Marijuana and Gastrointestinal Disorders

Gastrointestinal disorders represent a group of conditions which affect the gastrointestinal tract, namely the bowels. This includes conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, constipation, and Crohn’s disease (CD). Gastrointestinal disorders have a variety of different causes and may manifest a variety of different symptoms such as pain, inflammation, and cramping.

Gastrointestinal disorders can be treated by various means depending on the specific problem. One therapy that has received some attention over the past several years has been the cannabinoids found in marijuana.

The Gastrointestinal Tract and Endocannabinoids

The human body produces its own endocannabinoids and comes with its own cannabinoid receptors, which is why human beings react to marijuana the way they do. Our bodies actively transport and use both the psychosomatic and non-psychosomatic marijuana chemicals because they are, quite simply, made to do so.

Several studies and reviews have been done which suggest a link between the endocannabinoid system and the gastrointestinal tract. An early 2004 study suggested that cannabinoid receptors in the colon could play an important role in healing and protecting gastrointestinal tissue.

This was followed up by both a 2005 study and a 2006 study, both of which also found that the endocannabinoid system offered an attractive therapeutic option for patients with gastrointestinal problems. Researchers wrote that activating this system with cannabinoids such as those found in marijuana could have anti-inflammatory effects. 

Early Research with Animals

Even earlier, in 2001, a review of all the literature available at that time found that cannabinoids had a profound effect on the gastrointestinal system of animals. THC, the most abundant chemical in the cannabis plant, was found to inhibit contractions in small intestine tissue and to inhibit acetylcholine release. This is significant because high levels of acetylcholine contribute to many of the symptoms experienced by those suffering from gastrointestinal disorders. 

Self-reported Marijuana Use among Patients

Since marijuana has long been used to relieve the pain caused by a variety of conditions, it should come as no surprise that patients with inflammatory bowel disease have also sought it out as a therapeutic option.

A 2011 study, which conducted a survey of 191 patients with CD and 100 patients with ulcerative colitis, concluded that therapeutic cannabinoids warranted further study. Researchers found that cannabis use for symptom relief was common among the patients they surveyed. 

Studies with Humans

The above findings spurred clinical research in an effort to find out if marijuana really was a useful therapeutic tool for gastrointestinal disorders. A 2011 study that looked at treating CD with marijuana found that it did indeed have a positive effect. Of the 30 patients studied, 21 of them “improved significantly” and reduced their need for other medications.

A follow up study, which also included a placebo control group, was carried out in 2013. Once again, researchers found that “THC-rich cannabis” produced significant benefit for the majority of the patients that the study was following. Best of all, the benefit was enjoyed with no negative side-effects and with no need for steroidal medications.