Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, affects about 15% of the world’s population. The condition causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. In IBS, the digestive system appears normal, but it doesn’t function properly. Treatments typically include lifestyle changes and medications to relieve symptoms. But these medications can have limited success and severe side effects.
Now, many IBS sufferers are finding relief for their symptoms with the cannabis compound cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is found in hemp, a type of cannabis that contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient in cannabis that makes people feel high.
Recently discovered connections between the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), the gut and the brain explain why CBD can be an effective treatment for the many different symptoms of IBS—without the risks and side effects of standard prescription medications.
What Is IBS?
For years, IBS has baffled doctors and medical researchers. It’s considered a “functional” disorder of the digestive system since examinations of the digestive tract with endoscopes and other imaging tools don’t reveal a physical cause, such as ulcerations or inflammation.
With IBS, the digestive system simply doesn’t work the way it should. And it results in the classic symptoms of:
In some people, diarrhea predominates; this type of IBS is called IBS-D. Meanwhile, people whose primary symptom is constipation are said to have IBS-C. And still others can have alternating bouts of both problems.
Other symptoms are associated with IBS, too. These can include:
- Brain fog
- Problems sleeping
People with IBS are also likely to have mood and anxiety disorders. A recent study found that IBS sufferers are 50% more likely to have an anxiety disorder than those without IBS. IBS sufferers are also 70% more likely to have a mood disorder, such as depression.
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IBS Treatments Focus on Symptom Relief
Doctors aren’t sure what causes IBS. But they think some factors include:
- Past traumas
Some people with IBS have highly sensitive digestive systems that can be triggered by:
- Emotional stress
- Eating certain foods
- Menstrual periods
But whatever the triggering factors may be, the result is a disruption of the connections between the gut and the brain. This leads to abnormalities in a process called colonic motility—the movement of intestinal muscles and liquids that enable digestion. This process may happen too fast, causing diarrhea. Or it may slow down and cause constipation.
Since we don’t understand the causes of IBS clearly, treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms that interfere with daily life. For some people with IBS, lifestyle and diet changes can help, such as:
- Reducing stress
- Eating more fiber
- Avoiding problem foods like dairy
- Going to therapy to relieve stress, anxiety and depression
But a wide variety of very different kinds of medications is also a major part of managing IBS. These can include:
- Over-the-counter medications to relieve gas, diarrhea and constipation
- Anticholinergics, or medications such as Bentyl, which relieve bowel spasms
- Antidepressants of various kinds, including tricyclic antidepressants like Tofranil and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Paxil
- Pain medications such as Lyrica and Neurontin
Pharmaceutical companies have developed few medications specifically to treat IBS that don’t respond to other approaches. For example, medications like Amitiza and Viberzi target processes like muscle contractions and fluid secretion in the intestines.
These medications for IBS symptoms can cause side effects, and some of them can be severe. That’s why people with IBS are turning to CBD in any of its many forms—as an oil, topical or edible.
CBD’s many documented healing properties include relief from pain, anxiety and depression, all of which are associated with IBS. But more than simply providing relief from symptoms, research indicates that CBD may be able to address what some scientists see as the root cause of IBS: deficiencies in the body’s ECS.
The Endocannabinoid System Connects the Gut & the Brain
Over the past couple of decades, research has focused on the ECS, a network of receptors and chemicals called ligands that appears to affect the activity of nearly every cell in the body. Two endocannabinoids, cannabinoid-like chemicals produced naturally in the body, called anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) activate the ECS.
But external cannabinoids from plant sources, particularly compounds in the Cannabis sativa plant, such as CBD also interact with the ECS.
Many studies have documented the strong connection between the brain and the digestive system, or the gut. It’s a connection so powerful that some researchers have called the gut a second brain.
The digestive system has many of the same neurotransmitter receptors as the brain does, and they’re connected by the vagus nerve and other parts of the central nervous system. This connection explains many familiar phenomena such as
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Nausea upon seeing a nasty image
- Diarrhea during stress
The digestive tract, the brain and the spinal cord are all rich in the endocannabinoid receptor CB1, which helps the body maintain balance, or homeostasis. This includes moderating the responses of pain receptors and pathways for feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
In this way, CBD mimics the activity of the body’s natural endocannabinoids, particularly anandamide.
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CBD Can Regulate Signaling Between Systems
Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants can help treat IBS symptoms. This appears to confirm the connection between the gut and brain. Both areas contain abundant cannabinoid receptors, too. Researchers studying the processes that cause IBS have linked IBS to migraines and fibromyalgia, two other “functional” disorders without a clearly defined cause.
Both migraines and fibromyalgia respond to CBD, which appears to support the expression of anandamide. Recent studies imply that both these disorders may be linked to low levels of these natural cannabinoids—a condition called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.
This means the same deficiency may cause the disruption of brain and gut signaling that produces the symptoms of IBS. And it also explains why CBD can help relieve these symptoms.
Taking CBD for IBS Symptoms
You can take CBD in many forms:
In all of these forms, CBD can activate endocannabinoid receptors throughout the body—and bring balance to both the gut and the brain.
It may take some time for CBD levels in the body to rise enough to balance your ECS, so pick the form of CBD that fits best with your lifestyle and try to add it to your daily routine, like you would a multivitamin each morning.
After a couple of weeks or even months, reassess your IBS symptoms. Hopefully, you’ll recognize a reduction in your symptoms.
Photo credit: Mr. Thanathip Phatraiwat/Shutterstock.com
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