Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It almost sounds like a joke. What, was grumpy gut already taken?
But for 3.5 million Americans, it is anything but funny.
There is no known cause, no known cure, and few treatments beyond a few lifestyle recommendations. Following diagnosis, patients are looking down the barrel of an endless road of “management” throughout their lives. But for patients interested in natural remedies for IBS, cannabis treatments are proving highly effective.
What Exactly is IBS?
So, what are these people managing? What does “irritable” mean in the context of bowels?
The most common symptoms include:
- Abdominal Pain
- Weight loss
- Rectal Bleeding
- Mucus in the stool
This is effectively a list of anything that could possibly go wrong in the gut. And these individuals get all of them, for no discernable reason and without any real way to make it stop.
But it turns out, the story has a twist with some surprising implications.
Interestingly, there is a strong link between stress and negative emotional states and IBS—another indication of the power of the gut-brain connection. It’s not uncommon for strong emotions like anger or life stress to trigger symptoms of IBS.
There is also a significant correlation between IBS and psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety.
Previously, most researchers felt this data pointed to the role of serotonin in IBS and they looked to typical antidepressant-type modulators with little success. Clearly, serotonergic systems were involved, but they weren’t the root.
The Endocannabinoid System and IBS
As research has progressed on the endocannabinoid system, we are just beginning to understand its pervasiveness in regulating the homeostatic balance of many critical biological functions, Including digestion, gut health, stress, and mood—all of the issues that converge in cases of IBS.
And, in line with many researchers’ initial reactions, the endogenous cannabinoid Anandamide potentiates both the 5-HT1A and 5-HT2A serotonin receptors.
This means that underlying both the psychological and visceral components of IBS is one single system, and this points to one major potential target for therapeutic efforts: cannabinoids
How IBS Cannabis Treatments Work
So far, all we can really look at are the symptoms of IBS and how cannabis impacts each of them.
Relieving nausea is perhaps one of cannabis’ most famous therapeutic actions as it can help cancer patients regain appetite after chemotherapy.
The clinical name for diarrhea is “hypermotility,” and cannabis is proven to be effective here. One study found that THC reduced motility, alleviated colonic spasms, and blocked abdominal pain in cases of IBS.
Regarding the phantom visceral pain, both CBD and THC have been found to reduce pain, the threshold of which may be set by the endocannabinoid system. Dr. Ethan Russo, a medical researcher, has postulated an underlying endocannabinoid deficiency, observing, “If you don’t have enough endocannabinoids, you have pain where there shouldn’t be pain. You would be sick, meaning nauseated. You would have a lowered seizure threshold. And just a whole litany of other problems.”
Green Light for IBS Relief
While this line of research is still very much in its infancy, it holds more potential than any other therapy so far.
While our federal legal system in the U.S. may still be operating under a delusion of Reefer Madness, other countries are moving forward. In the Netherlands, the Wageningen University will be conducting a study on IBS cannabis treatments– specifically, CBD gum treatments– the first clinical trial of its kind.
For the millions of people around the world with IBS, this is their first real hope for a treatment that works.