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Medical Marijuana and IBS Relief

Robert Burakoff, MD, MPH, is board-certified in gastroentrology. He is the vice chair for ambulatory services for the department of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

With many U.S. states passing laws that legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, you may be wondering if medical marijuana would be a helpful treatment option for your irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Learn about the potential benefits and risks of marijuana and what is known about its usefulness in addressing the symptoms of IBS.

Medical Marijuana

Marijuana itself is typically a mixture of the dried leaves and flowers (and less typically the seeds and stems) of Cannabis sativa, also known as the hemp plant. Its effect on the body is primarily due to a cannabinoid chemical called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which creates its mind-altering effects.  

People have used marijuana for centuries in order to feel high, as part of a spiritual practice, or to ease symptoms of pain, nausea, and vomiting. Its use for medicinal purposes is controversial and remains a matter of great debate among users, scientists, and governing bodies.

The term “medical marijuana” was coined to describe the use of the Cannabis plant, either in whole or extract form, to treat symptoms or diseases.

Medical Marijuana and IBS Relief

It might be interesting to learn that we have cannabinoid chemicals within our bodies as part of our endocannabinoid system. The system is not perfectly understood, but we know that it consists of cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoid chemicals.

The receptors are located all throughout our central and peripheral nervous systems, and a large number of them are also located within our digestive system, which has led scientists to investigate ways to use them to help with conditions like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and peptic ulcer disease.

The first researcher to make a connection between marijuana and IBS was Ethan B. Russo who, in 2003, theorized that IBS and other health conditions were the results of a deficiency in the amount of the body’s own cannabinoid chemicals.  

As support for his theory, he pointed to the fact that IBS is frequently seen alongside fibromyalgia and migraine headaches, two health conditions that Russo also theorized might involve the endocannabinoid system of the body.  

Further research has lent some support to Russo’s theories. Research on animals, for example, has shown that endocannabinoids affect gut motility and visceral hypersensitivity, both of which are factors that have long been highlighted as contributing to the pain, bloat, feelings of fullness, and bathroom problems associated with IBS.  

Endocannabinoids also protect the digestive system from inflammation and stomach acids. This line of inquiry thus seems to lead naturally into the question of whether medical marijuana might be an effective treatment for IBS symptoms.

As of now, there do not seem to be many research studies on the use of smoked marijuana for IBS. From the few randomized controlled trials that do exist, one theory is that cannabinoids in marijuana affect acetylcholine and opioid receptors in addition to cannabis receptors, in this way providing IBS symptom improvement.  

Other studies suggest that those with diarrhea-predominate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS-D) and alternating IBS may benefit from dronabinol (a type of cannabinoid often used with cancer patients) because it decreases gut transit and increases colon compliance.  

As for the prescription forms of medical marijuana, a few studies have looked at the effectiveness of Marinol, a synthetic form of THC. Results have not been overwhelmingly positive. Although there was some limited evidence that the medication reduces large intestine contractions, results on pain relief have been mixed.  

However, due to the fact that the endogenous cannabinoid system is involved in so many digestive system symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, ulcers, reflux, and diarrhea, it is thought that further development of pharmaceutical medications targeting the endocannabinoid system of the body is certainly warranted.

Medical Marijuana and Getting High

Depending on the strain that is used, you might get a feeling of being “high.” In addition, you may experience feelings of having sensations feel altered, your mood may change, your thinking skills (judgment, problem-solving, memory) may be impaired, and you may experience diminished control over your muscles.  

It is the THC in marijuana that causes all of these central nervous system changes. Another component of marijuana, cannabidiol (CBD), offers symptom relief but without causing brain and motor functioning changes.

Medications or strains of medical marijuana that are high in CBD but low in THC will not cause you to experience “high” sensations.

For medicinal effects, non-prescription forms of marijuana are best smoked or vaporized. Vaporizing reduces the risk of damage to the lungs that can occur with smoking.

