- Flickr/Jane Rahman
The tragic rise in suicide in America has struck a chord with tech startups focused on mental health.
Driven in some cases by the death of a family member or friend, some CEOs and founders are revamping existing wellness tools – such as apps that help spot and manage stress – to create new versions designed to diagnose depression. Other platforms are expanding the range of mental health services they provide so that a therapist you once texted about your anxiety can also prescribe you medication.
All of these efforts share a common motivation: the belief that too many people who need help aren’t getting it.
While suicide isn’t always tied to depression, the two issues frequently overlap. Of the roughly 20% of Americans who have a mental illness, close to two-thirds are estimated to have gone at least a year without treatment.
That reality has led startup founders like Tom Insel, who once led the National Institutes of Mental Health and now heads a company called Mindstrong Health, to attempt to create solutions.
“We don’t have objective, precise measures of mental health like we do for diabetes or hypertension,” Insel told Business Insider last month. He hopes a new app will help solve that problem.
Here are six app-based services that are working to address these problems.
With backing from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, a company called Medibio is using sleep and heart rate data from your Fitbit or Apple Watch to spot a depressive episode.
Despite racking up 28 Olympic medals – an unparalleled achievement that made swimmer Michael Phelps the most recognized Olympian in US history – Phelps was fighting powerful episodes of depression that led him to contemplate taking his own life.
“I straight wanted to die,” Phelps told CNN’s David Axelrod on a recent episode of The Axe Files podcast.
Phelps’ personal struggle spurred him to join the board of a 23-year-old company called Medibio. The group has a bold goal: to create a tool that can detect mental illness objectively, without relying on mercurial measures like questionnaires.
“The problem with mental health today is that there’s no objective diagnosis,” Jack Cosentino, Medibio’s CEO, told Business Insider in June.
In contrast to that approach, Medibio uses your wearable and smartphone to collect data on measurable health factors like your heart rate and sleep. The data is fed into an app which gives you a numerical score showing whether you’re likely to be entering into a period of high-stress or mental vulnerability.
A version of Medibio’s technology is already available to consumers, but the company is also working on a more advanced version of the app that could detect depression. Medibio presented that new version to the Food and Drug Administration last month.
Mindstrong Health’s approach is to analyze how you type and scroll on your phone to detect mental illness.
- Evgeny Belikov/Strelka Institute/Flickr
Mindstrong Health, the Silicon Valley startup led by former National Institutes of Mental Health director Tom Insel, is working on pinpointing mental illness by collecting data on how you type, tap, and scroll on your smartphone.
Mindstrong’s app, which hasn’t yet been finalized, is designed to run in the background of your smartphone and pick up on how long you take to find something from a list like your contacts, which way you scroll, and how quickly you type.
The company calls this “digital phenotyping.”
Mindstrong hasn’t yet revealed how the ways you use your phone could indicate a particular condition, and the startup is still exploring the direction it might take its product. But Insel said they may first make the app available to an internal group of psychiatrists and social workers in the company who will work with several hundred patients to see how the platform works in real time.
“We have a passive, objective way of measuring how you’re thinking that takes advantage of a technology that all of us are using all the time,” Insel said.
Wall Street’s favorite meditation app, Headspace, is working on a prescription-strength version of the app.
- Emmanuel Ocbazghi
The $250 million mindfulness app company Headspace has plans to turn meditation into medicine.
A favorite self-improvement tool in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, the app already has 30 million users. In June, by way of a new subsidiary called Headspace Health, the company announced that it will soon be rolling out a handful of prescription-grade meditation tools.
Headspace has not yet revealed which specific health condition the product is intended to treat, but Megan Jones Bell, the company’s chief science officer, told Business Insider last month that it would “likely surprise a lot of people.”
Headspace is starting clinical trials of the tool this summer. The company aims to get FDA approval for its first digital health product by 2020.
