Some research has indicated that the cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be cannabinoid deficiencies. In such cases, medical marijuana may become a revolutionary therapeutic alternative in IBS treatment.
People who struggle with IBS tend to have a wide range of symptoms, with severity ranging from mild cases to intense and life-altering. With this in mind, many are desperately seeking out help and looking to a fairly new form of IBS treatment; medical marijuana.
Compared to other health conditions, there’s been more research concerning cannabis and IBS. Even more so, there’s a good chunk of research concerning cannabis and specific IBS symptoms. That said, we have much more knowledge on whether or not medical marijuana is the right treatment for you.
Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deeper look at IBS and its symptoms. From there, we’ll be studying the research to see whether or not medical marijuana is an effective measure for this condition.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common medical condition that affects the gastrointestinal tract (stomach and intestines). Those diagnosed with the condition are likely to experience: ¹
Change in appearance and frequency of bowel movements
Due to these symptoms, a person with the condition may also experience:
Diarrhea at night
Iron deficiency anemia
Pain that’s not relieved by gas
As of now, researchers aren’t 100% sure as to the exact cause of IBS. However, there are a number of factors that likely play a role:
Early Life Stress – When stressful events occur in childhood, individuals become more susceptible to IBS. ²
Gut Microbe Changes – Microbes found in people with IBS may differ from people without IBS, likely caused by bacterial, fungal, and viral changes. ³
Muscle Contractions (in the Intestines) – In order to pass food through, our intestinal walls are lined with a contracting layer of muscle. In cases of diarrhea and bloating, these contractions are strong. In cases of hard, dry stool, these contractions are weak. ⁴
Nervous System – When the nerves in our digestive system are hindered, they may cause a number of problems that can result in IBS symptoms. ⁵
Severe Infection – Some people develop IBS after a bacterial or viral infection. ⁶
How is IBS Typically Treated?
Since we’re not 100% of the causes of IBS, traditional treatment revolves around reducing symptoms as much as possible.
In cases of mild symptoms, a change in diet and lifestyle is usually all that’s necessary. This tends to include avoiding foods that trigger symptoms, eating more fiber, drinking more water, and regularly exercising. ⁷
In cases of moderate to severe symptoms, the diet and lifestyle changes remain. However, a medical professional will also recommend other treatment measures. This is especially true in individuals who struggle with a comorbid illness that’s likely worsening their IBS, such as depression.
To properly treat IBS, you’ll likely be given: ⁸
On top of this, counseling may be recommended in order to ensure you’re properly incorporating diet and lifestyle changes.
Can You Use Cannabis for IBS?
Before we discuss marijuana and IBS, it’s important to understand the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
All human bodies have an ECS and it’s responsible for a number of aspects of our lives, including learning and memory, emotional processing, sleep, pain and inflammatory control. However, it’s important to note that the functions of the ECS aren’t 100% understood – therefore, we still have a lot to learn. ⁹
In order to properly function, the ECS consists of cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoid chemicals. Both of these are located all throughout the nervous systems (both central and peripheral).
With that said, a large number of these endocannabinoids and receptors are located in our digestive system. And this has led scientists to investigate whether or not they play a role in digestive-specific conditions, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Naturally, this led to research concerning cannabis and IBS. The first took place back in 2003 when Ethan B. Russo concluded that IBS (along with other health conditions) is likely caused by endocannabinoid deficiencies. ¹⁰
To further support this idea, Russo notes that IBS symptoms are often seen alongside other conditions caused by endocannabinoid deficiencies, such as fibromyalgia and migraines. ¹¹ Not to mention, research on animals has shown that endocannabinoids do have effects on the gut that can lead to IBS symptoms. ¹²
While more research is required to confirm these theories, if true, then cannabis would likely have a therapeutic effect on people with IBS. And the simple reason is cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant almost exactly replicate endocannabinoids. Therefore, they can act as temporary replacements.
Still, research actually concerning cannabis and IBS remains thin. Therefore, as of this time, we cannot come to any conclusions about the plant’s efficiency.
What Does the Research Say?
As of now, there have been two sets of research concerning cannabis and IBS. The first looks into medical marijuana which contains a high amount of the cannabinoid known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The other looks into another cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD).
In order to better understand the research, we’ve divided it as such:
In one study, cannabis was observed to affect acetylcholine and opioid receptors, leading patients to experience IBS relief. ¹¹
Another study suggested that diarrhea-predominate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS-D) and alternating IBS benefit more from Marinol (dronabinol) than medical marijuana itself. Marinol is another cannabinoid that’s often given to cancer patients. ¹²
With the lack of research – along with the psychotropic effects (high) – of medical marijuana, it’s only natural that most doctors don’t recommend cannabis for IBS treatment.
However, even still, the above-discussed evidence on cannabinoid deficiencies was enough for some legislatures. And in certain states where cannabis is medically legalized, IBS is found as a qualifying condition of a medical marijuana card.
One study shows that CBD holds the potential to relieve inflammatory bowel diseases, but admits that more research is necessary. ¹³
Another study found that CBD’s analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties may be applicable to IBS. ¹⁴
A 2020 review also supports the previous study, claiming that CBD’s ability to reduce chronic pain and inflammation may be able to help with digestive health conditions. ¹⁵
Since CBD is much more available than medical marijuana (at least in the United States), some IBS patients may automatically turn to it for relief. However, if you plan on taking this action, it’s highly recommended you speak to a doctor beforehand as CBD has been known to negatively interact with certain medications. ¹⁶
With the research we have, it appears very likely that cannabis will be able to help with IBS to some degree. However, since there’s such a limited amount of research, we cannot 100% come to this conclusion.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you think cannabis is helping or not. With that, some experimentation may be necessary. If you plan to test out marijuana’s (or CBD’s) potential, it’s always recommended you speak with your doctor beforehand.
¹⁰ Neuro Endocrinology Letters: Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) revisited: can this concept explain the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistant conditions? https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24977967/
¹¹ Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research: Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Reconsidered: Current Research Supports the Theory in Migraine, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel, and Other Treatment-Resistant Syndromes: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/can.2016.0009