Cannabis Tied to Diabetes Complications

Recent research published in JAMA Internal Medicine has suggested that medical marijuana use may be beneficial to some people with type 2 diabetes, allowing their bodies to more easily use insulin to convert their food into energy they can use, thereby maintaining lower blood sugars. However, much less is known about the effects of cannabis use on type 1 diabetes sufferers.

In an effort to change that, Dr. Viral Shah of the Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora and a group of researchers followed the cannabis habits of 450 type 1 diabetes patients. The study was conducted in Colorado, where marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational purposes.

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What the researchers found was that regular cannabis users had an average HbA1c level of 8.4 percent, a dangerous number which has the potential to increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, blindness, amputations, and death. Non-cannabis users in the study had an average HbA1c of 7.6 percent, which is still high but not as dangerous. It is generally advised that people with diabetes keep their HbA1c levels under 6.5 percent.

It was also discovered that type 1 diabetes patients who were regular cannabis users had about double the chances of experiencing an episode of diabetic ketoacidosis, compared to non-cannabis users.

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a serious diabetes complication that occurs when the body’s blood sugar is elevated for an extended period of time, leading to drastically increased production of acids called ketones. If not immediately treated, diabetic ketoacidosis can have serious effects, such as severe dehydration, swelling in the brain, coma, and death.

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“We have also shown that in the presence of cannabis, the diabetic ketoacidosis is harder to diagnose, and therefore it may be missed, with deadly consequences,” said Dr. Annemarie Hennessy, dean of the School of Medicine at Western Sydney University in Australia, who was not involved in the study.

Once diagnosed, the condition is generally treated with intravenous fluids and insulin. The fluids help hydrate the body and replenish its electrolytes, while the insulin restores blood sugars to their normal levels.

“Elevated ketones may be life-threatening if not treated on time, and patients can (have) nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, shortness of breath and rarely confusion or altered consciousness,” Dr. Shah said.

Photo: Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon

Researchers cannot prove that cannabis was the cause of the increased numbers of ketoacidosis cases, but there is certainly a correlation between the two. The team did note that the use of cannabis could lead to vomiting, and it may be the vomiting and resultant dehydration that contributed to the increased risk of ketoacidosis.

Either way, if you’re a person with diabetes who uses cannabis or is considering using cannabis, it’s important to be aware of the potential issues it could cause and be on the alert for them. The research team is suggesting it’s better to be on the safe side and avoid marijuana rather than run the risk of ending up with a serious diabetes complication.

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a life-threatening condition. If you or someone you know is showing the symptoms of this complication, seek medical assistance immediately.

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