“Fatty liver” is the most prevalent form of liver disease in western countries, and potentially worldwide. It can be caused by chronic alcohol abuse or binge drinking, but can also be caused by communicable diseases such as Hepatitis B or C. The process of fat accumulation in the liver is called steatosis, and if left unchecked, can progress to cirrhosis, a serious and incurable condition. This irreversible damage to the liver is just one of many reasons why doctors recommend low-to-moderate alcohol intake. Now, recent research in mice has demonstrated a potential role for cannabidiol (CBD) in protecting the liver against steatosis. The paper, published in Nature Scientific Reports, represents a first step in developing CBD as a preventative therapy for chronic alcohol use, and potentially for fatty liver disease of all causes.
The authors chose to use mice for this work due to the similarities between human and murine physiology. Two groups of mice were fed on a liquid diet, with one group’s food spiked with 5% ethanol. Both groups received this diet for ten days. On the eleventh day, the alcohol group was given a higher dosage to simulate “binge” drinking. Half of the mice in each group were given injections of moderate dose (10 mg/kg of body weight) CBD for the duration of the trial period. Then, livers were dissected out and assessed for signs of alcohol-induced damage.
The first symptom the researchers looked for was an accumulation of fat in the liver. This is done by taking very thin slices of the liver and treating them with a dye that preferentially accumulates in fat; this is the same process used to evaluate fatty liver disease in humans. As expected, the mice fed alcohol had large fat deposits, while those not fed alcohol had healthy, fat-free livers. The use of CBD oil did not completely protect against the accumulation of fat, but the deposits were significantly smaller and reduced in number. The authors also extracted fat from liver samples for each group in order to get quantitative measurements, and found that CBD treatment reduced fat accumulation by half. These results demonstrate a protective effect of CBD against alcohol-induced steatosis.
The accumulation of fat in the liver is not necessarily a cause of liver damage, but a symptom of it. Therefore, it’s possible that CBD simply blocks the accumulation of fat without affecting the underlying liver dysfunction. To test this, the group performed biochemical tests on blood taken from each group of mice, searching for elevated levels of two enzymes that signify liver damage. As expected, the alcohol-fed mice had high levels of both enzymes in their blood. The CBD treatment decreased the levels of these enzymes in the alcoholic mice, suggesting a protective effect against the underlying liver damage that causes fatty liver.
The authors also measured many other signs of liver damage in their mice, including the regulation of genes responsible for key metabolic processes, the presence of oxidative damage, and the presence of inflammation markers. Across all measures, CBD treatment attenuated the effects of alcohol-induced liver damage.
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The results of this study point to yet another potential therapeutic use for CBD. While clinical trials are still needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of such a treatment in humans, the recent designation of CBD as an “orphan” drug for various neurological conditions opens the doors for these trials to begin.
Over half of fatty liver disease cases are not caused by alcohol use; therefore, it will be interesting to see if CBD can protect against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease as well. If so, it could speed the approval of CBD treatments for fatty liver diseases of all types. The results presented in this work represent the first step toward a natural treatment for chronic liver disease.