Cannabis Could Treat Colitis and Crohn's Disease, Study in Mice Suggests

Cannabis could ease the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), according to research in mice.

Marijuana is already used to treat a range of conditions, from pain and nausea to mental disorders such as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. And some users have reported it eases their symptoms of IBD, according to the authors of the study. They discovered that a molecule in cannabis bore a resemblance to one naturally released by the body to relieve gut inflammation.

IBD is an umbrella term used to describe serious conditions where the gastrointestinal tract is chronically inflamed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are the most common forms. While the former affects the colon and the rectum, the latter can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, but most often the area of the small intestine before the large intestine or colon.

Researchers used mice to investigate whether cannabis can ease inflammatory bowel disease. Getty Images

Symptoms of IBD include diarrhea, stomach pain, blood in stools, weight loss and tiredness. Currently, those with IBD can take medications to treat their symptoms, while some may need surgery to remove the damaged parts of the gastrointestinal tract.

By studying mice, the researchers concluded that gut inflammation is regulated by two constantly changing processes that respond to conditions in the intestinal tract. The first causes the immune system to respond aggressively to dangerous pathogens but can also harm the intestinal lining if it is too zealous.

In the second process, which the researchers described for the first time, special molecules are transported across the epithelial cells of the gut (which are the first line of defense against harmful bacteria and viruses) to switch off inflammation. The process removes toxins from the inflamed cells in the intestinal cavity.

What interested the scientists was that this involves a molecule called endocannabinoid, which is produced by the body and bears similarities to those found in cannabis.

An absence of endocannabinoid can mean inflammation occurs indiscriminately, causing the immune system to attack the intestinal lining.

Related: How soon is it safe to drive after smoking cannabis? California study aims to find out

As the study was carried out in mice, it will now need to be replicated in human subjects. But the researchers hope their findings could one day help create new treatments for people with digestive disorders.

Beth McCormick, vice chair and professor of microbiology and physiological systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a co-author of the study, which was published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, said, "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.

"For the first time, we have an understanding of the molecules involved in the process and how endocannabinoids and cannabinoids control inflammation. This gives clinical researchers a new drug target to explore to treat patients that suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases, and perhaps other diseases, as well," she said.

Randy Mrsny, a co-author of the study and professor at Britain's University of Bath Centre for Regenerative Medicine, told Newsweek that as a result of the findings, "there is now some support for those individuals who may have felt social pressures or uncertainties about the rationale of using medical marijuana to treat intestinal inflammatory diseases, by framing a scientific understanding of how endocannabinoids function to suppress inflammation in the intestine."

However, Mrsny cautioned IBD sufferers against using the results as an excuse to self-medicate and shunning current best practices for IBD that have undergone rigorous clinical trials in a way that cannabis hasn't for treating these conditions.

"We are concerned that individuals will avoid current best practices for treatment of their IBD condition and rely on self-medicating solely with cannabis-derived agents, eschewing therapeutics validated through rigorous clinical trials," he said.