And although therapeutic benefits are slower to occur and may be lessened, marijuana can also be consumed through edibles, including cookies, brownies, lollipops, and teas. For optimal effects and safety, prescription medical marijuana may be the best option.

Risks of Marijuana Use

Although proponents of marijuana argue that it can be used safely, it is not without risks. This does not mean that all people who use medical marijuana will experience these problems. But risks are heightened for people who are older or for those who are suffering from an illness that affects the immune system.

These risks are also heightened in street forms of the drug, due to a lack of purity. And your susceptibility to these risks is also increased with the heavier use of the drug.

The potential negative effects of marijuana, whether in a plant or synthetic form, include the following:

  • Addiction or dependence
  • Interference with normal brain development
  • Lung damage (when smoked)
  • Cognitive problems, with negative effects on judgment, concentration, memory, and balance
  • Increased risk of testicular cancer (when smoked)
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • Birth defects (when used by a woman who is pregnant)
  • Mental health problems
  • Seizures

Many of these potential negative effects hold true for the synthetic forms of medical marijuana.

Severe side effects associated with the use of prescription medical marijuana medications include an increased risk of seizures, hallucinations, arrhythmias, and tachycardia.

Contraindications

If any of the following applies to you, you should not use marijuana for any reason, medical or otherwise:

  • You are not yet age 25 or older—due to concerns about your brain development.
  • Have a current or history of a substance abuse disorder, including addiction or dependence on marijuana
  • If you or any member of your family has a history of a psychotic psychiatric disorder
  • If you are pregnant, planning on getting pregnant, or breastfeeding an infant
  • You have heart disease
  • You have any kind of a lung disease

Complicated Legalities

As of this writing, the federal government considers marijuana use in any form to be illegal. However, a number of states have either made the use of recreational or medical marijuana legal.

In states that have legalized the use of medical marijuana, there are often restrictions on the amount allowed and the conditions for which it can be used. Here are some resources:

  • State Medical Marijuana Laws
  • Legal Medical Marijuana States
  • State Marijuana Laws Map

Where It Stands

Having IBS can be a very frustrating experience as its symptoms can be quite difficult to get under control. And although there are some prescription medications for the disorder and its symptoms, the relief from these treatments is often incomplete and unsatisfying. This unfortunate state of affairs has led people who have IBS to seek alternative remedies, one of which is the use of marijuana.

The use of marijuana as a viable treatment for IBS has not yet been supported by research. The uses of prescription forms of medical marijuana have neither been shown to have clear benefits for IBS nor have they been approved by the FDA for use as a treatment for IBS.

The last factor to consider is the legality of medical marijuana for IBS as most, if not all, state laws have not yet necessarily included IBS as a specified allowed condition.

A Word From Verywell

The good news is that there does appear to be a connection between the endocannabinoid system and its receptors and digestive symptoms. This suggests that the potential exists for a pharmaceutical medication that targets these receptors may provide relief from IBS symptoms.

As pharmaceutical companies are now seeing the potential profits of effective IBS medications, due to the sheer number of people who have the disorder, there is hope that they will focus their research efforts on the development of medications that target the endocannabinoid system and that are proved to be effective for IBS.

It’s also important to note that ongoing research may discover other useful components of marijuana, apart from THC. The chemical complexity of marijuana may also be why the few studies on its benefit for IBS have returned mixed results.

The bottom line is that more research is needed which will clarify the role of cannabis as a treatment for IBS, and what dosages could help with digestive issues. In the meantime, your best course of action is to work with your doctor on a symptom management plan that is right for you.

Have you considered trying marijuana to ease your IBS symptoms? Learn all about the safety, effectiveness, and legality of medical marijuana for IBS.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Home / Conditions / Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Updated on May 6, 2020. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a painful, chronic condition that causes changes in your bowel habits. Familiar IBS symptoms of gas and bloating, along with alternating episodes of diarrhea and constipation, can get you down. It can also be embarrassing. You may also be worried about being too far away from home in case you need to use the bathroom.

We look at what IBS is, its history, symptoms and effects in this article. Perhaps most importantly, we find out about conventional treatments for the condition and how marijuana can treat your symptoms naturally.

