Lakewood Medical Clinic is Permanently Closed

Medical Marijuana and Inflammatory Bowel Disease

June 27, 2019 • Lakewood Medical • Crohn’s Disease

A growing number of patients are exploring medical marijuana as an effective alternative treatment for common IBD symptoms.  Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is an umbrella term for any disease characterized by chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract. Patients with IBD are often diagnosed before the age of 30 and may need to try a number of treatments on a lifelong journey to ease their symptoms.   Many of these patients do have results with traditional IBD medications, but for some, relieving symptoms is an ongoing struggle of trial and error as they attempt to find the right combination of treatments. This has led a growing number of IBD patients to seek alternative options, like medical marijuana, in hopes of finding relief. 

The Basics of IBD

IBD is an umbrella term that covers conditions that cause chronic inflammation to the intestine, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. While they have a lot in common, there are distinct differences between the two. Crohn’s disease can impact any part of the gastrointestinal tract (GI), but primarily affects the small intestine. Colitis is restricted to the large intestine (colon) and rectum. Combined, they impact 1.6 million people in the US.  The intestines have evolved to help us digest food, absorb nutrients, and expel waste, but these everyday functions are jeopardized in patients with Crohn’s or colitis. As a result, they often experience frequent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, persistent vomiting, abdominal pain, cramps, sudden weight loss, and low energy.  The exact cause of IBD is currently a mystery to medical professionals, but many believe a combination of genetics and environmental factors can lead to a poorly functioning immune system. A properly functioning immune system should protect the body from viruses and bacteria. But in IBD patients, the immune system mistakes any material in the intestines, including good bacteria and food, as a threat — and the intestines become inflamed as a result. This response is a normal, temporary bodily reaction when harmful objects are in the intestine. But for IBD patients, it can cause chronic periods of undue inflammation, ulcers, and the thickening of the intestinal wall. 

IBD Treatment Methods

While a cure has yet to be discovered for IBD patients, some can achieve a state of remission in which symptoms are non-existent. Patients may use a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and therapies to manage symptoms and achieve this remissive state. Some of the most common treatment methods include: 
  • Dietary Changes: An extended period of inflammation is known as an IBD “flare up.” It’s critical for patients during this time to be especially mindful of their diet. Foods containing high levels of insoluble fiber, lactose, sugar, fat, or spices can make symptoms dramatically worse.
  • Corticosteroids: These steroids reduce inflammation of the GI tract. While they are fast acting and effective, patients are recommended to use them sparingly. Corticosteroids often come with a slew of side effects, including high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and insomnia.
  • Antibiotics: IBD patients use antibiotics to manipulate bacteria within the GI that could trigger an inflammatory response.
  • Surgery: Some IBD patients will need to undergo surgery due to disease-related damage to their GI. Others may proactively choose it as a way to manage persistent symptoms. Either way, there are a number of surgical options, including the creation of ileal pouches and ostomies, that alleviate pressure on the GI for IBD patients. 

The Role of Medical Marijuana

While studies surrounding medical marijuana and IBD are somewhat limited in scope, the body of research is growing substantially. Several have found a positive correlation between cannabidiol (CBD) and its ability to have anti-inflammatory, anti-motility, and pain-relieving effects for IBD patients.  All humans naturally produce endocannabinoids (molecular receptors) that have striking similarities to CBD. These endocannabinoids are responsible for helping the body control inflammation and appear to be lacking in IBD patients. Researchers are starting to believe that modulating the body’s endocannabinoid system through the use of CBD could help prevent inflammation, thus alleviating many of the painful symptoms IBD patients experience. CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties have been examined across the globe. Israeli researchers asked a group of 30 Crohn’s patients currently taking prescription IBD medication to describe the severity of their disease-related symptoms before and after integrating cannabis into their treatment routine. According to the study, 70% of patients saw a decrease in symptoms with the use of cannabis. Some were even able to eliminate the use of prescription medications altogether.  Additional research also shows potential. One study provided 13 IBD patients with 50g of cannabis to smoke over a three month period. The group was then evaluated using the Harvey-Bradshaw index, a scoring system that gauges Crohn’s symptoms. The results were impressive — participants’ average score of 11.36 dropped to 2.68. Many reported feeling lower levels of pain and depression, improved social functioning and work capabilities, and slight weight gain. 

Next Steps for IBD Patients

Ohio legislators have approved the use of medical cannabis for IBD, potentially offering relief for thousands of suffering patients. While there is more research needed to pinpoint exactly how marijuana works in relation to intestinal inflammation, roughly 15-20% of patients in the US and canada currently rely on cannabis to manage persistent abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea associated with IBD.  If you’re curious about whether medical marijuana might relieve your IBD symptoms, please schedule an appointment with Lakewood Medical Clinic. We can examine your medical history and help you understand if cannabis could be an appropriate and effective addition to your treatment program.