Cultural idioms like “butterflies in the stomach” and “gut feelings” are more than funny little aphorisms. They express a neurological reality that we are only just beginning to understand.
The Gut-Brain-Immune Connection
There are roughly the same number of neurons in the gut as there are in the brain, and the two are in constant dialogue. But there is also a third party in this conversation—the immune system.
The gut houses approximately 70 – 80% of your immune cells, defending you from potential pathogens that may have snuck in with your food.
The brain talks to the gut. The gut talks to the brain. They both talk to the immune system, and together, they coordinate your gut health—when to pass things through (diarrhea), when to slow them down and absorb (digestion), when to go on high alert and attack (inflammation). This 3-way conversation is very complex and mediated almost entirely via the endocannabinoid system.
Inflammation Is the Enemy
Most chronic gut issues are the result of inflammation. Things like irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and even Crohn’s disease. They all share the characteristic of uncontrollable inflammation—the immune system isn’t turning like it should so it just keeps attacking and causing collateral damage throughout the gut.
This leads to all kinds of uncomfortable experiences like food allergies and hypersensitivity, digestive issues, bowel irregularities, low energy, and visceral pain.
Sometimes the problem’s origin lies in nutrition, sometimes in chronic stress, sometimes even in genetics. But fundamentally, this is a communication problem between the gut, brain, and immune system.
And now we know these networks of specialized cells talk to each other—the endocannabinoid system.
Cannabinoids and Inflammation
Cannabis contains hundreds of active compounds, the two most prominent being THC and CBD. Interestingly, both of these powerful chemicals have potent anti-inflammatory effects which they achieve in totally different methods.
A strain of cannabis with a CBD:THC ratio of 1:1 provides a two-pronged means of reducing gut inflammation and mitigating the symptoms of digestive conditions.
Cannabis and Gut Health
Cannabis has been used by humans for thousands of years, so it’s no surprise to find that the world’s oldest medical traditions—Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine—prescribe cannabis for a variety of digestive issues.
In our current age, people continue to use cannabis to help their symptoms and the anecdotal evidence has finally led to a few human trials. In one study treating IBS with cannabis, 90% of those treated reported their symptoms improved and 60% said they completely disappeared.
The Way Forward
These are promising results, but they are just the first steps towards understanding the complexities of how cannabis can balance our health through the gut-brain-immune connection and help heal chronic digestive issues. More research needs to be done on cannabis for digestive health to truly move past the anecdotal and pilot study phase before cannabis can truly be utilized as a viable treatment.
And for that, we will need to work together to dismantle legal obstructions and uninformed prejudices.