Colitis can affect people of any age, even very young children. And depending on the cause, it can have serious consequences for overall health.
Colitis is a general term for inflammation of the colon—an ailment that’s responsible for a variety of conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Because there are so many different kinds of colitis, treatments can range from a course of antibiotics to surgery. But some research suggests that cannabis can help relieve the symptoms of many forms of colitis, thanks to the many healing properties of the cannabis, and in particular the marijuana compound cannabidiol (CBD).
What Causes Colitis?
Just about everyone has experienced some form of digestive upset, and usually these kinds of problems resolve themselves in a matter of days. But colitis is typically a chronic condition that causes long-term disruption in all areas of life.
Depending on the cause and the symptoms, there are a number of different subtypes of colitis, including:
- Inflammatory bowel diseases: These include conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, an illness in which ulcers form on colon tissues, causing pain and bleeding.
- Infectious colitis: This is a type of colitis that bacteria, viruses or parasites cause.
- Collagenous colitis: When excess collagen, a type of protein, forms on colon tissues, the result is collagenous colitis, which typically presents as chronic diarrhea.
- Lymphocytic colitis: An increase of white blood cells, or lymphocytes, on colon tissues results in lymphocytic colitis
- Ischemic colitis: In this condition, plaque blocks arteries, cutting off blood flow to the colon.
- Fulminant colitis: This kind of colitis is rare but acute and severe, requiring immediate treatment. Symptoms can include daily, non-stop bleeding plus abdominal cramps.
Certain medical treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery to place an ostomy bag or remove a portion of the intestine can also cause colitis.
Colitis can have many different symptoms, too. Along with diarrhea and abdominal pain, colitis sufferers can also experience:
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid weight loss
- Joint aches and pains
- Blood or mucus in the stool
- Paralysis of the colon
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Mouth ulcers
Folks who suffer from some forms of colitis can treat their condition at home or with a course of antibiotics. But other treatments can include:
- IV fluids to combat dehydration
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Surgery to relieve blockages and remove damaged tissue
Because colitis conditions are usually chronic, they require ongoing management that can also include careful monitoring of diet and other lifestyle changes, along with medications for pain, diarrhea and other symptoms as needed.
How Can Marijuana Help Colitis Symptoms?
In the U.S., research on the effects of cannabis on colitis symptoms has been limited due to legal restrictions.
Although cannabis is legal for medical purposes in many states, it’s still illegal on the federal level, and it appears on the same list of highly restricted substances that includes heroin and LSD. This makes it difficult to conduct a traditional controlled cannabis study, so researchers often turn to anecdotal evidence from people taking cannabis on their own to relive colitis symptoms.
Many of these folks say that consuming marijuana in various forms helps to relieve the pain, digestive distress and inflammation of colitis. Along with those effects, they say cannabis can also help to ease the anxiety and depression that often comes with chronic colitis conditions.
Other insights on cannabis for colitis symptoms also come from a larger body of research on the effects of cannabis for digestive health in general. These studies reveal that numerous compounds and terpenes in the Cannabis sativa plant have documented properties for fighting inflammation and infection, and for promoting normal digestive functions.
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How Cannabis Can Support the Digestive System
The human body is home to a rich network of cannabinoid receptors that are part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This ECS supports balance, or homeostasis, among many of the body’s essential processes, including:
Some research even suggests that the ECS may be the main regulatory system for the entire body.
Endocannabinoid receptors can respond both to natural cannabinoids produced by the body itself and to cannabinoids from plant sources, particularly marijuana. When cannabis chemicals such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) activate these receptors, they respond just as they would to the natural cannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG.
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The gastrointestinal tract is rich in endocannabinoid receptors, which support signaling between the brain and the gut. This connection explains why some people have “butterflies in their stomach” before speaking to a crowd, or why it’s common to have nausea or diarrhea when you’re feeling anxious.
Because the GI tract has so many cannabinoid receptors, cannabis can help to relieve many of the typical symptoms of various types of colitis, such as pain, diarrhea and constipation.
Marijuana can have a calming effect, and research reveals that the compound CBD can also help to regulate motility in the bowel—the contractions that help to move solid and liquid waste through the digestive tract. In some types of colitis, bowel motility can be severely disrupted, causing episodes of diarrhea and constipation.
CBD and other cannabis compounds and terpenes also have documented effects as pain relievers. These compounds can activate receptors related to pain signaling and support the production of the body’s own feel good chemicals:
In this way, cannabis can help to relieve the pain and aching joints that often accompany attacks of colitis and the chronic discomfort of conditions like Crohn’s disease.
A number of studies have shown that cannabis can be a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, too. Since colitis symptoms are caused by inflammation of the tissues lining the colon, cannabis can help to lower levels of inflammation, especially if the cannabis is high in CBD.
Cannabis also has antibacterial properties, so it may also help to fight infections that cause inflammation in the colon.
How to Take Marijuana for Colitis
Colitis sufferers can take cannabis to help relieve their symptoms in many ways. Whole-plant cannabis contains the full suite of compounds and terpenes, which work together to relieve symptoms like anxiety, pain and depression.
Look for strains high in CBD for a calming effect that also helps regulate digestive activity. Smoking or vaping can be a quick and effective way to get those effects.
Edibles containing whole-plant cannabis or cannabis extracts can be effective too, but their effects are felt more slowly. And it’s important to check labels to be sure that other ingredients in the edible itself, such as nuts or sweeteners, won’t trigger colitis symptoms.
Marijuana oils, especially if they’re high in CBD, can provide swift relief from colitis symptoms without concerns about trigger ingredients. If you’re new to consuming cannabis for your colitis symptoms, it’s important to start slowly and gradually work toward a dose that helps you. And if you currently take other medications, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before you add marijuana to the mix, since cannabis can interact with a long list of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
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