Some evidence implicates cannabis and its inflammation blocking properties as a possible treatment for Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease.
A new study published in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences takes a closer look at the relationship between cannabis use and complications from Crohn’s disease.
Crohn’s is one type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It causes chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Crohn’s can affect any area along the GI tract but most commonly occurs in the small intestine.
Symptoms of GI inflammation caused by Crohn’s include:
- Rectal bleeding
- Abdominal cramps and pain
- Constipation and possible bowel obstruction
Persistent GI inflammation can lead to more systemic symptoms such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight Loss
- Loss of normal menstrual cycle
Unfortunately, we still don’t perfectly understand what causes Crohn’s disease. The most recent research suggests it’s likely a combination of genetics and environmental factors.
If you have a family member with Crohn’s disease, you’ll have a higher risk of developing the disease. People that live in urban areas and industrialized countries are also more likely to be diagnosed with Crohn’s. Smoking cigarettes can also increase your chances of developing Crohn’s and can make symptoms much more severe.
There have certainly been advances in Crohn’s disease treatment. However, a staggering 80% of patients with Crohn’s will require surgery in their lifetime. Therefore, there’s still a need for new treatments to help reduce symptoms and complications from this chronic and debilitating disease.
Can Cannabis Reduce Complications from Crohn’s?
Previous studies have demonstrated that cannabis has promise for treating irritable bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s.
In the U.S., nearly half of all people over the age of 26 have used cannabis in their lifetime. About 8% have used cannabis in the last month. One large population survey showed that IBD patients tend to have higher rates of cannabis use.
A good deal of evidence also shows that activating cannabinoid receptors can reduce inflammation in models for ulcerative colitis, another form of IBD. Other studies suggest that cannabis use can alleviate symptoms and help improve the quality of life for patients suffering from IBD.
However, evidence from controlled clinical studies is lacking. And as we’ve already covered here at CannaHealth, the studies that do exist do not definitively tell us whether cannabis improves Crohn’s disease or IBD.
The New Study
A team of medical researchers from Chicago wanted to help fill in the blanks. They designed a population-based study to look more closely at the link between Crohn’s and cannabis.
The researchers used the National Inpatient Sample (NIS) collected by the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP). The NIS is an annual survey that collects data from over 4,000 hospitals across more than 30 states in the U.S.
For this study, the researchers used three years of survey data from 2012 through 2014. They chose hospital inpatients who had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. They excluded patients who reported abuse disorders of other substances like opioids. But they included patients who reported using tobacco or alcohol.
With a pool of patients selected, the researchers looked at whether the patients had used cannabis and whether they had severe complications from Crohn’s.
The researchers found over 43,000 adult patients with Crohn’s disease in their data set. Of these, only 1.4% reported using cannabis, a relatively low proportion compared to population levels.
Cannabis users were more likely than other Crohn’s patients to be younger, male, African-American, and use alcohol and tobacco. The cannabis users also had lower rates for a few other diseases like diabetes, arthritis, and heart failure. However, they had higher rates for psychiatric diseases (a complicated relationship that we’ve also discussed at CannaHealth).
What about Crohn’s complications?
When other concurrent variables like age and gender were controlled for, the researchers found that cannabis users were less likely to have many of the severe complications that result from Crohn’s disease.
Cannabis use was associated with lower rates of the following complications:
- Fistulas and abscesses
- Parenteral nutrition (intravenous nutrition due to malnutrition)
- Blood transfusion
- Partial or total colectomy (a surgical procedure to remove the colon)
Caveats and Limitations
While the results are promising, it’s important to always consider the limitations of every research study.
In this case, the researchers couldn’t control for a few key factors such as the time of Crohn’s diagnosis, the progression of the disease, and patient history of immunosuppressive medical therapy. All of these factors could have influenced the level of complications experienced by patients.
Another potential caveat is that patients likely underreported their cannabis use in this study. Only 1.4% of the patients reported using cannabis. As mentioned previously, about 8% of adults in the general population use cannabis on a regular basis. This makes 1.4% seem like a pretty small number.
This was the first large scale, nationwide cohort study to look at the relationship between cannabis use and Crohn’s disease complications. The results suggest that cannabis could help prevent more severe complications for those suffering from Crohn’s disease.
Hopefully, these results will inspire more in-depth clinical trials to evaluate the effectiveness of cannabis for treating Crohn’s disease.