In partnership with The Fresh Toast

A major reason many patients turn to medicinal cannabis is to treat chronic pain. A 2019 study published in the journal Health Affairs found that more than 62% of medical marijuana patients used the plant to relieve pain symptoms.

People with chronic bowel problems also experience severe pain, and patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis have started using medicinal cannabis to treat their symptoms. While cannabis has therapeutic value for these people, its main benefit doesn't really have to do with their pain.

Until recently, we weren't entirely sure why cannabis was so effective in treating chronic bowel problems. However, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation showed the physical way cannabis attacks IBD. Instead of looking for the effects of marijuana on the microbiome, the researchers came across the answer.

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What cannabis treated was their inflammation. Previous studies have shown that cannabis is a useful anti-inflammatory agent, but works slightly differently for IBD. First a little anatomy lesson. A thin layer of cells called epithelial cells separates our intestines from the rest of our body and is responsible for regulating various mechanisms, such as controlling how many neutrophils enter.

Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that crosses the intestines and eats up microbes. When too many neutrophils slip in, killing peaceful microbes and the gut itself, it causes IBD in patients. However, researchers discovered that epithelial cells aren't the only gate controlling what goes into our intestines.

Illustration by MEHAU KULYK / SCIENO PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

As Beth McCormick of the University of Massachusetts and others found, our endocannabinoid system also contributes. Imagine the endocannabinoid system, which acts as a regulatory system for the gut. Not everyone produces enough cannabinoids to support the proper functioning of the intestines. This explains why cannabis ingestion of cannabinoids has been shown to be effective for patients.

"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence of the benefits of medical marijuana, but there isn't a lot of science to back it up," said McCormick, who co-authored the study.

“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 investigate to treat patients with inflammatory bowel disease and possibly other diseases as well. "

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It's worth noting that researchers haven't conducted studies of the use of cannabinoids from marijuana to replace those that are absent in people with IBD. However, the team behind the study believe this could open the door to help the 1.6 million Americans with IBD.

Randy Mrsny, co-author of the study and professor in the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology at Bath University, said, “While this is a plausible explanation for why marijuana users have reported that cannabis relieves symptoms of IBD, we only worked on mice and did have not proven this experimentally in humans. "

"However, our results may provide a mechanistic explanation for anecdotal data that cannabinoid exposure benefits some colitis patients," he added. "For the first time we have identified a counterbalance to the inflammatory response in the gut and hope that these results will help us develop new ways of treating bowel disease."

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