A Stanford researcher created a free therapy chatbot called Woebot to help anyone dealing with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Flickr/Jane Rahman
Woebot is an artificially intelligent chatbot designed to help with depression and anxiety.
Unlike traditional therapy, Woebot can be accessed anywhere, anytime – provided the user has a smartphone. And it’s free.
Once you log in with your first name, you’re set up. Woebot – a cute, animated robot – then asks you questions about yourself, such as how you’re feeling or what your energy is like at that moment.
The artificial intelligence behind the app is programmed to provide scripted responses to users based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
I recently tried the app out myself and found it to be surprisingly handy.
A small study published in April in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Mental Health suggests that other people feel that way about it too.
Out of 70 college students who used Woebot, the majority said they saw a significant reduction in their depressive symptoms, unlike those in a control group who were instructed to use an e-book full of tutorials on depression. The participants who used Woebot reported chatting with it almost daily, even though they weren’t required to spend any specific amount of time with it.
A mental health service called X2AI is boosting its reach using a bot called Tess.
- Derick Anies / Unsplash
Like Woebot, a platform called X2AI is powered by artificial intelligence and available around the clock.
But instead of providing scripted responses, X2AI’s tool, named Tess, acts as a sort of liaison between therapists and patients.
“Normally, a therapist will see five patients per day and spend the rest of their time on administrative work,” Michiel Rauws, the cofounder and CEO of X2AI, told Business Insider in January. “What we allow them to do is look after 50 patients per day, because while they’re chatting with their patients, Tess is chatting with their other patients.”
If a person tends to have panic attacks on Sunday nights, Tess might reach out proactively via text to see how they’re doing, then report the outcome to the person’s therapist, Rauws said.
That’s somewhat similar to how Medibio envisions its app working – as a sort of tether that helps connect patients with their therapists outside of a traditional office setting.
Talkspace, an app that links you to a therapist by text, has plans to soon prescribe drugs.
- Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock
Instead of texting with an AI-powered chatbot, you can also message a real human therapist. Talkspace, a text-message-based therapy platform designed to replace or supplement traditional therapy, has been leading this approach with an app that launched in 2015.
Talkspace works by linking you to a therapist who you can chat with over text and video. The service costs $49 per week.
The company recently unveiled plans for a major expansion that includes prescribing users medications for conditions like anxiety and depression.
Roni Frank, Talkspace’s co-founder and head of clinical services, told Business Insider in April that the decision to expand into prescription drugs comes alongside the company’s recent appointment of its first chief medical officer. Neil Leibowitz, Talkspace’s pick for the role, was previously the senior medical director at UnitedHealth.
- Nutlegal Photographer / Shutterstock
- Millennials could have worse health in middle age than their parents.
- This is according to a new report from the Health Foundation, which found they may have a higher risk of developing cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
- Millennials already have it tough with lower wages, less job security, and emotional pressure.
- They are also more likely to suffer from chronic loneliness than other generations.
Millennials already have it tough. Their wages are stagnating, they are unlikely to own their own homes, and they’re constantly told they are entitled and lazy.
According to a new report by the Health Foundation think tank, millennials may be the first generation to suffer from poorer health than their parents.
This is down to the impact of employment trouble, relationships, and housing currently affecting people in their 20s and 30s – leading to a higher risk of developing diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease when millennials reach middle age.
Overall, the trend is “linked to long-term stress, anxiety, depression or lower quality of life,” according to the report, which also found that millennials are the first generation to earn less money than their parents did at their age.
“Young people today are facing pressures that are very different to those of previous generations,” said Jo Bibby, the director of health at the Health Foundation.
- Power best/Shutterstock
In particular, millennials are under psychological stress from insecure working hours, zero-hours contracts, under-employment, and the “gig” economy, as well as the impact of social media, which the report said, adds pressure because digital friendships and relationships have to be upheld as well as real-life connections.
In the survey of 2,000 people aged between 22 and 26, just 31% said they had strong relationships and support networks growing up, and 46% said they had enough financial and family support. Only 49% said they had emotional support from family, while a massive 80% said they felt under pressure to behave a certain way because of social media.
