Published on September 2, 2021 by Kristina Willis
Crohn’s disease is a debilitating and incurable condition that affects more than half a million people in the United States alone. It’s also becoming increasingly common, and many of those living with Crohn’s are dissatisfied with conventional therapies. Naturally, they look to alternative remedies such as cannabis to deal with the uncomfortable and often painful symptoms.
According to current research, cannabis can help alleviate symptoms of Crohn’s disease, such as abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and sleep issues. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cannabis improves quality of life; however, there is no clinical evidence that it can treat gut inflammation or the disease itself. Additionally, there is some concern that cannabis might mask inflammation without reducing it, resulting in hidden symptoms and long-term harm when administered incorrectly.
Surveys estimate that up to 40% of patients with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs) like Crohn’s have tried cannabis, and around 15 to 20% are current users. Unfortunately, many self-medicate with cannabis without consulting with their doctor, leaving treatment highly unregulated and, therefore, unsafe.
Keep reading to learn more about how cannabis can help alleviate symptoms of Crohn’s disease.
Crohn’s disease is an IBD of unknown origin that causes irritation in the digestive tract. Complications include intestinal blockage, fistulas, ulcers, malnutrition, and more—many of which are painful and interfere with everyday activities.
Prognosis is particularly grim, as there is no known cure and about 50% of patients require surgery within 10 years of being diagnosed. Moreover, the life-long disease typically requires continuous medical treatment. As you can imagine, this can drastically impact one’s quality of life and wellbeing.
The ECS helps modulate inflammatory responses that regulate gastrointestinal function. Cannabinoids interact with the ECS by activating cannabinoid receptors in the gut to illicit responses for pain, inflammation, nausea, and vomiting.
Though cannabis has been successfully used as an anti-inflammatory for other diseases, there is no hard evidence that it works for Crohn’s. To date, only three placebo-controlled studies have published quality results. And while they acknowledged significant clinical progress, none found improvement in disease markers associated with inflammation, hemoglobin, or C-reactive proteins.
One study postulated that cannabis benefits were due to anti-inflammatory effects and potential improvement in gastrointestinal mucosal healing. However, there is currently no evidence that cannabis can positively affect the disease’s trajectory. Therefore, controlled clinical trials are desperately needed to precisely understand the extent of what cannabis can treat.
All signs point to yes. Studies overwhelmingly agree that cannabis seems to provide symptomatic benefits and warrants further investigation. Patients have reported many therapeutic effects ranging from pain management to sleep and appetite improvements. According to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, the most effective strategy is to use THC and CBD together.
“Many people living with IBD have reported relief of symptoms like pain, nausea, diarrhea, low appetite, and an improvement in overall mood when using cannabis.”—Crohn’s and Colitis Canada
“Many people living with IBD have reported relief of symptoms like pain, nausea, diarrhea, low appetite, and an improvement in overall mood when using cannabis.”
One well-received study found that smoking two cannabis cigarettes per day for eight weeks prompted a significant increase in Crohn’s Disease Activity Index (CDAI) scores. Moreover, 45% of patients experienced clinical remission, and 25% were no longer dependent on corticosteroids.
Medical cannabis is an approved treatment in Israel for IBDs. After an exhaustive approval process, patients begin a dose of 20 mg per month via oil droplets, inhalation, or vaporization. A pre-authorized physician decides on the cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol ratio, and the dose can be increased every three months if deemed necessary.
Despite therapeutic benefits, studies have noted adverse side effects from cannabis use, such as dry mouth, drowsiness, nausea, and feeling high. Moreover, patients on high-dose regimens risk becoming dependent or addicted. One study found that using cannabis for more than six months increased the risk for necessary surgery.
Many people with Crohn’s report that cannabis helps them manage symptoms that significantly affect their quality of life. While cannabis might prove beneficial in conjunction with conventional treatments, it does not serve as an adequate replacement. Patients who quit such therapies in favor of cannabis put themselves at risk for remission, long-term complications, and a worsening prognosis.
If there is one thing you should take away, it’s that talking to your doctor and having an open dialogue is crucial. While few doctors suggest it as a treatment, most will consider a medical cannabis regimen if a struggling patient expresses interest. They can also provide information regarding the best strains for Crohn’s disease.
Some health care providers shy away from initiating cannabis treatment because of concerns over legality or licensing. However, federal law protects physicians who recommend or suggest medical cannabis as a treatment. People suffering from Crohn’s disease symptoms should strongly consider seeking out a doctor who is knowledgeable and open to medical cannabis.