Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects millions of Americans every day. It’s a painful and restrictive condition that prevents people from enjoying many common activities like swimming or going out with friends. However, new research indicates that CBD may have major benefits for people with IBS.
IBS is a spectrum of disorders characterized by abdominal discomfort and pain, which are also associated with altered bowel habits. Gut motility, secretion, and sensation may be altered in patients with IBS, though the pathophysiology (i.e. the functional changes associated with the condition) of IBS remains to be fully understood.
IBS commonly causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. Unlike intestinal diseases such as celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease, IBS does not cause inflammation or changes in bowel tissue, nor does it increase the risk of colorectal cancer. IBS is much more common in women than men, with working females most likely to suffer from IBS. An estimated 50 percent of people experience initial symptoms before the age of 35, with most people experiencing IBS symptoms between the ages of 25 and 54.
How Can CBD Treat IBS?
Research has shown that cannabinoids such as CBD play a major neuromodulatory role in our gastrointestinal (GI) system. Cannabinoids are naturally-occurring chemicals found in the cannabis plant — similar chemicals, called endocannabinoids, are produced in the human body, which has a network of receptors (called the endocannabinoid system, or ECS) that regulates many body functions.
CBD activates these cannabinoid receptors, which are found in every tissue throughout our body. The result is a decrease in gastrointestinal fluid secretion and inflammation. It is also possible that CBD’s analgesic and antiemetic effects (i.e. its ability to reduce pain and nausea, respectively) can ease the suffering of IBS patients. CBD is also capable of blocking IBS pain promoted by gastrointestinal, spinal, and peripheral mechanisms.
All of this is possible because of CBD’s effects on the endocannabinoid system, since the ECS is involved in the regulation of numerous gastrointestinal functions — including motility, sensation, and secretion under both physiological and pathophysiological conditions (i.e. whether or not the body is dealing with any disease). Activation of cannabinoid CB1 and CB2 receptors under various circumstances helps to reduce motility, limit secretion, and decreases hypersensitivity in the gut. Drugs that alter the levels of endocannabinoids in the gut also reduce motility and mitigate inflammation.
CBD acts as an agonist (i.e. a substance that induces a response) on the cannabinoid receptors — specifically, CB1 & CB2 — within our GI tract. Although it acts indirectly on these receptors, it relieves the pain and spasms associated with IBS and can result in better motility.
Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher, has a fascinating theory on why CBD is an excellent medicine in patients with IBS. Russo says that gastrointestinal illnesses such as IBS occur due to a lack of endocannabinoids within the symptomatic patients’ GI systems. His research has found that patients with IBS tend to have an “endocannabinoid deficiency.” In other words, the lack of endocannabinoids throws off the patient’s homeostasis and causes problems with the immune system and digestive tract.
Studies have found that CBD (which effectively “replaces” the missing endocannabinoids) can relieve a multitude of symptoms associated with IBS such as cramping, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and even depression. Individuals with IBS often feel embarrassed by the unpredictable and spontaneous bursts of diarrhea and cramping they experience. Cramping is usually caused by “hypermotility,” which is a term used to explain when food moves too quickly through your digestive tract.
A healthy GI tract will expand and contract in perfectly timed peristaltic waves that helps process food more slowly through the GI tract. If you have IBS, it is most likely due to food moving way too fast. The disruption of this timing means patients will suffer from loose stools and cramping. Studies have shown that CBD can relax the cramping and help restore a healthy GI tract.
If you’re interested in trying CBD to treat your IBS, there are many excellent options available. However, you’ll still want to consult your physician to ensure that CBD won’t interfere with any of your current medications.