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The Benefits of Medical Marijuana for Patients with Ulcerative Colitis

October 22, 2019 • • Crohn’s DiseaseMedical Marijuana

The Benefits of Medical Marijuana for Patients with Ulcerative Colitis

For many patients with intestinal disorders, medical marijuana may be an effective treatment. Here is what patients with ulcerative colitis need to know.  Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) covers two disorders of the intestinal tract: Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis (UC). Though both conditions share many of the same symptoms, ulcerative colitis attacks the rectum and colon, while Crohn’s Disease affects the last part of the small intestine as well as the colon. Currently, some 1.6 Americans suffer from IBD, with around 907,000 of those suffering from ulcerative colitis.  UC stems from a malfunction of the body’s immune system. Normally, the immune system flushes out bacteria, food, or harmful substances in the intestine. When the immune system cannot recognize those agents and rid them from the intestine, the body produces an excess of white blood cells, which attach to the intestinal lining. This overload of white blood cells irritates the intestine, which ultimately causes ulcerations and chronic inflammation of the colon and rectal lining. Symptoms of UC range from abdominal cramps, bloody stools, diarrhea, fecal urgency, weight loss due to low appetite, extreme fatigue, and sometimes an inability to defecate. UC may go into remission for months at a time. Unfortunately, UC is a lifelong condition that interrupts a patient’s quality of life when symptoms flare up.

Standard Treatment Options for UC

Steroids and anti-inflammatory medications currently serve as the standard therapy for UC. They are typically administered by IV, orally, or through the rectum. However, each has side effects.  For example, steroids may cause osteoporosis, cataracts, lower immunity to infections, elevated blood pressure, and weight gain. Therefore, extended treatment with steroids is not recommended. Aminosalicylates, an anti-inflammatory class of drugs, relieve UC symptoms by calming an inflamed colon lining. Most UC patients report no side effects from aminosalicylates, but the medications may cause rashes and nausea. Another class of drugs, immunomodulators, also treats UC when ingested in pill form. These medications take longer to take effect, and patients may not achieve symptom relief for several months. Therefore, immunomodulators are typically used in combination with another therapy. Patients on immunomodulators require frequent blood tests, and side effects range from low white-blood cell counts, rash, nausea, and pancreatitis, to liver abnormalities. If those treatments fail or patients cannot tolerate the side effects, surgery to remove the large intestine may be an option.

Research on Medical Marijuana and UC

In recent years, medical researchers have conducted studies to determine whether medical marijuana can successfully treat the symptoms or possibly help in the remission of UC. So far, the studies show mixed results and have not been done on a large enough scale to reach a definitive conclusion. A 2011 study of 100 UC patients and 191 patients with Crohn’s Disease found a majority used cannabis to relieve symptoms of IBD. Usage was higher among those who had had abdominal surgery, chronic pain, or a low score on quality of life indexes. Similarly, in 2012, a study published in Digestion concluded IBD sufferers improved their quality of life overall with marijuana. It also helped them gain weight by stimulating their appetite. Marijuana potentially relieves the symptoms of UC by acting on the cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, which are scattered along the body’s nervous system, including the lining of the intestine. When activated, these receptors counter intestinal inflammation. However, a meta-study of research on marijuana’s effect on patients with active UC concluded that while sufferers reported better overall quality of life, cannabis did not impact remission rates or the maintenance of remission in any significant way.  Taken together, these studies support the effectiveness of marijuana in relieving the symptoms of UC. However, cannabis will likely not put a UC patient into remission or maintain remission. Potentially the best use of medical marijuana is as a supplement to other UC treatments. 

What UC Patients Can Do

Ohio has approved medical marijuana as a therapy for UC and IBD. If you are curious whether your UC symptoms can be alleviated with medical cannabis, the specialists at Lakewood Medical Clinic can discuss treatment options with you. Contact us today for an appointment.