When it comes to treating Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, we have substantial evidence that cannabis works. Thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, marijuana is able to reduce IBD symptoms, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloody stool, and weight and appetite loss.
Until now, we weren’t exactly sure why cannabis was so effective in treating chronic gut problems, but a new study from researchers at the University of Massachusetts and University of Bath were able to show the physical manner in which cannabis attacks IBD. The researchers who published the study, which came out in the Journal of Clinical Investigation Monday, weren’t initially looking for marijuana’s effect on the microbiome, but stumbled upon the answer.
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In the gut, a thin layer of epithelial cells mediates between our bodies and the microbial “zoo” living within. Beth McCormick of the University of Massachusetts has been studying the role these cells play in regulating the gut microbiome for well over a decade, and the starting point for this current research was her prior discovery of a chemical pathway by which epithelial cells help neutrophils, a kind of white blood cell, to cross into the gut and eat up some of the microbes. But that was clearly only half of the answer. In order to produce balance, something else had to stop too many neutrophils from getting in and killing peaceful microbes and even the gut itself—leading to IBD.
That “something else” that prevents too many neutrophils slipping through those epithelial cells and overworking your gut, as McCormick and researchers found in mice, is your endocannabinoid system. Think of the endocannabinoid system acting as a regulatory system for your gut. Not everyone produces enough cannabinoids to assist the gut in functioning properly, which helps explain why ingesting cannabinoids through cannabis has proven effective for patients.
“There’s been a lot of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of medical marijuana, but there hasn’t been a lot of science to back it up,” McCormick, who served as co-author of the study, told Newsweek.
“For the first time, we have an understanding of the molecules involved in the process and how endocannabinoids and cannabinoids control inflammation. This gives clinical researchers a new drug target to explore to treat patients that suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases, and perhaps other diseases, as well,” she said.
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It’s worth mentioning that researchers have not conducted studies on using marijuana-derived cannabinoids to replace those missing in humans with IBD. But the team behind the study believes this could open the door to helping the 1.6 million Americans with IBD. Randy Mrsny, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of Bath’s Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, told the Independent that “while this is a plausible explanation for why marijuana users have reported cannabis relieves symptoms of IBD, we have only worked in mice and have not proven this experimentally in humans.”
“However our results may provide a mechanistic explanation for anecdotal data that cannabinoid exposure benefits some colitis patients. For the first time we have identified a counterbalance to the inflammation response in the intestine and we hope that these findings will help us develop new ways to treat bowel diseases,” he added.