Earlier this year, a study from Kings College London found that lonely millennials have twice the rick of developing mental health problems like depression and anxiety, compared to those who are connected to others. The Office for National Statistics also found that millennials are more likely to suffer from chronic loneliness than any other age group.
Bibby told the Times that although there are improvements being made to young people’s health, this can easily be eroded by “the precariousness and instability of the lives many young people are facing.”
Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, added: “I agree with them that we may be storing up problems for the future, in addition to whatever problems of mental illness, crime and the like that may be happening right now.”
Hakeem Howard, a senior at Quince Orchard High School in suburban Maryland, the United States, was in his first-period class one morning listening to announcements when he heard that the school was looking for graduation speakers and valedictorians.
Grade-wise, he told me, he definitely wasn’t a valedictorian. But, he said: “I knew I had something great to talk about. I felt like I could take something that happened to me and talk about it in a way that would touch others.”
Administrators agreed, and on graduation day, Hakeem took a seat onstage with school officials, valedictorians and other notables.
The ceremony took place in Washington, DC, at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, a magnificent venue that was big enough to accommodate 450 graduating seniors and nearly 2,500 of their loved ones.
As is the tradition at these things, the school orchestra played beautifully, the choir hit all its notes, and the speeches were suitably upbeat and wry.
Commencement speaker Ken Niumatalolo, head football coach at the US Naval Academy, brought down the house when he confessed that, 20 years earlier, he’d been fired from the Naval Academy, the very place that eventually hired him back, and where he has since become the winningest coach in Navy football history. (Message: Never give up.)
I was there to cheer on my granddaughter, Kenna Cramer.
Kenna told me later she had expected Hakeem to deliver a lighthearted, funny speech.
But as he walked up to the dais, it was obvious he was collecting himself emotionally.
Hakeem Howard, 18, with his mother, Courtney Howard, and father, Marcus Waugh.
“Exactly one year ago today,” Hakeem said, “I was admitted to a mental health facility, broken and lost. The drive I had inside was gone… . I really should have talked to someone, asked for help. However, I didn’t, and I crumbled tremendously.”
During his hospital stay, he said, he had a memorable visit from the father of one of his best friends. His friend’s dad told him that climbing Mt Everest is often used as a metaphor for success. “Climb to the top of the mountain and you’ve reached your goal!” he told Hakeem.
But no one, the friend’s dad added, ever climbs Everest alone. There is always a support team. That was the metaphor Hakeem found more relevant. That was the lesson that Hakeem wanted to impart to his friends: In times of trouble, don’t go it alone.
Tears spilled down Hakeem’s cheeks and his voice broke as he spoke of the dark episode during his junior year that led to a stay in a psychiatric unit. He had trouble talking, but as Hakeem faltered, the audience stepped up, applauding him to signal their support.
There was already a tremendous amount of emotion in this crowd, and it wasn’t just the bittersweetness of graduation. These kids had suffered the loss of two classmatesgraduates – one from cancer, another from a sudden cardiac arrest – and had watched in tears as the two sets of grieving parents were given their children’s honorary diplomas.
“High school is more than a place where you sit down and learn from the books,” Hakeem said. “Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health disorders in the United States among young adults and teens.”
Wow, I thought. Who talks at their high school graduation about feeling suicidal and the importance of seeking help? Most high school graduation speeches are full of platitudes that are long forgotten by the time you sit down to the celebratory meal.
After Hakeem got out of the hospital, he told me, he and his mum made a pact: “When I am upset, I try to gather myself and my words, and we sit down and we talk. I try to let out what I am feeling. She just listens. It’s the best thing she could do.”
Just listen? Not a bad idea.
Almost everyone I know knows someone whose kid had a terrible time adjusting during freshman year of college, and ended up having an emotional crash or moving home, or both.