How and Why Marijuana Can Be an Effective Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Exciting research is being carried out in the field of medical marijuana for irritable bowel syndrome. Some evidence suggests that your body’s endocannabinoids , the molecules in your body that resemble compounds found in pot, could help limit intestinal inflammation. People with IBD have higher levels of cannabinoid receptors in their colon. There have been some small studies that show many patients take medical cannabis for irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.

What Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome Can Marijuana Treat?

Even though cannabis and irritable bowel syndrome research and treatment recommendations are still in their infancy, there are ways pot can improve your quality of life. Marijuana can ease three main symptoms of IBS — depression, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Using Pot to Treat IBS-Related Depression

IBS affects your mental well-being. Cannabis is a well-known mood lifter. Just a little can make you feel far more positive. A study published in April 2016 in the journal Neuropharmacology discovered a non-psychoactive substance in pot, cannabidiol (CBD), eases anxiety and antisocial behaviors in rodents in minutes. The effects continued to work over time. Conventional antidepressants can take weeks to work. Cannabis could work wonders for you if you feel depressed as a result of your illness.

Using Pot to Treat IBS-Related Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a debilitating, painful and embarrassing symptom of IBS. Cannabis has been shown to help with diarrhea by reducing the rate food moves through your gastrointestinal tract while minimizing abdominal cramping.

Using Pot to Treat IBS-Related Abdominal Pain

A study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology suggests cannabinoid treatments can help manage diseases like IBS. Pot is both anti-inflammatory and works well at alleviating nerve pain. Another study points to cannabinoid treatments calming intestinal lining inflammation and sensitivity in people with GI problems.

Best Strains of Marijuana to Use for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

We’ve put together a quick beginner’s guide to illustrate some of the benefits of taking medical pot for irritable bowel syndrome and the strains to consider.

Strains of Pot to Treat Depression

Depression is a tricky part of dealing with chronic illness. Pot is a natural alternative if you don’t want to deal with the often serious side effects of antidepressants. Helpful strains include:

  • Blue Dream. Blue Dream is a hybrid strain of pot. It’s suitable for use during the day as it doesn’t make you feel tired or sleepy. You feel joyful and relaxed when you take this strain. Blue Dream is often used by creative people to power through mental blocks. See if it can work for you.
  • Pennywise. Pennywise is an indica hybrid. It’s safe for taking through the day, like Blue Dream. You won’t feel a “high” from taking this strain. You’ll feel calm and at peace within yourself.

Strains of Pot to Treat Diarrhea

Diarrhea is an uncomfortable and embarrassing symptom of irritable bowel syndrome. Diet can control this symptom to an extent. But taking medical pot can help if you’re suffering from a severe bout of diarrhea. Helpful strains for this symptom include:

  • Jean Guy. Jean Guy is sativa-dominant. You feel energized and cramp-free when you take this strain.
  • Lemon Jack. Lemon Jack is suitable for daytime use. Its effects are like drinking a strong coffee but without any ill effects on your stomach. Lemon Jack energizes you if your diarrhea has made you feel lethargic.

Strains of Pot to Treat Abdominal Pain

It’s exhausting when you suffer from chronic abdominal pain. Medical pot is a natural choice when you don’t want to experience the side effects of painkillers. Some helpful painkilling strains include:

  • Jack Herer. Jack Herer makes you feel energized and uplifted. It’s a sativa-dominant hybrid that’s filled with natural painkillers, including THC and terpenes. Pinene is the major terpene in Jack Herer. The compound reduces tissue inflammation, stress and pain.
  • Harlequin. Harlequin is an excellent pain-relieving option. The sativa-dominant hybrid provides you with a painless and mellow feeling. You won’t feel “high” and can go about your day as usual after taking Harlequin.

