One of the more common health issues in America is something you’d probably never guess. It isn’t broken bones, heart disease or obesity, although those are common, too. Shockingly, an estimated 60–70 million Americans are living with a digestive disease, which includes everything from irritable bowel disorder (IBD) to acid reflux disease.
And even more Americans, to the tune of 74% according to one survey, say they live with gastrointestinal discomfort like painful bloating, gas or diarrhea,.
Irregularity of the bowels isn’t exactly dinner table conversation for most people. This probably in part explains why, according to the same survey, over half of that 74% have never spoken to their doctor about their discomfort. And those who do seek help are often met with subpar clinical solutions. There simply aren’t many effective “traditional” treatments for some digestive diseases.
Because currently available treatments don’t offer great results, researchers and doctors are looking for answers to digestive problems in new places, including cannabidiol (CBD). To help understand how CBD affects digestion and digestive disorders, we spoke with HelloMD’s Dr. Richard Kim, who has seen firsthand the success of using CBD for digestive issues with his own patients.
Common Digestive Issues & Their Symptoms
Let’s focus on three main digestive issues:
- Irritable bowel disorder (IBD, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, also known as acid reflux or heartburn)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Dr. Kim explains that inflammation is central to both IBD and GERD. IBD’s symptoms manifest as:
- Painful cramping
- Loss of appetite
The symptoms of GERD are more specific to the chest and throat, causing:
- Chest pain
- Trouble swallowing
- A lump in the throat
- Regurgitation of food
Inflammation doesn’t play a key role in IBS, but it can still be painful. There are three types of IBS, and each have different symptoms:
- IBS with constipation
- IBS with diarrhea
- IBS with alternating constipation and diarrhea
The titles explain the symptoms pretty clearly, but IBS can also cause:
- Clear or white mucus on stool
People often assume chronic conditions like these are little more than an upset stomach. But it’s important to understand that digestive issues can severely debilitate a person and hamper their quality of life in more ways than just pain.
In reality, these digestive disorders can lead to anxiety, depression and even isolation. According to Dr. Kim, “Several studies show that among patients who seek medical attention for IBS or IBD, around 70% of IBS patients and 30% of IBD patients have additional psychiatric disorders—depression and generalized anxiety disorder being the most common.”
How CBD Affects Digestive Disorders
We asked Dr. Kim to explain how CBD works to fight these three main digestive issues. He explains, “It all boils down to the endocannabinoid system (ECS).” The ECS is a system in the body that’s largely devoted to maintaining homeostasis, the tendency of organisms to auto-regulate and maintain their internal environment at equilibrium.
But when the ECS isn’t working properly, it can create problems or make existing issues worse. According to Dr. Kim, “The ECS has become a focus for researchers seeking treatment options for several conditions—especially those that have few, if any, effective pharmaceutical treatments, such as celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, IBD and IBS.”
Supplementing the system with CBD seems to help correct ECS deficiencies. Dr. Kim explains, “CBD works by balancing and supporting the ECS through its subtle effects on the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2, as well as other receptors that modulate serotonin, GABA, dopamine and many more.”
Since IBD and GERD are both digestive conditions caused by inflammation, CBD can be an effective treatment. This is because CBD has strong anti-inflammatory properties that can calm an inflamed GI tract.
Dr. Kim says that recent preclinical research suggests that CBD may lower GI inflammation by restoring homeostasis in gilal cells found in the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is a system of neurons found in the GI tract that controls how well or poorly it functions.
IBS isn’t an inflammatory disorder, but there’s potential for CBD as a treatment based on its unique relationship with the ENS. According to Dr. Kim, CBD can lessen painful intestinal contractions and secretions. He highlights an ongoing, randomized, placebo controlled, double-blind, crossover trial that “has shown chewable CBD to significantly reduce IBS-related pain.”
CBD can also work against the unexpected symptoms of digestive disorders, like anxiety and depression. Dr. Kim says that CBD increases serotonin signaling, producing antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties like a prescription selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medication.
In fact, according to Dr. Kim, “SSRIs have been shown to alleviate anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as ease some of the abdominal pain and bowel symptoms involved in IBS, IBD and GERD.”
This is why SSRIs are commonly prescribed to treat these digestive disorders. But they do come with their own side effects like dizziness, blurred vision and insomnia. Luckily, CBD is a natural alternative.
Using CBD to Ease Digestive Issues
There are many ways to ingest CBD. So, what’s the best way to use CBD to relieve digestive issues? Dr. Kim says all delivery methods should work, but he recommends a tincture, edible or capsule so that “the CBD can act both locally and systemically.”
As with all things CBD, it’s important to record your treatment—how much CBD you take, how often and details of the product itself. This way, if you feel your first regimen isn’t providing the results you need, you know where to tweak your medicine.
Also, sometimes it can take a bit of time for enough CBD to build up in your body to help it balance itself. Stick with a CBD protocol for at least a month before tinkering with dosage. Not everyone experiences immediate relief after taking CBD, but some have felt amazing results after a few months of consumption.
Photo credit: Radu Florin
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