“I was told that I had IBS a number of years ago and that I had to stay away from all different kinds of foods," begins Mara Gordon, co-founder of Aunt Zelda’s.
Aunt Zelda’s is a medical cannabis brand and compassion center that works with thousands of patients each year.
With the Aunt Zelda's team, Gordon works with patients to optimize their medical cannabis treatments most effectively for their given health conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disease (IBD).
She explains her approach and experience in a Green Flower video on using cannabis for IBS and Crohn's.
"I was told that I had to do all sorts of crazy things, they were trying to put me on all kinds of pharmaceuticals," she says.
Now, after managing IBS for a number of years, Gordon sticks to a healthy but unlimited diet and supplements with medical cannabis.
“I am able to eat raw more and I am able to eat things without all of the side effects and I directly believe that cannabis is, in fact, responsible for that.”
Science is finally starting to catch up with Gordon's experience.
While research is in its early and experimental phases, there is a slowly growing body of scientific evidence to support her anecdote.
Overall, however, it is important to note that it is still too early to determine exactly whether cannabis helps IBS and IBD and no high-quality clinical trials have been conducted.
However, there may be a few good reasons why so many patients seek relief from the herb.
Here are the top five:
Cramping, bloating, pain, and pressure are all too familiar to patients with IBS and IBD.
While both conditions can be immensely painful and uncomfortable, those with inflammatory bowel disease tend to be most affected by the debilitating nature of extreme digestive distress.
It is often recommended for patients to take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs or mild pain relievers to temporarily ease symptoms, but many of these medicines can also irritate the digestive system in the long-haul.
One reason why researchers are interested in evaluating cannabis for IBD and IBS is due to its potential ability to ease intestinal pain.
In fact, the herb’s pain-fighting properties are why many patients are already drawn to the plant.
In a survey of 291 patients with inflammatory bowel disease, patients who used cannabis reported that they relied on the herb for symptom relief. Especially, they reported relief from abdominal pain.
The survey was published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Patients had either ulcerative colitis or Crohn's Disease.
In experimental studies, scientists have also found that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is involved in managing sensations of visceral pain.
Visceral pain is pain that emanates from the internal bodily organs, triggering the brain that something is awry.
Cannabis compounds engage the ECS, which is the messaging network that spreads distress calls via visceral pain. Theory has it, cannabis medicines may ease these unpleasant sensations by calming this endocannabinoid system.
If the names are any indication, chronic inflammation is a root problem in both inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
Interestingly enough, the unique anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis make the herb a promising candidate for easing intestinal distress.
In a study published by the British Journal of Pharmacology back in 2010, researchers found that THC, the compound that causes the famous cannabis “high”, successfully reduced inflammation and damage in rodent models of IBD.
Similarly, cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating compound more famous for treating epilepsy, also reduced inflammation and seemed to protect intestinal nerves from damage. However, the best results were achieved when the two compounds were combined together.
Perhaps even more astounding, it may not always be necessary to smoke or vaporize cannabis to experience anti-inflammatory effects.
A recent yet highly experimental study published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research in 2017 discovered that a raw cannabis compound, THCA, seemed to be the most effective at easing inflammation in intestinal tissue.
THCA is found in fresh cannabis flower before it has been dried or heated.
However, it’s important to note that this research was conducted in cells cultured outside of the body.
While this research is interesting, it is too early to tell what impact THCA may have on IBD or IBS.
Get ready to slow down. Chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract can cause food to make a fast exit in both IBS and IBD.
How quickly food moves through the digestive system is referred to as motility.
When things move a little too fast, scientists refer to the phenomenon as hypermotility. The more common name for hypermotility? Diarrhea.
Both laboratory and animal research has found that several different cannabis compounds may slow motility in experimental models of inflammatory bowel disease.
For example, research published by the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2008 discovered that the activation of cannabinoid 1 and cannabinoid 2 receptors in the digestive tract seemed to reduce hypermotility caused by gut inflammation.
Cannabinoid receptors 1 and 2 can be thought of as landing sites for cannabis compounds. These receptors sit on the surface of cells and they are triggered into action by phytochemicals in the cannabis plant.
Additional research found that a certain cannabis compound cannabinol (CBN) successfully slowed motility in mice that were given croton oil to mimic the symptoms of IBD. CBN is a cannabinoid that is commonly found in dried cannabis flower, as the psychoactive compound THC begins to age.
The results of this study were published in the British Journal of Pharmacology back in 2001.
Amazingly, early rodent research has found that CBN, CBD, and cannabichromene (CBC) seem to slow motility when the intestinal tract is inflamed but has little effect on motility under healthy conditions.
4. Nutrient absorption
Problems with the gastrointestinal tract can have major effects on overall health. The GI tract is the primary location where nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.
Chronic inflammation and damage to the intestine can contribute to a very real risk of malnutrition, leading to a cascade of health problems as a result.
While research is still in its experimental stages, British scholars discovered that treating intestinal cells with cannabis compounds successfully reduced inflammation.
Reducing inflammation, explains the 2012 study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, makes intestinal cells more permeable.
The permeable nature of intestinal cells is critical for the body’s ability to absorb life-sustaining nutrients.
Ultimately, this early experiment led the authors to conclude that “phytocannabinoids have therapeutic potential for reversing the disordered intestinal permeability associated with inflammation.”
While testing a few cells in some Petri dishes is a far cry from a large-scale human trial, these small discoveries are the first steps in determining just whether or not medical cannabis for IBS and IBD is worth all the hype.
5. Potential remission
A study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology back in 2013 made waves among Crohn’s Disease patients desperate for relief.
While the study was very small, only 21 participants, researchers at the Meir Medical Center and Sackler Faculty of Medicine in Tel Aviv found that medicinal cannabis successfully inspired complete remission in five of the 11 individuals who received the herb.
Those who were given cannabis consumed approximately 115 milligrams of THC via a smoked herbal cigarette.
10 of the 11 patients given THC over the course of eight weeks experienced some level of symptom reduction.
To Gordon, the results of this study perhaps may not seem so surprising. At Aunt Zelda’s many medical cannabis patients seek out the plant in an attempt to find a way to keep symptoms at bay for long periods of time.
“Whether cannabis will cure IBS or Crohn’s Disease is an interesting question that I am often, often asked,” says Gordon.
“I will say that it will put it into remission,” she explains. “I don’t ever use the word ‘cure’ in association with disease because of the way that the body works.”
“It’s one thing if you had a cold and they figure out something you can take and you will never have that particular germ that caused the cold again, that’s different than treating a systemic disease within your body.”
The above study, however, has also received some criticism.
While it isn’t the only study that has found cannabis effective in easing the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, the authors of a 2016 review published in Gastroenterology and Hepatology argue that larger and more carefully controlled studies are needed in order to determine whether or not cannabis medicines effectively treat irritable bowel disease.
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