Hakeem told me later that he’d spent three days in the hospital. He’d struggled with depression his whole life, he said. Last year, it hit him especially hard.
As he was spiralling into anxiety and sadness, he spent less time at home and refused to talk to his mother, who is separated from his father. His grades dropped; he was drinking and smoking, and abusing prescription drugs. For months, he said, he’d been feeling suicidal.
Finally, he had an ugly fight with his mother.
“I was acting irrational,” he said. “She said: ‘You are not my son. We need to get you to a hospital.’”
Three-quarters of the way through his speech, Hakeem turned the page in his binder on the dais and discovered the second page was missing. Because he had not memorised his words, he paused, said, “That’s all I got”, and sat down.
The audience erupted in cheers for him. It didn’t really matter that his speech had ended abruptly. He had already made his point about seeking help, had already demonstrated an uncommon courage as he revealed his most personal struggle.
The next day, though, Hakeem donned his cap and gown and went back to school in Gaithersburg to deliver his entire speech in a studio on campus. The video was posted on the school’s website. It was a nice gesture by school administrators, who felt bad about the snafu, which was theirs.
I watched it online, and it didn’t hit me with the same force. Hakeem was calm and collected, and his speech was fine.
But nothing will ever compare to the raw emotion, brutal honesty and grace he displayed in those moments onstage.
That was a speech, I guarantee you, that none of his classmates will ever forget. – Tribune News Service/Los Angeles Times/Robin Abcarian
New research has identified some of the personality traits that could lead to smartphone addiction, finding that those who are more emotionally unstable are more likely to be hooked on their phone.
Carried out by psychologists from the University of Derby and Nottingham Trent University, the online study surveyed 640 smartphone users aged 13-69 to look at a possible link between smartphone use and certain personality traits.
The team found that those who were less emotionally stable and resilient were more likely have a higher level of smartphone use, possibly as a form of therapy.
“This is because people may be experiencing problems in their lives such as stress, anxiety, depression, family problems, so in that state they are emotionally unstable, meaning they may seek respite in very excessive smartphone use. This is worrying,” said Dr Zaheer Hussain, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, UK.
In addition, those with anxiety also appeared to be more addicted to their phone. Previous research has already suggested that both heavy and moderate smartphone use can lead to users feeling significantly more anxious over time, with the new study also suggesting that as levels of anxiety increase, so does problematic smartphone use.
“With 4.23 billion smartphones being used around the world, smartphone use has become a necessity in the lives of many individuals,” said Dr Hussain. “Problematic smartphone use is more complex than previously thought and our research has highlighted the interplay of various psychological factors in the study of smartphone use.”
The responses also showed that the most popular smartphone applications among the participants were social networking applications (used by 49.9%), followed by instant messaging applications (35.2%), and then music applications (19.1%).
People who are “closed off” or less open with their emotions are also more likely to have problems with smartphone use according to the findings, with Dr Hussain, commenting that, “They may be engaging in passive social network use, this is where you spend a lot of time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, browsing other peoples’ comments, pictures and posts, and not posting anything of your own and not engaging in discussion with others, so there is no real positive social interaction while social networking.”
“While it can be argued that people are no more addicted to their smartphones than alcoholics are addicted to bottles, our research does show that some applications such as the use of social networking sites, do appear to be problematic for a small minority of individuals,” added Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction at Nottingham Trent University. – AFP Relaxnews
- Jordan Michelle vapes a CBD oil made from hemp at the Cannabis World Congress Conference.
- Spencer Platt/Getty
States around the country – 29 of them, plus Washington DC – have legalized medical marijuana.
The American public largely supports the legalization of medical marijuana. At least 84% of the public believes the drug should be legal for medical uses, and recreational pot usage is less controversial than ever, with at least 61% of Americans in support.
Even though some medical benefits of smoking pot may be overstated by advocates of marijuana legalization, recent research has demonstrated that there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana and strong reasons to continue studying the drug’s medicinal uses.