Best Methods of Marijuana Treatment for IBS Symptoms

Now that you know about some of the most effective strains of medical cannabis for a spastic colon, you need to know how to take it. You can take marijuana in various ways, including:

  • Smoking. Smoking cannabis can bring you instant relief. However, you could damage your lungs and smell of pot, too.
  • Vaping. Vaping provides almost instantaneous results. It’s also not as hard on your lungs as smoking.
  • Sprays. Cannabis sprays come in a variety of flavors and are easy to carry along with you.
  • Tinctures. You can put these alcohol-based extracts into your drinks and food.
  • Edibles. You can buy or make your own edibles, like cupcakes and brownies. No matter where you are, these are discrete to eat.

Taking medical pot doesn’t need to mean smoking a joint. There are many far less obvious ways of taking medical cannabis for IBS whenever you need to. You can reduce your symptoms of IBS by eating the correct diet.

Foods to Eat If You Have Irritable Bowel Syndrome

You can reduce your symptoms of IBS by eating the correct diet. It’s a good idea to keep a food journal to help you pinpoint the foods that trigger an attack. You should bring your journal along to doctor’s appointments so you can discuss your findings. Your physician may recommend you see a dietician to help you make changes to your usual diet.

The best way to help yourself if you have IBS is to work on changing your diet. Steer clear of foods that make you feel unwell. Fiber is helpful as it improves your intestinal functions. Bear in mind that you need to maintain a balanced diet that provides you with enough calories and energy to stay well. You might need to take supplements if you need to exclude entire food groups because of your condition.

Fiber is useful for decreasing pain and bloating. It enables your stools to pass with greater ease. Foods like whole-grain breads, whole-grain cereals, vegetables and fruit are good sources of fiber. Add the following foods into your diet slowly. Note how you react to them:

  • Dry fruits
  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Fresh fruit
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Kidney beans
  • Nuts
  • Lentils
  • Raisins
  • Oats
  • Split peas

To ensure you get the fiber you need, you can also buy supplements. As you increase your fiber intake, be sure to drink more water and decaffeinated beverages. Between six and eight glasses a day is best. Do enough exercise, too. Moving can help relieve your symptoms. You can also try adding probiotic yogurts or supplements into your diet.

Address Your IBS Symptoms With Medical Marijuana

Having irritable bowel syndrome is often confusing. You may still be trying to figure out your triggers. You could be struggling with certain specific symptoms. Thankfully, medical pot offers you real and gentle relief from your symptoms. Now that you know more about the benefits of medical marijuana for irritable bowel syndrome, it’s time to take control of your condition and search for a medical marijuana doctor or dispensary today.

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a common gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that causes you to have a mix of GI symptoms, including belly pain, gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and abdominal cramping. The condition affects the colon (large intestine).

IBS is referred to as other names, including:

  • Spastic colitis
  • Irritable colon
  • Spastic colon
  • Nervous stomach
  • Mucous colitis
  • Spastic bowel

Most people who have IBS have only mild or moderate symptoms. Only a small fraction of individuals who have a spastic colon experience severe symptoms. Most IBS sufferers can manage their symptoms through adjustments to their stress levels, diets and lifestyles. Other people find that they need medication or alternative therapies, such as cannabis.

There is currently no cure for irritable bowel syndrome. However, many IBS sufferers figure out ways of living that make them feel better over time. They may also pinpoint what makes them feel worse to help them manage their symptoms.

History of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

In older documents, names used to describe IBS included:

  • Functional colitis
  • Functional bowel disease
  • Irritable colitis
  • Intestinal neurosis
  • Irritable gut syndrome
  • Nervous stomach

One of the first known references to irritable bowel syndrome appeared in 1950 in the Rocky Mountain Medical Journal. The term was used in relation to patients who developed constipation, diarrhea and abdominal pain with no real known infective cause. Some early theories pointed to IBS having a mental or psychosomatic cause.

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Symptoms and signs of IBS vary widely from person to person. These can often resemble the symptoms of other conditions. The most common symptoms to expect include:

  • Gas
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation or diarrhea — sometimes alternating bouts of both of these
  • Mucus in your stools

IBS is often a chronic condition. It’s likely there will be times when your symptoms are better or worse than others. You may even have periods where your symptoms show a marked improvement or disappear entirely.

