How Cannabis Is Used to Relieve Digestive Disorders

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, is sometimes recommended by doctors to relieve symptoms of many conditions, including digestive disorders. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affect millions of people, and symptoms can become disabling. While doctors can’t legally distribute marijuana to IBD and IBS patients, they are allowed to suggest that medical cannabis could help treat their symptoms. Challenges to research, such as regulations and lack of true placebos, have limited some studies, but there is growing scientific evidence that supports anecdotal reports of symptom relief.

Two Well-Known Cannabinoids

There are more than 100 types of cannabinoids in cannabis. (Cannabinoids are chemical substances of the cannabis plant.) Of these 100+ active ingredients, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are the most well-known. They are also the most studied and best understood cannabinoids. Here are some of their effects:

  • THC creates the euphoric, or psychotropic effects—the “high”—from marijuana. Many people report feeling more relaxed, a heightened sensory perception, and increase in appetite after using THC.
  • CBD does not create these psychoactive effects and may in fact reduce the unpleasant side effects of THC, such as nervousness. CBD has been effectively used to treat seizures.

Cannabis for Digestive Disorders

Despite challenges to and limits of formal research on medical cannabis, many people report symptom relief of certain digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Medical cannabis for IBD has been found to improve some of the condition’s symptoms through its anti-inflammatory effects.

Some of the gastrointestinal symptoms that medical cannabis may help relieve include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Acid reflux

One small, retrospective study found a nearly 50% drop in daily bowel movements for people using marijuana for Crohn’s disease. Almost 30% were able to stop using all their prescribed medications and instead rely on medical cannabis for symptom management. Keep in mind, though, that these effects won’t necessarily be the outcome for all people who use cannabis for Crohn’s and other digestive disorder symptoms.

Cannabis Side Effects and Risks

Negative side effects of THC can include nervousness, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, impaired coordination, reduced reaction time, fear and panic. More extreme side effects, such as hallucinations and delusions, can occur if someone takes large doses of THC. Marijuana might increase the risk of heart attack and stroke; however, there’s an extremely low risk of overdose death. Side effects of CBD may include fatigue, diarrhea and reduced appetite.

Marijuana can interact with some medications, so it’s important to discuss all your medicines with your doctor or pharmacist before taking medical cannabis for digestive symptoms. In addition to the side effects of cannabis while its cannabinoids are in your body, people who use marijuana regularly for a long time may experience long-term side effects. Some of these side effects include depression and dependence on cannabis, as well as bronchitis and lung infections for people who smoke marijuana.

Daily cannabis use is known to cause cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. This condition results in increased gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Stopping cannabis use will relieve these symptoms.

The bottom line: It’s best to talk with your doctor before trying medical cannabis for your digestive symptoms. Your doctor can help you weigh the pros and cons of using cannabis for your condition. Some states have legalized the use of cannabis for medical purposes, but federal law still prohibits the use of marijuana for any reason.

As of 2019, 34 states, plus the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories have adopted formal Medical Marijuana Programs in which physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners (in some states) may legally recommend medical marijuana to patients. IBD, IBS, and nausea are among the qualifying conditions under the MMP. Patients can register with the MMP and apply for a license (marijuana card) to legally possess and use medical marijuana. Of course, many people use marijuana for medicinal purposes without a license and, in states where marijuana is legal, a license may not be necessary.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 28
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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