Even the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse lists medical uses for cannabis.
There are at least two active chemicals in marijuana that researchers think have medicinal applications. Those are cannabidiol (CBD) – which seems to impact the brain without a high- and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – which has pain relieving properties and is largely responsible for the high.
But scientists say that limitations on marijuana research mean we still have big questions about its medicinal properties. In addition to CBD and THC, there are another 400 or so chemical compounds, more than 60 of which are cannabinoids. Many of these could have medical uses. But without more research, we won’t know how to best make use of those compounds.
More research would also shed light on the risks of marijuana. Even if there are legitimate uses for medicinal marijuana, that doesn’t mean all use is harmless. Some research indicates that chronic, heavy users may have impaired memory, learning, and processing speed, especially if they started regularly using marijuana before age 16 or 17.
For some of the following medical benefits, there’s good evidence. For others, there’s reason to continue conducting research.
Jennifer Welsh contributed to an earlier version of this story.
The best-supported medicinal use of marijuana is as a treatment for chronic pain.
- A medical marijuana display.
- REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn
A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said there was definitive evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids (which are found in the marijuana plant) can be an effective treatment for chronic pain.
The report said that is “by far the most common” reason people request medical marijuana.
There’s also strong evidence medical cannabis can help with muscle spasms.
- Medical marijuana is displayed in Los Angeles, California, U.S. August 6, 2007.
- REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo
That same report said there’s equally strong evidence marijuana can help with muscle spasms related to multiple sclerosis.
Other types of muscle spasms respond to marijuana as well. People use medical marijuana to treat diaphragm spasms that are untreatable by other, prescribed medications.
It doesn’t seem to harm lung capacity, and may even improve it.
- Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
There’s a fair amount of evidence that marijuana does no harm to the lungs, unless you also smoke tobacco. One study published in Journal of the American Medical Association found that not only does marijuana not impair lung function, it may even increase lung capacity.
Researchers looking for risk factors of heart disease tested the lung function of 5,115 young adults over the course of 20 years. Tobacco smokers lost lung function over time, but pot users actually showed an increase in lung capacity.
It’s possible that the increased lung capacity may be due to taking a deep breaths while inhaling the drug and not from a therapeutic chemical in the drug.
The smokers in that study only toked up a few times a month, but a more recent survey of people who smoked pot daily for up to 20 years found no evidence that smoking pot harmed their lungs, either.
The National Academies report said there are good studies showing marijuana users are not more likely to have cancers associated with smoking.
It may be of some use in treating glaucoma, or it may be possible to derive a drug from marijuana for this use.
- thematthewknot via Flickr
One of the most common reasons that states allow medical marijuana use is to treat and prevent the eye disease glaucoma, which increases pressure in the eyeball, damaging the optic nerve and causing loss of vision.
Marijuana decreases the pressure inside the eye, according to the National Eye Institute: “Studies in the early 1970s showed that marijuana, when smoked, lowered intraocular pressure (IOP) in people with normal pressure and those with glaucoma.”
For now, the medical consensus is that marijuana only lowers IOP for a few hours, meaning there’s not good evidence for it as a long term treatment right now. Researchers hope that perhaps a marijuana-based compound could be developed that lasts longer.
It may help control epileptic seizures.
Some studies have shown that cannabidiol (CBD), another major marijuana compound, seems to help people with treatment-resistant epilepsy.
A number of individuals have reported that marijuana is the only thing that helps control their or their children’s seizures.
However, there haven’t been many gold-standard, double-blind studies on the topic, so researchers say more data is needed before we know how effective marijuana is.
It also decreases the symptoms of a severe seizure disorder known as Dravet’s Syndrome.
- Charlotte Figi has Dravet’s Syndrome, and her parents are giving her marijuana to treat her seizures.
During the research for his documentary “Weed,” Sanjay Gupta interviewed the Figi family, who treated their 5-year-old daughter using a medical marijuana strain high in cannabidiol and low in THC.
