Crohn's Disease is an autoimmune disease that results in chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It generally affects the beginning of the large intestine and the lower section of the small bowel. Symptoms of Crohn's Disease include persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain and intestinal obstruction, occasionally combined with rectal bleeding. Some two-thirds of patients with Crohn's will require surgery at some point during their lifetime to reduce their symptoms.
Dr. Jeffrey Hergenrather recently published research in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology that suggests that medical marijuana may offer relief to certain patients with Crohn's disease. Because patients with Crohn's or irritable bowel disease (IBD) have high levels of endocannabinoid receptors in their GI tract, Hergenrather wondered if the cannabinoids in marijuana could reduce their inflammation.
In his study, published in 2013, Hergenrather found that 10 out of 11 patients who were treated with medical marijuana had "significant reduction in symptoms." Five of those patients experienced a complete remission of the disease.
"This has a huge effect on patients with Crohn's disease," said Hergenrather in an interview with O'Shaugnessy's. He originally conceived of the study in 2000 when he compared notes with other clinicians about the effects medical marijuana was having on their patients. "We noticed right off that people were saying cannabis was working for Crohn's Disease," he says.
Cannabis acts on receptors in the brain called CB1 and CB2, which are protein molecules that change their shape when they encounter a chemical stimulus. Stimulation of CB1 and CB2 receptors causes changes in brain and body function. CB1 and CB2 are receptors that change their shape when they encounter cannabinoids like THC. This process occurs in the GI tract when medical marijuana is used. Due to the fact that both CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors are found in the digestive system, medical marijuana is particularly promising as a treatment regimen for patients with digestive disorders. When medical marijuana activates CB1 receptors intestinal movement is decreased, which can potentially help treat persistent diarrhea. When CB2 cannabinoid receptors are activated by medical marijuana, they decrease the production of the immune cells responsible for inflammation. Additionally, THC has been shown to help reduce fluid leakage through the lining of the GI tract.
While edibles are not always ideal for patients with Crohn's, due to the sensitivity of their stomachs, they are the fastest way to get cannabinoids to the receptors in the GI tract. Alternative delivery methods patients with Crohn's can use are sublingual oils, vaporization, and smoking.