It’s crucial to see your doctor if you have a persistent change in your bowel habits or if you feel you’re exhibiting any other signs of IBS. You need to rule out any more serious, underlying conditions. Symptoms that may indicate you could have a more serious health problem include:

  • Weight loss
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Abdominal pain that occurs or gets worse at night

Effects of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Having IBS is painful, and it can cause you to change the way you live your life. When you’re suffering from a bout, you may withdraw from your usual everyday activities due to long-lasting pain and discomfort. You might not want to travel too far from home in case you suffer from a diarrhea attack. These often come on very quickly as if out of nowhere.

The gas you experience stops you from socializing due to a fear of being humiliated. Conventional medications often don’t give you the relief you need, and there are side effects to consider. You find that you feel jittery, angry and short-tempered from certain medications you may be taking. You may begin to avoid eating or drinking to stop your symptoms from occurring when you’re out and about or even at home. Pain zaps your get-up-and-go and drains your motivation.

For some people, IBS is an invisible condition. That is, when you have it, you can look perfectly healthy. Other people often won’t believe that you’re ill because you don’t look sick. You may then feel further removed from those around you. Because friends and family cannot fully understand what you’re going through, they may get tired inviting you places as you never have the energy to accept the invitations, particularly if you have chronic IBS or a severe case of the condition.

If you recognize yourself in these words, there is hope. Medical marijuana can help you.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Statistics

As you can see from the following statistics, irritable bowel syndrome is a common disease:

  • According to MedlinePlus, IBS is found in people under 45 years of age and affects twice as many women as men.
  • Statistics from Mayo Clinic state that one in five U.S adults has symptoms and signs of IBS.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Triggers

Different people have different IBS triggers. Things that often make symptoms worse include:

  • Stress
  • Alcohol
  • Sweet foods
  • Chocolate
  • Dairy
  • Produce
  • Caffeinated drinks
  • Smoking
  • Emotional events
  • Fatty foods
  • Sorbitol sweetener
  • Fructose syrup
  • Some medications

Current Treatments Available for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Their Side Effects

You can manage your symptoms with a combination of treatments and by changing your diet. Minimizing stress can also help. You usually need to try a few treatments to find out what works best for you. Let’s take a look at the current treatments available.

Medications to Treat IBS

Your doctor may recommend you try some of the following medicines to relieve your spastic colon symptoms:

  • Laxatives to help with constipation.
  • Fiber supplements for constipation relief.
  • Antibiotics to reduce bloating.
  • Peppermint oil capsules to reduce your symptoms.
  • Anti-diarrheal tablets to slow stool movement through your colon.
  • Antispasmodics to reduce painful muscle spasms in your abdomen.
  • Antidepressants to relieve your general symptoms.

When taken over a protracted period, many of these drugs cause side effects. For example, abruptly stopping antidepressants can cause withdrawal symptoms. Side effects of antidepressants include:

  • Sexual problems
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Sleepiness
  • Weight gain
  • Diarrhea

Antidepressants can even make you feel suicidal in the worst-case scenario. Both antidepressants and antispasmodics can worsen constipation. Muscle relaxants are prescribed in these cases. Unfortunately, muscle relaxants contain a mild sedative that can be habit forming. Even fiber supplements and laxatives can have adverse effects. Some people report worsened gas and bloating from supplements. Laxatives can be habit forming when used too often. Some people report nausea as a side effect of taking peppermint capsules.

Non-Medicine Treatments for IBS

Other conventional IBS treatments include:

  • Stress-relieving therapies
  • Gut-directed hypnotherapy
  • Mindfulness training
  • Probiotics

More and more people are turning to medical pot to relieve their IBS symptoms. Marijuana is a natural and gentle way of treating irritable bowel syndrome. Let’s find out more in the next section.

See how medical marijuana could help relieve your irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. Weed helps 3 main symptoms: depression, diarrhea and abdominal pain.