECS, what happens when it’s out of balance, and how cannabis and its derivatives (think CBD) can supplement an out of whack ECS. ECS is thought to be connected to a wide array of processes throughout the body, such as (but not limited to): appetite/digestion, metabolism, chronic pain, inflammation, immune system responses, mood, sleep, stress, and many more. The ECS works to create homeostasis in the body with all of the functions it touches working together smoothly. Homeostasis can be thrown off if any of these are out of balance. It’s clear how cannabis could play a role in treating eating disorders in some people and how it played a role in treating me.
I didn’t truly start to find myself in control of my disordered eating until I received my medical cannabis card. At that point, I had a reliable way to obtain cannabis and I didn’t have to try to find someone to buy it on the down low. I knew exactly what was in it, what percentages of CBD/THC, and where the product originated from. I was in control of my treatment. The funny thing is, I didn’t start out using it for treating that part of myself. I’d had other health issues that qualified me for it. Anorexia Nervosa often doesn’t qualify one for a medical cannabis card.
Slowly, over time, that part of my brain began to reset without me realizing it. I was less anxious about food related gatherings. Something that really was a struggle for me. Parties, dinners, lunches, all of it could send me into a panic attack just thinking about how I would handle being around food and people encouraging me to eat when I.just.couldn’t. I stopped always analyzing my naked body in the mirror. I stopped always lifting my shirt every time I was in my bathroom to just see if my stomach looked larger or mushy or whatever absurd thing my brain would conjure. I stopped always tallying my food in my head. I stopped always obsessing over every photo taken of me to see if my body looks remotely too pudgy or fat or anything other than what I think it should look like at that exact moment. I stopped always passing on dessert. I’ve stopped always stressing over putting a swimsuit on. I stopped always categorizing good and bad foods. I emphasize the always in those moments, because, that still creeps in from time to time. The difference now is, after consistent use of cannabis, my brain can take back control and remind me: “we do not do that anymore, stop it!” I have an easier time avoiding the spiral down the ED rabbit hole.
It’s important to understand how this slow process occurred. Our bodies have different ECS receptors, CB1 and CB2. There are ample CB1 receptors located in the area of the brain that controls food intake and hunger. This system also plays a part in the rewarding sensation when it comes to food. Researchers in Belgium from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven conducted a study and determined the ECS “was significantly underactive in women with either anorexia or bulimia in a part of the brain that is responsible for the integration of the taste of food with our emotional response to eating. Essentially, these women could not fully experience the pleasure of food and thus developed inappropriate rituals and responses to it. This same brain region, called the insula, has been previously linked to other eating disorders.”
If the ECS is depleted or out of balance, a cascade effect of disordered eating is possible. If your CB1 receptors are replenished through cannabis products they run closer to full steam again. You’re providing your brain these receptors and replacing the depleted stock pile through cannabis products and helping your body begin its journey back to homeostasis. You find yourself like me, recovering from an eating disorder and living life in a more full and fulfilled manner because the obsessive compulsive thoughts and body dysmorphia aren’t all consuming.
I’m not saying this is a magic instant fix. It took time for my body to adjust, for the grip of the beast’s jaw to loosen from my brain. There were other factors at play too, wanting to get better, admitting I had issues, therapy, and anxiety medication. I truly needed to return to homeostasis within my cell receptors.
The evidence is there to support further research into how cannabis could help those struggling with eating disorders. As of now, the federal government labels it a Schedule 1 drug, which puts it with the likes of LSD, heroine, peyote, and ecstasy. Cocaine is a schedule 2 drug. Cocaine is considered less dangerous that cannabis. It’s an underserving classification for cannabis. A Schedule 1 classification imposes strict rules on what kind of scientific and medical clinical trials can be done. This limits the medical community from exploring how this naturally occurring plant, used for millennia in different cultures around the world, could improve the lives of those suffering from eating disorders.
I once had a doctor say to me, “you should never suffer when you don’t have to suffer.” This goes for disordered eating and other mental health ailments. I don’t need to have daily panic attacks or insomnia, there was a pill to help that after everything else failed to. I also don’t need to suffer from a combination of anorexia and purging, cannabis is an effective tool to help stop my brain from operating that way. Cannabis is another tool in the medicinal arsenal that can help millions of people in so many ways. We should not suffer if we don’t have to suffer. It’s about time our country allowed this diverse plant to be studied to its fullest. It may save someone’s life. It sure helped save mine.