Updated on January 29, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
The key word in the phrase “inflammatory bowel disease” is “inflammation.” Although IBD comes in two forms, it always involves inflammation in your intestines. By reducing the inflammation, we can reduce IBD symptoms.
But reducing inflammation caused by IBD can be trickier than you think. We must consider the patient’s other symptoms and conditions, the type of medicine to use and potential side effects.
Fortunately, some states consider IBD as a condition eligible for medical marijuana, expanding the options for patients with the disease. As an anti-inflammatory agent, marijuana can act as a major game changer for doctors and patients with IBD.
“Inflammatory bowel disease” refers to two different conditions: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both disorders cause inflammation in the intestines, so we group them into one condition. Each occurs in different parts of your digestive system:
While the symptoms IBD patients deal with vary, they always involve digestion and the abdominal area. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea.
Since inflammation causes IBD, doctors naturally prescribe anti-inflammatory medication when they first start treatment. Specifically, they tend to recommend aminosalicylates, anti-inflammatory meds that resemble aspirin. Anti-inflammatory medication can cause high blood pressure, kidney or liver issues, excess bleeding, and other side effects.
If anti-inflammatory medication doesn’t do the trick, a doctor will often try a corticosteroid, a stronger and faster-acting anti-inflammatory drug. But, with the extra efficiency comes more severe side effects, so you use them only to treat flare-ups. Corticosteroid side effects include high blood sugar, osteoporosis, cataracts, higher risk of infection and reduced production in your adrenal gland.
If anti-inflammatory medication doesn’t work, your doctor will prescribe an immunosuppressant. As the name implies, immunosuppressants suppress the immune system’s functions. Since they must build up in your system to become effective, you have to take them regularly.
Instead of directly addressing inflammation, immunosuppressants go straight to the inflammation’s source — the immune system. Inflammation acts as an immune response meant to isolate foreign material — but when we have too much inflammation, we get issues like IBD.
As you can see, typical treatment methods for IBD-related inflammation can sometimes not work or have risky side effects. If your inflammation doesn’t go down in response to aminosalicylates, the stronger options have bigger drawbacks. Corticosteroids can reduce your body’s ability to function, and immunosuppressants put you at risk for other diseases.
The current scientific literature on medical marijuana and inflammation indicates we can use cannabis as a dual-duty anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive medication. With further research, we could find an alternative to the treatments we have.
When marijuana interacts with the endocannabinoid system in our bodies, it suppresses the immune system. It then reduces its ability to send pro-inflammatory signals. Specifically, a cannabinoid called beta-caryophyllene attaches to the CB2 receptor, which operates in the immune system without affecting the brain. So, it can regulate your immune system without making you feel high.
Remember, our advice can’t replace the wisdom and education of a trained medical professional. Use our search engine to find a medical marijuana doctor near you. Or, talk to a budtender at your local dispensary.
For more information about how cannabis can be used to treat Inflammatory Bowel Disease, check out our resources: