Forget Baking Soda: New Study Suggests Cannabis and Chili Peppers for Gut Disorders

We don’t typically associate cannabis and chili peppers, although they’re both responsible for different kinds of “high.” But, as it turns out, the two are uniquely similar; scientists have had luck in using both chilies and cannabis for gut health.

Eating spicy chilies stimulates the release of compounds called endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. And we’ll assume you already know a little bit about the cannabis high, right? But how could you use chilies and cannabis for gut health?

New research is finding that both could play an important role in fighting some of the toughest gut disorders. Crohn’s, inflammatory bowel disease, and type 1 diabetes are just a few identified so far. Autoimmune disorders are notoriously difficult to diagnose and harder still to treat, making this great news for the 24 million Americans that have been diagnosed.

In some regards, the notion that cannabis might help gut disorders is hardly new. In fact, people have turned to cannabis for relief from stomach and digestive ailments for a long time--as in thousands of years. The first medical texts that describe using cannabis for gut health date back to 1500 BCE. Crazier still: evidence suggests that by then, the practice was already over a thousand years old.

But chili peppers? We thought those were for upsetting stomachs, not curing them! So, what gives?

Your Gut: What Happens to an Ecosystem Out of Balance

We're looking specifically at this study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In it, researches charts a direct link between your nervous system and a healthy and happy gut. How are the two connected? By helping to maintain an intestinal environment that’s friendly to foreign bodies.

Wait…we thought the body was supposed to protect against invaders, right? It is, with one major exception—food!

Obviously, when we eat, we want our guts to be tolerant of these “foreign bodies” because they include food! The problems begin when our immune system becomes oversensitized—a syndrome not yet completely understood—and it begins attacking “friendly” cells, attempting to repel the “invader” (that is, the perfectly healthy food we’ve just eaten) when it shouldn’t. The result is a slew of painful, potentially debilitating autoimmune disorders.

Chilies: Packing Heat in More Ways Than One

Where do chilies enter the picture? It turns out that capsaicin, a molecule in chilies, actually produces a chemical "heat." That heat, in turn, stimulates our immune system. Scientists wanted to test this hypothesis by giving capsaicin to mice with type 1 diabetes, thinking it would increase their autoimmune response.

As so often occurs in the field of research, the opposite happened, and that’s where it got really interesting. The capsaicin spurred the mice’s guts to produce anandamide, an endocannabinoid that controls appetite and energy, among many other functions. The mice grew healthier, experienced less gut inflammation, and even became “cured” of diabetes.

Cannabis for Gut Health

Exciting as this finding was, it presented a problem: to have the same beneficial effect as that experienced by the mice in the experiment, humans would have to consume a massive— and painful—amount of chilies! So scientists looked for another molecule that might perform the same function in our bodies. And what they found—surprise!—was THC.

Just as our bodies produce anandamide, cannabis plants produce THC. Further experiments on mice showed that orally administered THC was as effective as capsaicin in healing gut inflammation and other autoimmune conditions.

Needless to say, it’s going to take a good deal more research and experimentation before we fully understand the mechanisms by which cannabis can contribute to your gut health and even heal major disorders. Then again, it’s possible that all it will do is to demonstrate what the Chinese physicians of 3500 years ago knew all along.

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Using Cannabis as a Treatment Option for Chronic Pain

Chronic pain affects millions of Americans. By some estimates, as many as 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Broadly described as persistent pain that takes considerably longer than one would reasonably expect to heal (generally at least three months). As more states allow cannabis as a treatment option for chronic pain, more and more patients dissatisfied by commonly prescribed medications, are turning to cannabis to treat what can be a debilitating condition.

But, what exactly is chronic pain? Chronic pain, like many conditions, is complex. The potential underlying issues causing chronic pain are diverse, and vary from person to person.

Chronic pain may be caused another disease or condition, such as:

Left untreated — or undertreated — chronic pain can cause other symptoms that can negatively impact one’s quality of life. To name just a few other issues, it’s not uncommon for chronic pain sufferers to complain of insomnia, decreased appetite, social isolation, anxiety and depression, performance issues at work, and more.

Further, it’s important to note that chronic pain generally falls under one of two types:

Nociceptive - Resulting from tissue damage or inflammation; aching, sharp, throbbing pain associated with other conditions. .

Neuropathic - Resulting from alterations in the nervous system or damage. The pain often causes numbness or burning.

When considering cannabis as a treatment it’s important to differentiate between nociceptive and neuropathic pain, because evidence suggests cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic neuropathic pain, but not necessarily nociceptive pain. While the evidence for chronic neuropathic pain is significant, there is little evidence to prove cannabis is effective for pain that is acute (short-lasting) or nociceptive (pain arising from the stimulation of nerve cells, distinct from damage to the nerves themselves).

How is Chronic Pain Typically Treated?

Physicians often prescribe a cocktail of drugs to treat chronic pain, oftentimes to offset side effects of other drugs, or treat related symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.

Commonly prescribed drugs include:

Many of these treatments cause intolerable side effects such as constipation (which is especially common with opioids -- remember the Super Bowl advert?), gastrointestinal issues, and even cardiovascular damage (which is commonly reported as a side effect from NSAIDs).

Of particular concern is the use of opioids for long-term treatment. Not only is there no evidence to suggest opioids are an effective long-term chronic pain treatment, users report having to continually up their dosage to achieve the same effect. Moreover, they’re highly addictive and as many as two-thirds of fatal drug overdoses each year involved opioids.

Cannabis to Treat Chronic Pain

Your body has an endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is not only considered the “body’s own cannabinoid system,” it’s one of the body’s most important physiological systems. Exo-cannabinoids (derived synthetically or from the cannabis plant) acting on the endocannabinoid system’s two main receptors, CB1 and CB2 (and periphery,) can exert numerous therapeutic effects including: antispastic, analgesic, antiemetic, neuroprotective, and anti-inflammatory actions.

Pain sensation is mediated through both the CB1 and CB2 receptors, while the CB2 receptor plays a greater role in inflammation and immune response.

What’s particularly notable about cannabis is that it helps treat pain through both anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain relief) actions. This stands in contrast to many other drugs which often treat one or the other. For example, opioids work solely as an analgesic, so rather than treating any underlying causes (like inflammation), they basically “numb” the pain.

Dr. Donald Abrams, a professor and Chief of Hematology & Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, explains “I believe that the reason we and all animal species have the complex system of cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids is to help us modulate the experience of pain.”

How Effective Is Cannabis?

Chronic pain and cannabinoids as a treatment is one of the best studied areas, with more than 200 studies conducted to date.

Dr. Kevin Hill, a Harvard professor and addiction psychiatrist conducted a systematic review of 28 of these studies, and concluded, “[The] use of marijuana for chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and spasticity due to multiple sclerosis is supported by high-quality evidence.” In fact six out of the six general chronic pain studies he investigated showed significant improvement in pain symptoms, while five out five neuropathic pain studies drew the same conclusion.

A 2011 Canadian review study of 18 trials concluded cannabis and cannabinoids demonstrated significant efficacy to treat chronic pain. And, noted that one study suggested cannabis was effective adjunct to opioids potentially allowing patients to reduce dependence on opioid medications. Additionally, they found cannabis treatments to improve sleep and mood, with few adverse side effects which they characterized as “mild to moderate” and “well tolerated.”

Cannabis Can Help Chronic Pain Patients Decrease (or Eliminate) Opioid Use

Dr. Michael Hart, head physician at Marijuana for Trauma in Canada, often treats chronic pain patients. He reports that, “The vast majority of patients I treat are able to eliminate opioids from their treatment protocol or significantly reduce their intake.

Studies validate Hart’s experience.  A University of Michigan March 2016 Study, noting “there is little evidence that they are effective for long term [chronic pain] treatment,” and their research suggests cannabis may be an effective adjunct to chronic pain therapy.

Their research showed that cannabis use was associated with:

One patient, Kevin Ameling, who now works for a cannabis advocacy non-profit, IMPACT Network in Colorado, reports his own success. Initially prescribed a host of drugs including Clonazepam, Tramadol, Lexapro, and OxyContin, after consulting his physician, he turned to medical marijuana. He cut his OxyContin dosage by 50% (and often skips doses, which he previously couldn’t do); reduced Clonazepam from 3 mg to .5mg of; Lexapro from 30 mg to 5mg; and Tramadol from 300 mg to 75 mg of Tramadol.

Final Tips & Advice

Marijuana for Trauma head physician —  Dr. Michael Hart — offers some tips and final words of advice to patients considering cannabis to treat their chronic pain:


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