The Figi family’s daughter, Charlotte, has Dravet Syndrome, which causes seizures and severe developmental delays.
According to the film, the drug decreased her seizures from 300 a week to just one every seven days. Forty other children in the state were using the same strain of marijuana to treat their seizures when the film was made – and it seemed to be working.
The doctors who recommended this treatment said the cannabidiol in the plant interacts with brain cells to quiet the excessive activity in the brain that causes these seizures.
Gupta notes, however, that a Florida hospital that specializes in the disorder, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Drug Enforcement agency don’t endorse marijuana as a treatment for Dravet or other seizure disorders.
A chemical found in marijuana stops cancer from spreading, at least in cell cultures.
- crafty_dame via flickr
CBD may help prevent cancer from spreading, researchers at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco reported in 2007.
Other very preliminary studies on aggressive brain tumors in mice or cell cultures have shown that THC and CBD can slow or shrink tumors at the right dose, which is a strong reason to do more research.
One 2014 study found that marijuana can significantly slow the growth of the type of brain tumor associated with 80% of malignant brain cancer in people.
Still, these findings in cell cultures and animals don’t necessarily mean the effect will translate to people – far more investigation is needed.
It may decrease anxiety in low doses.
Researchers know that many cannabis users consume marijuana to relax, but also that many people say smoking too much can cause anxiety. So scientists conducted a study to find the “Goldilocks” zone: the right amount of marijuana to calm people.
According to Emma Childs, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an author of the study, “we found that THC at low doses reduced stress, while higher doses had the opposite effect.”
A few puffs was enough to help study participants relax, but a few puffs more started to amp up anxiety. However, people may react differently in different situations.
THC may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
- REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Marijuana may be able to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, a study led by Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute suggests.
The 2006 study, published in the journal Molecular Pharmaceutics, found that THC (the active chemical in marijuana) slows the formation of amyloid plaques by blocking the enzyme in the brain that makes them. These plaques kill brain cells and are associated with Alzheimer’s.
A synthetic mixture of CBD and THC seems to preserve memory in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. Another study suggested that a THC-based prescription drug called dronabinol was able to reduce behavioral disturbances in dementia patients.
All these studies are in very early stages, though, so more research is needed.
The drug eases the pain of multiple sclerosis.
- Customers shop for “Green Friday” deals at the Grass Station marijuana shop on Black Friday in Denver
- Thomson Reuters
Marijuana may ease painful symptoms of multiple sclerosis, according to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Jody Corey-Bloom studied 30 multiple sclerosis patients with painful contractions in their muscles. These patients didn’t respond to other treatments, but after smoking marijuana for a few days, they reported that they were in less pain.
The THC in marijuana seems to bind to receptors in the nerves and muscles to relieve pain.
It seems to lessen side effects from treating hepatitis C and increase treatment effectiveness.
Treatment for hepatitis C infection is harsh: negative side effects include fatigue, nausea, muscle aches, loss of appetite, and depression. Those side effects can last for months, and lead many people to stop their treatment course early.
But a 2006 study in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that 86% of patients using marijuana successfully completed their Hep C therapy. Only 29% of non-smokers completed their treatment, possibly because the marijuana helps lessen the treatment’s side effects.
Marijuana also seems to improve the treatment’s effectiveness: 54% of hep C patients smoking marijuana got their viral levels low and kept them low, in comparison to only 8% of nonsmokers.
Marijuana may help with inflammatory bowel diseases.
- Bruce Bennett/Getty
Patients with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis could benefit from marijuana use, studies suggest.
University of Nottingham researchers found in 2010 that chemicals in marijuana, including THC and cannabidiol, interact with cells in the body that play an important role in gut function and immune responses. The study was published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
The body makes THC-like compounds that increase the permeability of the intestines, allowing bacteria in. But the cannabinoids in marijuana block these compounds, making the intestinal cells bond together tighter and become less permeable.
