You might be surprised to find out that approximately 1.6 million Americans are currently suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), with as many as 70,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. You also might be surprised to find that using cannabis could contribute to having healthier gut bacteria.
Treatments for IBD range from changes in lifestyle like diet and exercise and pharmaceuticals, but these methods often require constant adjustment to remain effective. In researchers’ attempts to better understand IBD, some have found evidence to support patients’ experiences using medical marijuana to treat these conditions.
The Role of the Endocannabinoid System in Your Gut
We all learned about the nervous system, the digestive system, and the like in our high school biology classes. But what we didn’t learn about in school is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). The endocannabinoid system is responsible for many key functions including eating, sleeping, and handling stress.
Our bodies naturally produce endocannabinoids, which are like the cannabinoids produced by cannabis. Sometimes, our bodies don’t produce enough of these endocannabinoids (called “endocannabinoid deficiency”), which researchers are learning could play a major role in many chronic conditions, including gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel disorders (IBDs).
Right now, more research is needed to fully understand how the gut microbiome and the endocannabinoid system are connected, but the link between the two is clearly there. It is posited that a deficiency of endocannabinoids can cause inflammation in the gut, which can lead to other problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s. An inflamed gut can cause further dysfunction with the immune system. Many autoimmune disorders could be associated with an out-of-balance gut microbiome and endocannabinoid deficiency.
Studies Back Up Patient Stories of Cannabis Benefits in IBD and More
It was back in 2010 that a Belgian research team discovered the link between microbiota and the endocannabinoid system. They found that altering the gut microbiome of obese mice through prebiotics (foods that promote growth of good bacteria in the gut) altered ECS expression in fat tissues.
In 2015, a Canadian team of researchers conducted a study where they administered a daily dose of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) or placebo to mice who received either a lean or high fat diet for a period of six weeks. They found that mice being dosed with THC, even the ones being fed a high fat diet, had improved microbiome health after three to four weeks.
Our gut bacteria are essential to more than just keeping our weight maintained and breaking down the food we eat. These bacteria also regulate the epithelial barrier, a protective layer that lines the interior of the GI tract. The ECS, specifically CB1 receptors, plays a major role in this according to a 2012 study.
“The epithelial barrier is very crucial to maintaining what we call homeostasis, or the normal body’s functions,” University of Calgary professor and researcher Keith Sharkey said. “The control of that fine lining is extremely carefully managed by the body. We have developed as mammals this very intricate control system, which prevents damage or quickly repairs damage, to prevent further erosion of our bodies. The bacteria we have in our gut contributes to that system. And it seems that the ECS is a very important control element.”
Even more surprising, mice on a high fat diet who were dosed with THC gained no weight, while mice on a high fat diet and placebo gained up to 4 grams on average, or an increase of 20% of their body mass.
Cannabis Works with Gut Bacteria to Regulate Your GI Tract
Right now, we know that the ECS affects the digestive system in a few different ways for sure. It helps to regulate digestion, moderate inflammation, and helps communicate between your gut and your brain. Specifically, cannabis seems to help with inflammation within the GI tract as it does with any other part of the body. The gastrointestinal tract also contains a high concentration of cannabinoid receptors.
Studies with mice have found that a skewed ratio of gut bacteria could be restored with the use of THC, which has demonstrated an ability to increase the abundance of a bacteria that controls fat storage and metabolism. A 2018 study found that cannabis use was associated with decreased abundance of two strains of bacteria that have been linked to obesity.
Another study in 2017 found that cannabis users possessed bacteria populations associated with higher caloric intake but a lower overall BMI out of 19 cannabis users and 20 non cannabis users. Alongside THC, cannabidiol (CBD) could also be useful as an anti-inflammatory and for the relief of severe IBS due to its action on serotonin receptors and opioid receptors, on top of its anti-anxiety properties.
The truth is that a lot of research is still needed to fully understand how cannabis interacts with our gut bacteria. But the evidence shows that the endocannabinoid system plays an integral part in the efficiency of the GI tract as it does with almost every other major bodily function. Having a healthy gut is associated with better mood, improved sleep, and a stronger heart, brain and immune system.
If you suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, or any other GI tract condition you may be able to find relief with medical marijuana treatment. Leafwell can help you get in touch with a licensed physician in your state to discuss your options.