You may have heard about cannabis being an effective treatment for certain digestive and gastrointestinal ailments. Some patients turn to medical pot to get relief from elimination problems such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation, as well as diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
This leads to the question: Does cannabis really treat digestive and gastrointestinal problems?
Gut and cannabis: A long history
Marijuana has a long documented history for treating gastrointestinal distress. In western medicine, the use of cannabis to treat gut and GI issues go back to more than a century. In eastern medicine, this goes back far longer.
The evidence supporting cannabis therapy for the treatment of GI diseases and disorders is strong. There is also extensive anecdotal evidence from people with Crohn’s disease, IBS, and GI-related pain that cannabis can ease cramping and can help modulate constipation, acid reflux, and diarrhea.
However, it should be noted that clinical studies on the matter have been largely limited to nausea suppression and appetite stimulation.
The healthy gut
The gut is home to a large population of microbiome, which includes trillions of microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, protozoa, archaea, and eukaryotic parasites.
This microbiome is essential to gut health as it stimulates the immune system. It also breaks down potentially toxic food compounds. Moreover, it synthesizes certain amino acids and vitamins, including vitamin K and the B vitamins.
The microbiome is responsible for releasing neurotransmitters that communicate with the neurons of the brain.
The connection between the gut, the brain, and the immune system
The gut is said to have roughly the same number of neurons as the brain have, and these two are in constant communication with each other. However, another party is involved in the gut-brain relationship: the immune system.
Both the gut and the brain also communicate with the immune system. Together, these three coordinate in order to promote healthy gut function. This includes proper digestion, absorption of nutrients, elimination, and going on alert and attack mode.
The three-way communication between the brain, the gut, and the immune system is rather complex and it is mediated almost entirely through the endocannabinoid system.
It’s inflammation’s fault
A majority of chronic gut problems are caused by inflammation, which results from a communication problem between the brain, the gut, and the immune system.
Gut issues like colitis, irritable bowel, and Crohn’s disease are all characterized by uncontrollable inflammation. This means that the immune system is not functioning as it should and is continuously attacking the gut and causing it damage.
This damage to the gut leads to a range of symptoms, including bowel irregularities, hypersensitivity, food allergies, reduced appetite, low energy, digestive discomfort, and visceral pain.
The gut and the endocannabinoid system
The endocannabinoid system is composed of cell receptor sites that are found throughout the body. These receptor sites especially abound in the central nervous system and the immune system.
Recent lab research also discovered an abundance of these receptors on cells in the digestive system, especially in the large and small intestines.
What cannabis can do to treat gut issues
Cannabis has a role to play in digestive health.
Cannabis contains many active chemical compounds called cannabinoids, which include cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Research suggests that marijuana is effective in treating symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders because its chemical compounds interact with the endocannabinoid receptors found in the digestive tract. This, in turn, improves motility, calms spasms, and assuages pain.
Cannabinoids, especially THC and CBD, also possess potent anti-inflammatory properties. Research has found that these cannabinoids help modulate the immune system, enhancing or suppressing its immune response — whichever is necessary.
Cannabis is attractive for digestive or GI treatment because the drug can address a number of symptoms with minimal side effects. The cannabinoids alter how the gut is doing and they can affect the signals that the brain sends to the gut and vice versa, thus modulating the actions of the gastrointestinal tract itself.