But the National Academies report said there isn’t enough evidence to be sure whether marijuana really helps with these conditions, so more research is needed.
It relieves arthritis discomfort.
Marijuana alleviates pain, reduces inflammation, and promotes sleep, which may help relieve pain and discomfort for people with rheumatoid arthritis, researchers announced in 2011.
Researchers from rheumatology units at several hospitals gave their patients Sativex, a cannabinoid-based pain-relieving medicine. After a two-week period, people on Sativex had a significant reduction in pain and improved sleep quality compared to placebo users.
Other studies have found that plant-derived cannabinoids and inhaled marijuana can decrease arthritis pain, according to the National Academies report.
Marijuana users tend to be less obese and have a better response to eating sugar.
A study published in the American Journal Of Medicine suggested that pot smokers are skinnier than the average person and have healthier metabolism and reaction to sugars, even though they do end up eating more calories.
The study analyzed data from more than 4,500 adult Americans – 579 of whom were current marijuana smokers, meaning they had smoked in the last month. About 2,000 people had used marijuana in the past, while another 2,000 had never used the drug.
The researchers studied how the participants’ bodies responded to eating sugars. They measured blood-sugar levels and the hormone insulin after participants hadn’t eaten in nine hours, and after they’d eaten sugar.
Not only were pot users thinner, their bodies also had a healthier response to sugar. Of course, the study couldn’t determine whether the marijuana users were like this to begin with or if these characteristics were somehow related to their smoking.
While not really a health or medical benefit, marijuana could spur creativity.
- Getty Images / Marc Piscotty
Contrary to stoner stereotypes, marijuana usage has actually been shown to have some positive mental effects, particularly in terms of increasing creativity, at least in some contexts. Even though people’s short-term memories tend to function worse when they’re high, they actually get better at tests requiring them to come up with new ideas.
Researchers have also found that some study participants improve their “verbal fluency,” their ability to come up with different words, while using marijuana.
Part of this increased creative ability may come from the release of dopamine in the brain, which lowers inhibitions and allows people to feel more relaxed, giving the brain the ability to perceive things differently.
Cannabis soothes tremors for people with Parkinson’s disease.
- Walter Hickey / BI
Research from Israel shows that smoking marijuana significantly reduces pain and tremors and improves sleep for Parkinson’s disease patients. Particularly impressive was the improved fine motor skills among patients.
Medical marijuana is legal in Israel for multiple conditions, and a lot of research into the medical uses of cannabis is done there, supported by the Israeli government.
Marijuana may help veterans suffering from PTSD.
- Walter Hickey / BI
In 2014, the Colorado Department of Public Health awarded $2 million to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (one of the biggest proponents of marijuana research) to study marijuana’s potential for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Naturally occurring cannabinoids, similar to THC, help regulate the system that causes fear and anxiety in the body and brain.
Marijuana is approved to treat PTSD in some states already – in New Mexico, PTSD is the number one reason for people to get a license for medical marijuana.
But there are still questions about the safety of using marijuana while suffering from PTSD, which this study – which has taken a while to get off the ground – will hopefully help answer.
Animal studies suggest that marijuana may protect the brain after a stroke.
- .v1ctor. via http://www.flickr.com/photos/49699516@N06/4752171903/in/photolist-8eW89k-aEAm15-aEAm13-aEAkZW-aEAm17-bAXGYV-afXms2-7D8UyM-bmqtbF-bpFMB9-8Q8SYA-a4gLEC-aeYEGc-bZb9p7-8r1Jfg-9hspKG-dtZHQE-bbTetz-7EjqEn-7C9Afb-7STdyH-ase3oo-9Ki7D3-7ZA1a8-7KdkWz-dCLkd7-9D7hiy-bCxzqo-c67WSy-7KLGkS-eaHQeW-8gfZd2-agj1U4-8wZx1d creative commons
Research from the University of Nottingham shows that marijuana may help protect the brain from damage from a stroke by reducing the size of the area affected by the stroke – at least in rats, mice, and monkeys.
