Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic condition that affects more than 3 million people in the United States. IBD includes both Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC).

IBD doesn’t have a cure, and medications aren’t always effective for managing symptoms. In the past several years, scientists have been exploring the effectiveness of cannabis in managing IBD symptoms. The results are still uncertain.

Today, medical uses for cannabis are on the rise for various conditions such as seizures, chronic pain, nausea from chemotherapy, and inflammatory conditions. This is helping cannabis gain wider acceptance.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the research behind cannabis use for IBD.

Language matters

Cannabis is a species of plant that includes a subgroup known as Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica,and Cannabis ruderalis. Cannabis plants have many complex compounds and properties called cannabinoids. Two of the most studied cannabis compounds are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Each has different effects.

“Marijuana” can refer to the dried flowers, stems, leaves, or seeds of these plants.

Currently, cannabis is the preferred name for this group of plants rather than “marijuana”. This is for many reasons, including the evolving legal status of cannabis in the United States. It’s also to avoid the historically racist connotations linked to the term.

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IBD is a chronic (long-term) condition that can seriously impact your quality of life depending on your symptoms. Scientists still don’t know the exact cause of IBD, but they believe genetics, diet, and environmental influences may all be factors.

Current treatments available for IBD aren’t always effective at managing UC and CD symptoms long-term, particularly if you have severe symptoms such as diarrhea with bloody stools, and abdominal pain. This is why scientists are searching for new therapies to better manage these chronic conditions to improve people’s long-term outlook.

Studies show that forms of C. sativa (THC and CBD) are commonly used by people with IBD to manage symptoms such as abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and diarrhea.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about whether cannabinoids may be useful for IBD. This is because there are more than 140 compounds found in cannabis plant varieties with many different effects. There are still a lot of questions about their use for IBD treatment.

Some important questions include:

  • Which types may be beneficial (THC, CBD)?
  • How do they work for IBD symptoms?
  • Which forms and dosage are best?
  • What is known about the safety and risks of long-term use?

For example, a 2020 review of studies of cannabis for IBD found insufficient evidence for the effectiveness and safety of cannabis for managing UC and CD symptoms. More research is needed to understand if cannabis has benefits for UC or CD symptoms and if the long-term complications outweigh the benefits.

Experts believe cannabinoids may work by mimicking the actions of endocannabinoids naturally found in the body. Endocannabinoids attach to two different receptors (CB1 and CB2) in the body and are responsible for many common body functions.

Research shows cannabinoids (THC and CBD) may lead to stimulation of CB1 and CB2 receptors and have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. They may have effects similar to endocannabinoids in this way and help to manage certain symptoms of IBD such as:

  • low appetite
  • difficulties with digestion
  • pain or cramping
  • inflammation
  • low metabolism

However, to date, studies haven’t indicated the effectiveness of different forms of cannabis at consistently reducing IBD symptoms. More human clinical trials are needed to better understand how various forms of cannabis may be beneficial for IBD symptoms.

Ongoing trials for IBD research

If you’re interested in participating in clinical trials for IBD research, you can consider asking a doctor about these studies:

Ask a doctor for more information about other clinical studies for IBD and if you qualify for enrollment.

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Cannabis has many different effects on the body. The effects depend on the type of cannabis (THC or CBD), the amount and strength (level of THC), how it’s consumed (smoked or taken by mouth), other health conditions you may have, other medications you take, and other individual factors.

Short-term effects may include:

Other side effects primarily with THC include:

Discussing alternative treatments with a doctor

If you’d like to try cannabis for your IBD symptoms, talk with a doctor first. They can explain:

  • pros and cons of cannabis for IBD
  • difference between medical cannabis and other forms available
  • effects of short- and long-term use on health
  • legal status in your state

Cannabis can also interact with your current IBD medications. It’s important to discuss any over-the-counter products you’re interested in trying with a doctor or pharmacist. This includes cannabis.

Having an open conversation with a doctor about your interest in learning about cannabis can help them guide you in the right direction. By law, what you tell them must be kept in confidence.

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Cannabis is a complex compound that has many varieties with hundreds of properties. The type, strength, and form of cannabis (CBD or THC) can make a difference in its effects. This is why the science behind the beneficial effects of cannabis still isn’t clear.

Research has shown cannabis can improve some symptoms of IBD, but the results are inconsistent. Much is still unknown about the effectiveness of cannabis for IBD, including dosage forms, dosages, and long-term effects. More studies in humans are needed before cannabis can be recommended for use in managing IBD symptoms.

Also, cannabis isn’t legal in every state so it may not be an option where you live. A doctor can tell you more about new research on cannabis for IBD. They can also discuss other factors to consider such as how it may impact your work, safety, and effects of long-term use. Ask them if cannabis is an option for you.