Can Cannabis Heal Your Gut?

Does Cannabis Affect Gut Health?

Does cannabis affect gut health

About 1 in 5 Americans suffer from gastrointestinal diseases. Could cannabis be the answer? 

Many people turn to cannabis to treat a number of gut-related problems. There is abundant research and anecdotal evidence suggesting it can relieve nausea, spark appetite, and even prevent abdominal pain and vomiting. 

This relationship has led researchers to question: Does cannabis affect gut health? Is it a helpful tool or a harmful habit? And, what is the relationship between our endocannabinoid system, cannabis, and gut microbiome? 

Let’s start with your gut

The gut, short for gastrointestinal tract, is a pathway from your mouth to your rear. Trillions of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms live throughout it, collectively known as the gut microbiota. From the moment we’re born to the moment we pass, our gut microbiota lives in harmony – and sometimes disharmony – with us. 

As we grow and experience new environments, we introduce new microbes into our gut. This ecosystem changes based on age, diet, intake of supplements, antibiotics, etc. 

The relationship between us and our gut microbiome is one of the truest symbiotic relationships in nature. We provide the bacteria with a place to stay and a constant source of nutrition. In return, the bacteria help our brain and body function optimally, from synthesizing essential vitamins to strengthening our gut barrier and our immune system. Some theories suggest humans would not have evolved to our cognitive ability had it not been for gut bacteria. 

Needless to say, these microscopic critters play a vital role in how we live. When our gut microbiota is balanced, we feel balanced. And when it’s not, we feel that too. An imbalanced gut microbiome has been linked to numerous gastrointestinal disorders, neurological disorders, anxiety, depression, and obesity. 

The influence of the gut microbiota goes beyond the gastrointestinal tract, too. Have you ever had a ‘gut feeling’ about something? It’s not a coincidence – our bodies have a communication network that connects the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis. It’s why stress can severely impact our appetite and why certain foods induce mood changes by altering the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. 

The Guts & The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

Like the gut-brain axis, there is also evidence that supports the existence of the gut-endocannabinoid axis. Research suggests that the ECS acts as a bridge between bacteria and the body itself (including the brain), relaying signals back and forth. 

A meta-analysis from 2016 confirmed that endocannabinoid receptors in the gut help regulate functions such as motility – the movement of food through the digestive system – and immunological response. 

This means when our endocannabinoid system is out of balance, it can affect our gut microbiome, and vice versa. One 2020 animal study even found that dysbiotic gut flora threw the endocannabinoid system out of balance, triggering depressive behaviors in mice.

So, why is this important when it comes to cannabis use?

When we consume cannabis, its molecules (like THC and CBD) bind to our body’s natural endocannabinoids. Because our ECS system connects nearly every part of our body, the plant molecules are carried and felt all over. It’s why we feel “high,” and reap the plant’s various healing properties like reduced inflammation, less anxiety, and improved sleep.

In other words, cannabis interferes with our body’s natural mechanism for maintaining homeostasis. In some ways, this is what makes it so beneficial for people suffering from ailments like insomnia or chronic stress. But, what does it mean for our gut, which relies on our ECS being stable to maintain its own homeostasis? 

Understanding this unique relationship is key to unlocking the potential therapeutic treatment for gut disorders, which plague so many of us today. 

Potential Benefits

Groundbreaking research has shown that we can impact our gut microbiome through not only diet and exercise but also the consumption of cannabis, all via the common path of the ECS. 

Because of the gut’s influence on the entire body, this means that cannabis may be a key treatment for helping disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, obesity, and multiple sclerosis (MS). 

Studies with mice show THC can restore imbalanced gut flora by increasing the number of bacteria in the gut that controls fat storage and metabolism. This research may also provide insight into why stoners have lower rates of obesity than non-smoking populations. 

More research on animal models shows cannabinoids to be an effective treatment against the inflammatory processes that underlie multiple sclerosis, a disease where the gut microbiome plays a significant role in both its progression and severity. 

Scientists have also measured changes in the gut microbiome after THC and CBD treatments. Specifically, this combination increased levels of short-chain fatty acids, which act as an anti-inflammatory in the body. These fatty acids are critical in regulating our inflammatory response and preventing autoimmune diseases. It is important to note that THC alone and CBD alone were ineffective in treating these symptoms. 

Potential Risks

Nothing is without its risks. While there have been promising studies on cannabis and gut health, its known effects are limited, so many questions are left unanswered. 

One of the biggest obstacles is and has been the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug by the federal government. This classification has inhibited research on cannabis and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as other medical conditions. 

With that being said, it’s hard to assess the true risks without fully understanding the relationship between the two. However, medical professionals warn that cannabis can interfere with other medications. So, if you are taking any medication for gut-related problems, always notify your doctor of your cannabis use. 

It’s also important to note that cannabis use is more likely to cause problems with certain populations, like those pregnant or breastfeeding, those with significant psychiatric disorders, or those with a history of substance abuse. 

In rare cases, daily cannabis use can also cause cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), which is characterized by recurrent nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Experts are still trying to learn exactly how it causes CHS in some people, but it is believed to be caused by constant interference with how the endocannabinoid system and the gut communicate. 

Lastly, experts advise cannabis to be used as an add-on treatment for GI disorders, not as a pharmaceutical intervention replacement. Cannabis can provide temporary relief, but this false sense of feeling better doesn’t always mean the condition is improving. In some cases, discontinuing medical treatment may lead to disease progression. 

So, helpful or harmful? 

In short, it depends. 

Does cannabis affect gut health? Yes. But to what degree, we aren’t totally sure of yet. Preliminary research shows potential benefits for healing our gut microbiome and alleviating the painful symptoms that come from gastrointestinal diseases.

On the other hand, research also suggests daily use can be potentially harmful in some cases. As with any treatment, it’s best to discuss it with your doctor beforehand. 

With time, we hope that our understanding of the gut and how cannabis affects gut health will be better understood. 

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