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There may be a substance in marijuana that can “turn off” gut inflammation.

And, if true, that could offer relief for millions of people experiencing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the University of Bath in England performed experiments on mice and human cells.

They said they discovered that chemicals in cannabis, called cannabinoids, mimic a compound our bodies naturally produce to regulate gut inflammation.

This process, they said, could be used to create more effective treatments for IBD, a chronic and painful illness.

The study was published last week in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

IBD describes two conditions

IBD is a chronic condition that can be treated, but there’s no cure.

The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation reports that IBD affects almost 2 million Americans, most who are diagnosed before age 30.

IBD happens when your immune system responds improperly to environmental triggers and infection-fighting cells begin attacking the delicate lining of the intestines.

This causes inflammation and in some cases permanent damage.

“IBD actually refers to two different conditions: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis,” Barry Sears, PhD, author of the “Zone Diet” books, told Healthline “While ulcerative colitis only occurs in the large intestine and rectum, Crohn’s disease may affect any part of the digestive tract, from your mouth to your anus, but it typically affects the small intestine.”

The symptoms of either form of IBD can include:

  • persistent diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • rectal bleeding or bloody stools
  • weight loss
  • fatigue

If the condition becomes serious enough, surgery may be needed to remove the affected part of the intestine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while the exact causes of IBD are unknown, the condition is considered an immune disorder and can be inherited.

Endocannabinoids and inflammation

The researchers used human tissue samples and mice with chemically-induced IBD to discover how the gut reacts to inflammation.

They discovered that gut inflammation is regulated by two different processes. Each constantly responds to changing conditions in the gut.

The first process — discovered in previous studies by other researchers — stimulates an immune response that destroys dangerous pathogens (microorganisms that can cause disease).

But when that immune response goes haywire, it can severely affect the lining of the intestines.

The second process, first described in this study, “turns off” the inflammation response using special molecules transported across the cells that line the gut.

These molecules are naturally produced by our bodies. They’re called endocannabinoids.

They’re similar to the cannabinoid molecules found in marijuana.

The researchers discovered that when this substance isn’t present, inflammation can get out of control and the immune system will attack the lining of the intestines.

“There’s been a lot of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of medical marijuana, but there hasn’t been a lot of science to back it up,” said Beth McCormick, PhD, professor of microbiology and physiological systems, director of the UMass Center for Microbiome Research, and lead author of the study, in a press release.

She added that “For the first time, we have an understanding of the molecules involved in the process and how endocannabinoids and cannabinoids control inflammation.”

New ways to treat IBD symptoms

The researchers believe that this substance may help reduce gut inflammation the same way our naturally-produced endocannabinoids do.

Since using marijuana introduces cannabinoids into the body, the researchers think this explains why some marijuana users report significant relief from their IBD symptoms.

“We need to be clear that while this is a plausible explanation for why marijuana users have reported [that] cannabis relieves symptoms of IBD, we have thus far only evaluated this in mice and have not proven this experimentally in humans. We hope, however, that these findings will help us develop new ways to treat bowel diseases in humans” cautioned Randy Mrsny, PhD, a study co-author and professor of pharmacy and pharmacology at the University of Bath, in a press release.

The researchers also emphasize there’s a need for more research.

Managing IBD symptoms with diet

According to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), while no specific diet has been shown to prevent or treat IBD, there are diet strategies that may help control the symptoms.

Sears says “The best way to relieve gut inflammation appears to be by consuming more omega-3 fatty acids, eating more vegetables, and increasing fiber intake.”

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include fish, nuts, and plant oils.

It could be a long time before this discovery leads to any new IBD treatments, but Sears says that one thing people with IBD can do now is to “include more fermentable fiber in the diet, from sources like oats, barley, and fruit. This can help restore a healthy gut microbe composition, which may significantly improve symptoms of IBD.”