How Cannabis Affects the Digestive System

Cannabis affects the digestive system in a multitude of ways, both positive and negative. Here’s why—and how to choose the best products to relieve symptoms and boost digestive health
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From causing the “munchies” to relieving nausea from chemotherapy, cannabis affects the digestive system in a multitude of ways. The many compounds and terpenes in cannabis work with the body’s systems to regulate appetite, boost digestive health and improve the symptoms of digestive disorders. But overindulging in cannabis, or choosing the wrong products, can trigger digestive upsets ranging from mild to severe.

The digestive system includes all the organs and functions for processing food and extracting essential nutrients to keep the body working properly. It’s also home to the gut biome, a complex community of microbes and other organisms called the body’s “second brain.” This delicate ecosystem is responsible for managing digestion and regulating appetite, hunger, and even mood.

The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is a far-ranging network of cell receptors that can respond to both cannabinoid compounds produced by the body and cannabinoid compounds from the cannabis plant. ECS receptors are found in most organs and tissues, and one receptor, CB2, is highly concentrated in the digestive system.

That’s why cannabis compounds like THC and CBD can activate ECS receptors to promote digestive health and relieve the symptoms of many gastrointestinal disorders.

Cannabis Can Boost Appetite

The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that regulates hunger signaling and satiation. To tell the body to stop eating, or to eat more, the hypothalamus responds to changes in the levels of ghrelin, a hormone produced in the stomach, and leptin, which is secreted from fat cells.

Smoking cannabis makes you hungry because THC in cannabis binds to receptors in the hypothalamus, which stimulates the release of ghrelin. Also, cannabis can stimulate the olfactory bulb to make food taste better. These effects can help people coping with low appetite or other digestive issues caused by various health conditions or the effects of chemotherapy.

Cannabis Can Relieve Symptoms of Digestive Disorders

Millions of Americans suffer from digestive disorders, which can range from mild indigestion to severe, chronic gastrointestinal diseases, including the following:

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a functional bowel disease that affects colonic motility—the movement of muscles that enable digestion and the passage of waste.
  • Colitis, a term for a group of bowel diseases that cause inflammation, bleeding and swelling of tissues in the colon and other parts of the digestive tract
  • Crohn’s Disease, a severe and chronic form of colitis that can interfere with the digestion of food and the absorption of nutrients

Cannabis compounds, particularly CBD, can help to relieve the inflammation and pain of these and other digestive disorders such as diarrhea and constipation.

Cannabis Isn’t Always Good for the Digestive System

Because the digestive system is rich in ECS receptors, it can also be highly reactive to cannabis, which can cause problems like bloating, nausea or vomiting. And in some cases, cannabis users can develop a potentially serious condition called cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, characterized by uncontrolled vomiting and dehydration.

How to Use Cannabis for Digestive Health

Cannabis can help to support digestive health, but not all forms of cannabis work equally well. Cannabis products containing THC can boost appetite and combat nausea, but a high THC content can also cause anxiety, paranoia and other distressing effects. CBD can balance these effects, and CBD products like tinctures and oils can effectively relieve chronic digestive diseases’ pain and inflammation.

Smoking, tinctures and sublingual products are among the most effective ways to deliver digestive benefits of cannabis quickly. But if you’re having digestive problems, use edibles with caution. The digestive system must process these products before they become bioavailable, which slows their effects. They also contain ingredients that can cause digestive distress on their own. Other edibles, such as tablets, capsules or powders, can help evade those risks.


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