by Tasha Kerry on 13/11/2018 | Opinion

Does Cannabis Help or Harm my IBS?

IBS My stomach problems started in my mid-twenties, the cramps, constant bloating, and fatigue after eating. I often avoided food as a solution, or if the pain was bad, drank a cup of mint and smoked a joint. To this day, I still use the same system, but have to wonder am I self-medicating or aggravating a vicious cycle?


Good Health Starts in Your Stomach

Because I knew nothing about nutrition when my digestive issues began, I’d no idea my diet was the problem. Like most kids who grew up in northern Europe in the seventies and eighties, I was raised on cereal, cold meat sandwiches and spaghetti Bolognese, and being Irish, I also got a fair share of potatoes. What I now know is that this diet, heavy in acid and starch, laid the foundation for a lifetime of stomach problems.

At age 30, I ended up in hospital with cramps so bad I had to be sedated for a week. The doctors did a bunch of tests but couldn’t find anything wrong. When they released me, they gave me no advice or guidelines, as they’d done nothing but get rid of the symptom, the pain. I went to a gastroenterologist, had a colonoscopy, but it too showed nothing wrong, and that doctor was equally unhelpful.

Does Cannabis Help or Harm My IBS?

By age 32, I was at crisis point, dealing with constant nausea and tiredness. I smoked hash for energy and to settle my stomach, living on coffee and joints, noticing that cutting food seemed to help. I began an elimination diet, cutting out everything bar a handful of vegetables and chicken or fish. Over the next six months I learned I was allergic to bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, milk, ice cream, tea, coffee, processed meats, beer, and ketchup, or anything that was high in acid or starch. I was also allergic to stress.

We now know that stress plays a big role in gut health, and can lead to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and peptic ulcer disease. More recent research has revealed the role of the microbiome, and how imbalances in gut bacteria can lead to inflammatory and autoimmune conditions. It’s estimated that the number of bacteria in the gut is around 40 trillion, made up of around 1,000 different species.

Bacteria, Cannabinoids & Gut Health

While much research is still needed to understand the full influence of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), the biological system that stretches across the brain, GI tract, nervous system, glands, skin, immune system, and connective tissues, it’s now known it controls a variety of digestive functions including motility, fat intake, hunger signaling, gut permeability and interactions with the microbiome.

The importance of the microbiome in relation to the ECS is one of the newest areas of scientific research but many studies show a healthy balance of bacteria is essential for overall health. To understand just how pervasive microbes are, here’s a list of some of the most common bacterial conditions: acne, asthma, allergies, autism, autoimmune diseases, cancer, dental cavities, depression, anxiety, diabetes, eczema, gastric ulcers, hardening of the arteries, IBD, malnutrition and obesity.

Does Cannabis Help or Harm My IBS?

One of the most frustrating things about a condition like IBS is that there are no physical markers, meaning that none of the usual tests for gluten enteropathy, colonoscopy, or barium studies identify the source of the disorder. However, a 2003 study confirmed that because digestion, secretion and inflammation are controlled by the ECS, cannabinoids can be used as a treatment for patients with IBS. It’s estimated that up to 15 per cent of the world population has IBS, but only 5 to 7 per cent are diagnosed.

Imbalances to the gut microbiome can be caused by any number of factors but the most common include overuse of antibiotics, stress and diet. Each factor causes a spike in bad bacteria, and the connections are so prevalent that a 2015 Canadian study found that people with IBS were twice as likely to also have a generalized anxiety disorder. It may come as no surprise that cannabis was recommended to treat IBS-sufferers after conventional treatments failed.

Gut Health is a Lifestyle

Research shows when receptors in the gut are triggered, they act as an anti-inflammatory agent in the intestines, transferring molecules called endocannabinoids across the gut lining that keep inflammation in check. As a result, endocannabinoids influence levels of inflammation in the gut, and the bacteria that lead to IBS and IBD autoimmune conditions such as Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis.

But cannabinoids are just one factor that influences inflammation in the body, and all the cannabis in the world is not going to help someone who insists on eating take-out every night, refuses to do any exercise, and thinks lettuce is for rabbits. Go to any health-based website and expect to find tips like eat whole grains, try a plant-based diet or eat food rich in polyphenols, but as anyone with IBS knows, often following the advice of nutritionists can make the problem worse.

Does Cannabis Help or Harm My IBS?

That’s because, like a fingerprint, everyone’s microbiome is unique to their environment, and what works for one person is not necessarily going to work for another. For example, if a doctor told me to eat whole grains as a way to balance my microbiome, I’d flat out refuse because I know I’d be sick with a bloated stomach for days. Over a period of ten years, I’ve figured out what I can and can’t eat, and successfully manage my IBS and gout, with a mix of exercise, a Paleo/Keto diet, and cannabis.

Could I do better? Yes, 100%. I still have issues, but I’m more aware of my triggers, and take preventative measures. Regular exercise has definitely been the biggest help, but I also avoid eating anything if I don’t know its exact contents. This means I never eat out, as experience has taught me it’s not worth the risk. As well as preparing my own food, and rarely drinking alcohol, I keep my calorific intake to healthy levels though as a cannabis user, I’m guilty of over-eating some days. However, one study found that overeating by cannabis users led to higher levels of HDL, good cholesterol, and better insulin resistance.

Conclusion. Though the research is still in its infancy, there’s enough evidence to convince me I’ve been self-medicating with cannabis all these years, and will continue to do so. Balancing my cannabis intake with a regime of regular exercise, along with a high fat, low carb diet has been an essential part of restoring my health. And when I do get an attack, I’ll continue to rely on the treatment that served me for years, a cup of mint tea and a joint.

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