Does Cannabis Treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Approximately one in six Americans display symptoms of IBS, the causes of which are largely unknown. The source for some patients has been identified as an intestinal infection; the risk of developing IBS increases 600 percent after an acute gastrointestinal infection.
Apr 06, 2016

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, also known as IBS, affects 35 million Americans. The discovery of IBS occurred in 1950 and was first published in the Rocky Mountain Medical Journal. It is the most common chronic gastrointestinal disorder affecting the colon. 

Stress and anger can trigger colon spasms in sufferers of IBS. Wrote one medical site regarding the condition:

“Some people can control their symptoms by managing diet, lifestyle, and stress. Others will need medication.”

Because of its status as a syndrome, IBS is a mix of symptoms that may manifest in different ways among patients. Luckily, it has not been linked to cancer or other deadly diseases. Patients develop IBS for many different reasons, often ones related to the function of muscles within the colon. If muscles along the five foot colon — or the nerves leading to them — become damaged or hyperactive, IBS can result.

Research also indicates that IBS can be caused by a couple of single-cell organisms that may reside in the GI tract or colon. Both blastocystis and dientamoeba fragilis — which result in abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea — have been found to be much more prevalent in IBS patients.

In the past, IBS has been called “colitis,” “mucous colitis,” and “spastic colon.” The condition afflicts patients of all ages, often appearing in teens or young adults, and is more common in females. Interestingly, no link has been identified between IBS and inflammatory bowel diseases, the most notable example of which is Crohn’s.

Anxiety and stress, often in even small doses, have proven to trigger or exacerbate the condition. This is an area in which cannabis is especially adept at soothing frazzled nerves and reducing stress to help prevent flare ups. Fortunately, IBS does not result in changes to bowel tissue that might increase one’s risk of colorectal cancer. Unfortunately, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of IBS patients do not receive proper medication or treatment for their symptoms.

IBS Symptoms

The symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome manifest under a wide range. Most patients exhibit only mild symptoms, but others suffer significantly. Symptoms, which typically occur following meals, aren’t considered to necessarily be IBS until they have been present for at least six months. They include:

  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Gas, bloating, and “fullness”
  • Chronic constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Uncontrollable urgency to have a bowel movement

The symptoms of IBS typically fluctuate in their occurrence and severity. In many patients, symptoms are significantly reduced — or even disappear — following a bowel movement. A 2003 study conducted in Italy revealed that THC, the psychoactive and most infamous of the more than 110 cannabinoids found in the kind herb, reduced intestinal motility (spontaneous movement) and, thus, alleviated both colonic spasms and abdominal pain in IBS sufferers.

Endocannabinoid System Balance

The theory of endocannabinoid deficiency is nothing new, an idea that the body’s own cannabinoids help achieve or maintain homeostasis (balance) in various biological functions — specifically in the systems of the immune system and nervous system. Evidence points to the fact that many people suffer a shortage of these therapeutic molecules. Because of their cannabinoid deficiency, even among apparently healthy individuals, supplemental sources of similar chemicals from herbs like cannabis (phytocannabinoids) deliver the “boost” necessary to achieve balance within the body’s systems, including battling diseases.

Extrapolating from the theory of endocannabinoid deficiency, one can quickly understand how literally hundreds of diseases and conditions are effectively treated by cannabis and the cannabinoids it delivers to the body. Many IBS patients who consume cannabis to treat their condition report that their symptoms are significantly reduced and even completely eliminated. Even those who have shown no improvement with conventional pharmaceutical drugs have reported relief from cannabis therapy. Pot delivers what medical professionals label “broad spectrum” relief for IBS, meaning that it deals with most or all symptoms produced by the disease.

Depression and Treatment Approaches

Those who suffer from IBS, like patients with hundreds of other diseases, are prone to anxiety and depression. Most reasonable humans respond with sometimes severe sadness to an ailment such as IBS. Because it is an intermittent, on-again/off-again disease with varying intensity levels when it strikes, IBS patients suffer even greater anxiety in anticipation and fear of their next flare up (similar to that suffered by epilepsy patients awaiting their next seizure).

What can an IBS patient do to help minimize the severity of this all-too-common condition and its symptoms? Often, physicians recommend the following:

  • Counseling to give patients a better understanding of their condition and potential triggers
  • Mild exercise, such as yoga or walking, on a regular basis
  • Removal of stress triggers from one’s life
  • Sleep that is of sufficient quality and quantity
More Research Necessary

Cannabis is currently categorized as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. government Controlled Substances Act, where it resides along with drugs like bath salts and heroin. Even highly addictive and very dangerous drugs such as methamphetamines and cocaine reside in less restricted Schedule II, meaning they can be prescribed by physicians.

Until cannabis is rescheduled and permitted to be used for comprehensive research involving human trials, additional efficacy data and symptom control knowledge for diseases like IBS will be severely lacking in the United States. The federal government must change course and adopt a science-based, pragmatic approach to cannabis medicine that is void of conservative, illogical fears of danger to society and rooted in Reefer Madness.

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