Cannabis has been found to be effective in the treatment or management of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. IBD is caused by gut inflammation. Crohn’s disease affects the entire digestive system while ulcerative colitis affects the large intestine only.
And it looks like scientists have discovered what makes cannabis work.
According to a new study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Bath, cannabinoids found in cannabis are structurally similar to endocannabinoids, which are naturally produced molecules in our body. Lack of balance in the endocannabinoid system results to inflammation in the gut, and the cannabinoids in medical cannabis help restore this balance.
No previous formal study on why cannabis can treat IBD
Many IBD patients have turned to cannabis because conventional medication have been laden with side effects. Moreover, for these traditional medication to remain effective, constant adjustments to the treatment have to be made.
The problem is that while IBD patients swear by cannabis, nobody knows exactly why and how. No formal scientific study has been able to explain how cannabis can have an anti-inflammatory effect on irritated bowels. Until now.
Why gut inflammation occurs
The researchers treated mice with a chemical that causes damage to their gut lining, and this results to inflammation.
They found that inflammation in the gut is regulated by two processes: 1. the body’s immune response to microbiome found in the bowel, and 2. the molecules in the gut turning the inflammation on or off.
The first mechanism is necessary to kill the pathogens, but it can damage the lining of the gut. This lining is made up of a thin layer of epithelial cells that separate the body and the world of microbes in the gut. The second mechanism requires endocannabinoids.
But what if there aren’t enough endocannabinoids present in the body?
The researchers explained that our digestive system has neutrophils, a kind of white blood cells that penetrate through the epithelial lining and cross into the gut. Neutrophils kill the microbes in the gut.
However, balance has to be maintained in order to prevent too many neutrophils from getting into the gut and killing good microbes along with the bad ones. It is the endocannabinoids that keep this balance in check.
Without endocannabinoids to keep this balance, neutrophils not only kill the good microbes, but they also attack the gut itself. This, in turn, leads to inflammation.
Further studies are necessary
According to the study author Dr. Beth McCormick of the University of Massachusetts, for the first time, they now have an understanding of the molecules at work in the process and of how cannabinoids and endocannabinoids control inflammation.
Professor Randy Mrsny of the University of Bath clarified that while their finding is a plausible explanation as to why patients who use cannabis have reported relief from their IBD symptoms, they have only evaluated this in mice and have not established the same in humans.
The researchers hope that their findings will lead to the development of new bowel disease treatments for humans.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, still calls for further research on the matter.