Can CBD improve gut health?
Michael is a 15 year old high school student who came to my office with his parents. When he was just four Michael had a "nervous tummy." For years doctors thought he was lactose and gluten intolerant. He was fatigued and his body ached constantly. He was embarrassed because his constant diarrhea and constipation forced him to plan his life around the restroom. After batteries of endoscopies and colonoscopies he was finally diagnosed with Colitis. In the next few years Michael tried every medication; anti-inflammatory, steroids, anti-diarrhea, pain meds and antibiotics.
Nothing stopped his deep, penetrating stomach cramps and bleeding colon. After all conventional therapies failed, his gastroenterologist recommended a bowel resection — removal of his colon. Michael was so frustrated; he began searching online for help. He came across thousands of websites where patients talked about how they cured Colitis or managed their symptoms by smoking pot. Some of these patients had detailed instructions on growing marijuana, lists of recommended varieties and dispensaries or recipes for pot- brownies. The sources of information and mis-information were endless.
Three months ago Michael admitted to his parents that smoking cannabis helped him tremendously with the pain and cramping. Before cannabis, he would wake up five times a night, sitting on the toilet with searing cramps, trying not to wake his parents in the room next door. After only a month of cannabis use he started sleeping through the night and he noticed that the blood and mucus in his stools lessened significantly. His parents realized that Michael was going to use cannabis with or without their consent, which is when they appeared in my office in search of medical guidance.
I see a lot of Michaels in my practice. According to a cross-sectional study presented at Digestive Disease Week, approximately one-third of patients with inflammatory bowel disease report actively using cannabis, and 45% report using cannabis for the management of their IBD (Irritable Bowel Disorder) related symptoms. Many others anecdotally report that medical cannabis helps in managing stomach pain, bloating, nausea, and appetite. Unfortunately, due to US federal laws that block medical cannabis research, large studies for the efficacy of cannabis and IBD are lacking. But early studies have shown that cannabis can indeed help people with digestive diseases and few patients with these symptoms have the time or patience to wait for large clinical trials.
The Cannabinoid Connection
Have you ever wondered why you have butterflies in your stomach when you are stressed? Why do you run to the bathroom before speaking in front of an audience? These are clear examples of how your gut responds to stress. There is a gut-brain connection that links the nervous system to the gastrointestinal system.
There are two competing components to your nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system is the fight or flight response. This system kicks into gear when you have to perform public speaking, meet a deadline, or when you're exercising. The sympathetic system causes your pupils to dilate, heart rate increases, blood pressure rise, and sweat. The parasympathetic system helps you digest your food, sleep, dream, relax. These days, many of us stressed out people are living in a perpetual state of a fight or flight. We are overworked, overtired, anxious about the future. This constant stress results in digestive issues such as bloating, irregular bowel movements, reflux, and rapid weight gain/loss. Stress may cause a decrease in blood flow and oxygen to the stomach, which could lead to cramping, inflammation, or an imbalance of gut bacteria.
CBD, IBS and COVID
This past April, Michael’s father caught and survived COVID. His father is a healthy, active 57 year old with no history of any heart or lung disease. However, he does have IBS. His GI disorder is not serious as his son’s. As an IBS sufferer, he does have to be mindful of what he eats and he knows that stress exacerbates inflammation in his gut that lasts for months.
Luckily, his COVID symptoms were mild and he did not require hospitalization. He quarantined in a spare bedroom and was able to manage the mild fever, fatigue and body aches with rest and hydration. The majority of his complications were not lung related, but gut related. His IBS got considerably worse -- diarrhea, abdominal cramping and bloating. His symptoms are under reported but not uncommon. According to the American Journal of Gastroenterology, half of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 have digestive symptoms and develop gastric problems. In fact, many patients complain about nausea, diarrhea and stomach pain before they complain about the coughing, shortness of breath and COVID fever.
NOTE: Coronavirus can be detected in the stool. This makes hand washing crucial to prevent fecal/oral transmission. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
Michael’s father is now fully recovered from COVID, but his digestive system has not returned to normal, even 3 months later. He is managing his IBS with a mix of CBD, probiotics, prebiotics, meditation and a low FODmap diet that eliminates certain carbohydrates from wheat and beans.
From my vantage point, there is a connection between CBD, IBD and COVID that deeper research would certainly shine some light on. CBD (cannabidiol) is a potent anti-inflammatory and pain reliever and it may potentially be useful in the treatment of IBD and related gastrointestinal conditions. It appears to reduce inflammation in the digestive tract and help relieve the anxiety and stress linked to GI disorders. CBD and hemp oil (which is not the same thing as CBD but which is a rich source of omega fatty acids) are two good ways to reduce inflammation and help an unhappy gut. If you are thinking about integrating CBD for digestive issues, do not stop taking your prescribed medications, talk to your healthcare provider and try the LowFODmap diet.