For decades (and likely longer), people around the world have used cannabis to settle their stomach. But while years of anecdotal evidence have turned Chron’s Disease, colitis, and other chronic inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) into qualifying conditions for medical marijuana in a number of states, scientific support for those claims has been lacking — until now.
Published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation on Monday, a new collaborative study from researchers at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Bath found that the endocannabinoid system is responsible for relieving pressure in the gut, and that cannabinoids derived from marijuana can help supplement that system if it isn’t functioning as it naturally should.
“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,” said Beth McCormick, vice chair and professor of microbiology and physiological systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a co-author of the study, to 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.”
In rodent test subjects, McCormick and her co-workers discovered that inflammation in the gut is kept in check by two bodily forces, both regulating each other to (theoretically) process the constant flow of bacteria moving through the gastrointestinal tract. While researchers previously recognized that white blood cells called neutrophils aggressively attack microbes in the intestinal tract, the body must ensure that neutrophils don’t move on from bacteria and begin destroying the gut itself by producing another another chemical to balance against them.
That’s where weed comes in. According to the recently published research, it’s the body’s endocannabinoid system that regulates neutrophils in the gut, making sure things move smoothly. If endocannabinoids are not being produced naturally, though, bowels become inflamed, and can become so damaged that surgery is required. According to McCormick, patients whose body does not produce proper amounts of endocannabinoids “were more likely to develop ulcerative colitis.”
Researchers have not yet conducted studies using plant-derived cannabinoids to replace those missing from the intestinal tract, and have still only executed research on mice, but if further studies are successful, the team is confident that their discovery could open doors for groundbreaking treatments of IBD.
“We need to be clear 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,” said Professor Randy Mrsny, of University of Bath’s Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology and co-author of the study, to the Independent. “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.”