Does Cannabis Treat IBD?

Published on August 31, 2015, By Gooey Rabinski

Conditions Marijuana Knowledge Base Medical

Many are familiar with how cannabis treats not only the symptoms of Crohn’s disease, but also can put it into full remission. While cannabis is not a panacea and there are many conditions for which it is not an optimal treatment, it seems to be particularly good at dealing with gastrointestinal issues.

Some don’t realize that Crohn’s is part of a family of conditions called Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or IBD. IBD is very straightforward: It involves the chronic and very painful inflammation of one or more parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Diseases in the IBD category include a variety of types of colitis (inflammation of the colon) and afflict more than 1.5 million people in the United States.

cannabis for Inflammatory Bowel Disease

There are three primary types of colitis: Ulcerative, collagenous, and lymphocytic. Together, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are known as the “classic forms” of IBD because they are the most common. Ulcerative colitis involves inflammation of the inner lining of the colon and rectum, whereas Crohn’s may attack any part of the gastrointestinal tract, from the mouth to the anus — although it’s more common south of the stomach, in the intestines.

Both diseases involve extreme and chronic gastrointestinal inflammation accompanied by symptoms of severe abdominal pain, fever, diarrhea, and extreme weight loss. All types of IBD are caused by the body’s immune system erroneously perceiving that it is being attacked and responding abnormally (somewhat like seasonal allergies, but with significantly more severe symptoms).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all forms of IBD are produced by an abnormal response by the body’s immune system:

“Normally, the immune cells protect the body from infection. In people with IBD, however, the immune system mistakes food, bacteria, and other materials in the intestine for foreign substances and…attacks the cells of the intestines. In the process, the body sends white blood cells into the lining of the intestines, where they produce chronic inflammation.”

Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s, which afflicts half a million people in North America, results in intense abdominal pain,  diarrhea, bloody stool, severe vomiting, and extreme weight loss resulting from malnutrition (as seen in wasting syndromes like HIV/AIDS). Crohn’s patients commonly lose 60 to 80 pounds following the onset of their disease. Crohn’s can even result in skin and eye conditions, as well as arthritis.

Those who suffer from Crohn’s report that not only does cannabis effectively treat pharmaceutical drug side effects and produce a cessation of many symptoms, but often results in a complete remission of the disease.

The Studies

Although most cannabis miracle stories are based on anecdotal evidence, a 2013 study conducted in Israel at the Meir Medical Center has shown that most participants experienced either a significant reduction or full remission of their ailment after only eight weeks of smoking two joints per day.

Because this study was conducted outside the United States, potent samples of cannabis that are high in THC were able to be used. Cannabis provided to participants contained herb that was 23 percent THC and 0.5 percent CBD. The study involved a control group that was given a placebo. All participants suffered intractable forms of Crohn’s that did not respond to conventional treatments.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease cannabis research

Of the participants given real cannabis, half experienced a “complete remission,” while the other subjects enjoyed a 50 percent decrease in Crohn’s symptoms. Not surprisingly, the study reported:

“[Crohn’s] subjects receiving cannabis reported improved appetite and sleep, with no significant side effects.”

A 2011 study published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology revealed that about half of IBD patients had used cannabis to treat their condition. 51 percent of ulcerative colitis patients and 48 percent of Crohn’s sufferers were found to be lifelong cannabis users — strongly suggesting that cannabis delivers levels of efficacy and symptom reduction not found in most conventional pharmaceutical drugs.

“Of lifetime users, 33 percent of [ulcerative colitis] and 50 percent of [Crohn’s disease] patients have used [cannabis] to relieve IBD-related symptoms…. Patients were more likely to use cannabis for symptom relief if they had a history of abdominal surgery.”

Case Study: Al Graham

Al Graham is a 53-year-old Crohn’s sufferer and medical cannabis patient in Ontario, Canada who was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2002, when he was 40 years old. At the onset of his disease, Graham lost more than 60 pounds and regularly suffered from insomnia. He was in such obviously poor health that he was forced to resign from his job, suffering the combined effects of loss of income paired with expensive drug treatments.  

At one point, Graham was consuming 33 pills each day. He described the negative impact of the pharmaceuticals on his life.

“You go into the drug store and you’re looking for a container so you can organize your pills, one that has separate containers for Monday through Sunday,” 

he said.

“But the whole container doesn’t have enough room to hold one day worth of pills.

IBD Al Graham

Graham said he often suffers from the negative side effects of his pharmaceutical drugs.

“I feel like an old man, like an 80-year-old with a cane. My joints, my muscles…and it’s from the medications,”

he said.

Graham is quick to point out that cannabis helps not only the symptoms of his Crohn’s disease, but also the side effects of the pharmaceutical drugs he must take.

“I’m currently on two of the hardest drugs my doctor can prescribe to me,”

he continued,

“There’s no other drug that he can give me.”

His reliance on cannabis, preferably in the form of vapor or edibles, has decreased his capsule consumption from 33 to only four pills a day. The consumption of fewer pharmaceutical drugs also delivers a significant decrease in negative side effects. The positive effect of reducing pharmaceutical drug intake can’t be over exaggerated.

Schedule I: Preventing Research

Studies that report a complete remission in 50 percent and significant relief for 100 percent of participants who received cannabis (instead of a placebo) signals that the herb is likely an amazingly effective treatment for IBD diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis — especially for patients who don’t respond to conventional treatments. With efficacy levels so high and remission a common reality, one question logically emerges: Should Crohn’s sufferers use cannabis as a first resort instead of after all other conventional treatments have failed?

Until the United States federal government changes the classification of marijuana to Schedule II or lower on the Controlled Substances Act, the half million Crohn’s patients in the U.S. who medicate with cannabis will be categorized as criminals and subject to prosecution.

Such amazing remission percentages for Crohn’s beg the question: Why aren’t more sufferers using cannabis in an effort to put their disease into remission? Does the Schedule I status of cannabis unfairly punish innocent sufferers who could otherwise live disease free? If use of cannabis to treat IBD was legal, how many patients would pursue cannabis as their treatment of choice?

This post was originally published on August 31, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.

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