Cannabis might be best known for its use as a recreational drug (or colloquially as weed, dope, and pot) but its medicinal properties have been used for centuries in many parts of the world. Cannabidiol – also known as CBD – is a booming area of research right now. There’s a growing interest in its health benefits amongst the general population and with that comes plenty of PR and spin. Here’s what the science says about using cannabis and CBD oil to manage the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
First of all, an explainer on cannabis. What’s the difference between THC and CBD?
There are two main species of cannabis plants – Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica – both of which contain a variety of compounds called cannabinoids. You may have heard of the most abundant of these compounds, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It’s known to cause psychotropic effects i.e. a “high”. The other common cannabinoid is the non-euphoric cannabidiol or CBD.
Wondering where marijuana comes into all of this? Marijuana is the mix of dried flowers, stems, and leaves from the cannabis plant.
What are the health benefits of cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids interact with our nervous system though receptors in our digestive tract and our immune system. They’ve shown promising results in the treatment of varied medical conditions. These include epilepsy and neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. They’ve also been studied as treatment for nausea and vomiting, often as a side effect of chemotherapy. In fact, the NSW Government is currently backing the largest, most definitive clinical trial ever undertaken to evaluate cannabis medicine as nausea prevention in patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Cannabis has also been used to treat a number of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions such as anorexia, abdominal pain, inflammatory diarrhoea and diabetic gastroparesis. However, the psychotropic effects limit its use in practice. On the other hand, CBD demonstrates the same beneficial effects on our health without the buzz.
Does CBD help with IBS symptoms?
There’s growing evidence linking IBS symptoms like abdominal pain to the cannabinoid system, suggesting cannabinoids could help reduce this pain. Recent studies demonstrate positive effects of THC in people with diarrhoea-predominant and alternating IBS. In a small study, as little as a single 5mg dose of dronabinol (a man-made version of THC) lead to a reduction in colonic motility (the speed of gut emptying through the large intestine). This rate of emptying in people with IBS is often increased so further research in this area may help with symptom management.
Additionally, there is growing evidence to support the use of CBD in the treatment of anxiety disorders. The link between anxiety and IBS is well established and works in both directions. This means IBS can increase stress and anxiety and vice versa. CBD could play a therapeutic role in the treatment of IBS by breaking this cycle. There’s also the potential for the gut-brain axis to be modified through cannabinoid signalling, which could offer new therapeutic opportunities to reduce conditions such as leaky gut and alter the gut microbiome.
What is CBD oil?
CBD oil is made by extracting CBD from the cannabis plant and combining it with a carrier oil like coconut or hemp seed oil. In area where it’s legal, like the United States, it’s a popular method of deriving the potential benefits of CBD. Other methods of delivery include edibles like gummies, capsules, sprays and other topicals. One analysis projects that the CBD market will top $20 billion per year by 2024.
What are the legalities around the use of CBD oil for IBS?
The legalities of using CBD to treat IBS depends on where you live. For those in Australia, medicinal CBD is classified as a prescription only medication when prepared appropriately, so you can’t buy it over the counter or online. Doctors must apply to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) for an approval to be able to prescribe products containing CBD. You can find more information about approved GPs here.
For those in the US and UK it remains a grey area, with legalities varying by state and method of preparation. The laws around CBD oil and other cannabis products are constantly changing, especially with new research coming out. If you’re looking into the use of CBD oil, make sure to speak to your doctor about it and look up the appropriate legislation in your location.
It’s important to keep in mind that at this stage, there’s not enough evidence to promote the use of CBD oil for IBS. However, this is a growing field so stay tuned as further research is uncovered in this space!