This isn’t the only research that has shown neuroprotective effects of cannabis. Some research shows that the plant may help protect the brain after other types of brain trauma.
Marijuana might even protect the brain from concussions and trauma.
- Al Bello/Getty Images
Lester Grinspoon , a professor of psychiatry at Harvard and marijuana advocate, recently wrote an open letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. In it, he said the NFL should stop testing players for marijuana, and that the league should start funding research into the plant’s ability to protect the brain instead.
“Already, many doctors and researchers believe that marijuana has incredibly powerful neuroprotective properties, an understanding based on both laboratory and clinical data,” Grinspoon wrote.
Goodell said he’d consider permitting athletes to use marijuana if medical research shows that it’s an effective neuroprotective agent.
At least one recent study on the topic found that patients who had used marijuana were less likely to die from traumatic brain injuries.
It can help eliminate nightmares.
This is a complicated one, because it involves effects that can be both positive and negative. Marijuana disturbs sleep cycles by interrupting the later stages of REM sleep. In the long run, this could be a problem for frequent users.
However, for people suffering from serious nightmares, especially those associated with PTSD, this can be helpful, perhaps in the short term. Nightmares and other dreams occur during those same stages of sleep. By interrupting REM sleep, many of those dreams may not occur. Research into using a synthetic cannabinoid – similar to THC but not the same – showed a significant decrease in the number of nightmares in patients with PTSD.
Additionally, even if frequent use can be bad for sleep, marijuana may be a better sleep aid than some other substances that people use. Some of those, including medication and alcohol, may potentially have worse effects on sleep, though more research is needed on the topic.
Cannabis reduces some of the pain and nausea from chemotherapy and stimulates appetite.
- Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider
One of the most well-known medical uses of marijuana is for people going through chemotherapy. There’s good evidence that it’s effective for this, according to the National Academies report.
Cancer patients being treated with chemo suffer from painful nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. This can cause additional health complications.
Marijuana can help reduce these side effects, alleviating pain, decreasing nausea, and stimulating the appetite. There are also multiple FDA-approved cannabinoid drugs that use THC, the main active chemical in marijuana, for the same purpose.
Marijuana can help people who are trying to cut back on drinking.
- Thomson Reuters
Marijuana is safer than alcohol. That’s not to say it’s risk-free, but cannabis is much less addictive than alcohol and doesn’t cause nearly as much physical damage.
Disorders like alcoholism involve disruptions in the endocannabinoid system. Because of that, some people think cannabis might help patients struggling with those disorders.
Research published in the Harm Reduction Journal found that some people use marijuana as a less harmful substitute for alcohol, prescription drugs, and other illegal drugs. Some of the most common reasons patients make that substitution are that marijuana has less negative side effects and is less likely to cause withdrawal problems.
Some people do become psychologically dependent on marijuana, and it is not a cure for substance abuse problems. But from a harm-reduction standpoint, it can help.
Still, it’s worth noting that combining marijuana and alcohol can be dangerous, and some researchers are concerned that this scenario is more likely than one in which users substitute a toke for a drink.
Medical marijuana legalization seems to reduce opioid overdose deaths.
While there are a number of factors behind the current opioid epidemic, many experts agree that the use of opioid painkillers to treat chronic pain has played a major role. It’s very risky to take powerful drugs that have a high risk of causing overdose and high addiction rates. Marijuana, which can also treat chronic pain, is far less risky.
Several studies have showed that states that allow medical marijuana have fewer opioid deaths. This effect seems to grow over time, with states who pass these laws seeing a “20% lower rate of opioid deaths in the laws’ first year, 24% in the third, and 33% in the sixth,” according to Stat News.
It’s hard to say that deaths went down because of medical marijuana legalization and not other reasons. But because the effect seems to get stronger the longer marijuana remains legal, researchers think marijuana is a likely cause of the decline in opioid deaths.