The effectiveness of cannabis for treating symptoms related to gastrointestinal disorders is widely recognized. Its value as an anti-emetic and analgesic has been proven in numerous studies and has been acknowledged by several comprehensive, government-sponsored reviews , including those conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the U.K. House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, the Australian National Task Force on Cannabis, and others. The IOM concluded, “For patients . . . who suffer simultaneously from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss, cannabinoid drugs might offer broad-spectrum relief not found in any other single medication.”
The most common gastrointestinal disorders-Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease-affect millions of people. The disorders are different, but each causes a great deal of discomfort and distress and both can be disabling. Painful cramping, chronic diarrhea or constipation, nausea, and inflammation of the intestines are all symptoms of these GI disorders that can be alleviated by cannabis.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder of the intestines that leads to stomach pain, gassiness, bloating, constipation, diarrhea or both. Chronic, painful abdominal cramping is common. The cause of IBS is not known, and there is no cure. Researchers have found that the colon muscle of a person with IBS begins to spasm after only mild stimulation. IBS is at least partly a disorder affecting colon motility and sensation.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) refers to both Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease. Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation of the lining of the large intestine, while Crohn’s disease causes inflammation of the lining and wall of the large and/or small intestine. The causes of IBD are not known, but there are indications that the disease has a genetic component. The immune system changes that accompany IBD suggest that it may be an immune disorder.
The most common symptoms of Crohn’s Disease are pain in the abdomen, diarrhea, and weight loss. There may also be rectal bleeding and fever. The most common complications of Crohn’s Disease are blockage of the intestine and ulceration that breaks through into surrounding tissues. Surgery is sometimes required.
The symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and rectal bleeding. Some people may be very tired and have weight loss, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, and loss of body fluids and nutrients. Joint pain, liver problems, and redness and swelling of the eyes can also occur. Hospitalization and surgery are sometimes needed.
Research on cannabis and GI disorders
Research suggests that cannabis is effective in treating the symptoms of these GI disorders in part because it interacts with the endogenous cannabinoid receptors in the digestive tract, which can result in calming spasms, assuaging pain, and improving motility. Cannabis has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and recent research has demonstrated that cannabinoids are immune system modulators, either enhancing or suppressing immune response.
Cannabis has a long documented history of use in treating GI distress, going back more than a century in western medicine, and far longer in the east. While clinical studies on the use of cannabis for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders have been largely limited to investigations on nausea suppression and appetite stimulation—two conditions for which cannabis has been consistently shown to be highly effective — the evidence in support of cannabis therapy for other gastrointestinal diseases and disorders is also strong. There is now extensive anecdotal evidence from patients with IBS, Crohn’s disease and other painful GI disorders that cannabis eases cramping and helps modulate diarrhea, constipation and acid reflux. Recent laboratory research on the endogenous cannabinoid system in humans has identified that there are many cannabinoid receptors located in both the large and small intestines.
Cannabis and new cannabinoid drugs are attractive for GI treatment because they can address a number of symptoms at once with minimal side effects. Cannabinoids alter how the gut feels, affect the signals the brain sends back and forth to the gut and modulate the actions of the GI tract itself.
Beginning in the 1970s, a series of human clinical trials established cannabis’ ability to stimulate food intake and weight gain in healthy volunteers. In a randomized trial, THC significantly improved appetite and nausea in comparison with placebo. There were also trends towards improved mood and weight gain. Unwanted effects were generally mild or moderate in intensity. Cannabis helps combat the painful and often debilitating cramping that accompanies many GI disorders because cannabinoids relax contractions of the smooth muscle of the intestines. In fact, smooth-muscle relaxant properties of cannabinoids are so well established that preparations of guinea-pig intestine are routinely used as an in vitro screening tool to test the potency and function of synthetic cannabinoids.
Research on a variety of rodents has shown that endogenous cannabinoids play crucial neuromodulatory roles in controlling the operation of the gastrointestinal system, with synthetic and natural cannabinoids acting powerfully to control gastrointestinal motility and inflammation. Cannabinoid receptors comprise G-protein coupled receptors that are predominantly in enteric and central neurones (CB1R) and immune cells (CB2R). The digestive tract contains endogenous cannabinoids (anandamide and 2-arachidonylglycerol) and cannabinoid CB1 receptors can be found on myenteric and submucosal nerves. Activating cannabinoid receptors has been demonstrated to inhibit gastrointestinal fluid secretion and inflammation in animal models.
In the last decade, evidence obtained from the use of selective agonists and inverse agonists/antagonists indicates that manipulation of CB1R can have significant results. Research has also shown that in the case of intestinal inflammation, the body will increase the number of cannabinoid receptors in the area in an attempt to regulate the inflammation by processing more cannabinoids.
Cannabinoids have a demonstrated ability to block spinal, peripheral and gastrointestinal mechanisms that promote pain in IBS and related disorders. Animal research also indicates that cannabinoids work well in controlling gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition in which gastric acids attack the esophagus and for which commonly prescribed medications, such as atropine, have serious adverse side effects.
From this evidence, many researchers have concluded that pharmacological modulation of the endogenous cannabinoid system provides new treatment options for a number of gastrointestinal diseases, including nausea and vomiting, gastric ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, secretory diarrhea, paralytic ileus and gastroesophageal reflux disease. The experience of patients with these GI disorders shows that for broad-spectrum relief, cannabis is highly effective and frequently helps when other treatment options prove ineffective.
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