Crohn's disease is an autoimmune disease that causes severe irritation and inflammation in the digestive tract. A form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the condition often develops in young adults between the ages of 20 and 29 and has no known cure.
Complications from Crohn's disease include intestinal obstruction or fistulas, abscesses, ulcers, and ultimately malnutrition as the body is not receiving adequate nutrients. Prescription medications are frequently used to treat Crohn's patients, but they come with a host of side effects, such as chronic pain and respiratory infection.
Emerging studies and clinical trials are beginning find just how effective cannabis can be in the treatment of Crohn's disease and IBD. Thus far, peer-reviewed clinical studies remain limited, but early findings have proven to be encouraging for those Crohn's disease patients who have exhausted other treatment options.
A literature review published in the journal Gastroenterology and Hepatology in 2016 discussed the therapeutic use of cannabis in patients with IBD. Researchers concluded that “a significant portion of IBD patients, particularly those with severe disease, use cannabis to relieve symptoms of pain, nausea, and appetite and to improve their overall mood.”
A clinical trial, which is currently underway at the University of Illinois at Chicago is investigating how oral cannabinoids could help individuals with Crohn's disease. Researchers plan to enroll 36 participants and treat some with a daily capsule containing 25 milligrams of CBD for 12 weeks and others with a placebo capsule to compare the results.
While this trial is in progress, some Crohn's disease patients have already pinpointed a symptom reliever in cannabis.
Popular “Saturday Night Live” cast member and comedian Pete Davidson, 25, was diagnosed with Crohn's disease as a teenager. Davidson had attempted to treat his condition with nutritional therapy and the prescription drug Remicade, but neither provided him with any relief. Then, he said he started smoking cannabis and finally noticed an improvement in his symptoms.
“I have Crohn's disease, so it helps more than you can imagine,” Davidson said in reference to cannabis a SiriusXM interview with Howard Stern on Sept. 24, 2018.
Another young man with Crohn's disease has discovered similar success through medical cannabis use. A teenager named Coltyn, 19, who prefers to use his first name only, moved from Illinois to Colorado in 2014 to gain legal access to medical marijuana. Prior to the move, Coltyn had also tried Remicade, which he says led to the development of serum sickness, which is a hypersensitivity similar to an allergy. Other medications had also failed and caused extreme side effects, such as nose bleeds and joint pain.
“After the first three years of pharmaceutical medication, all the doctors were trying to do was mask my disease, he told Healthline in an October 2017 interview. “I really wanted to find a solution that would help me, and cannabis not only relieved the pain, but it also relieved the inflammation in my intestines and stopped my Crohn's from having flares.”
Medical researchers who have been studying the use of cannabis for Crohn's disease can confirm the medicinal benefits that Davidson and Coltyn experienced firsthand.
Dr. Timna Naftali, a gastroenterology specialist at Tel Aviv University's Meir Hospital in Israel, led a study that offers a bright glimmer of hope to Crohn's disease patients.
“We know that cannabinoids can have profound anti-inflammatory effects, but this study indicates that the improvement in symptoms may not be related to those anti-inflammatory properties,” Naftali said in a 2018 interview with Medical News Today.
In the study, researchers found that cannabis had no effect on gut inflammation in the participating Crohn's disease patients. However, cannabis was found to produce clinical remission and elevated quality of life in up to 65% of patients after eight weeks of treatment. Alongside a placebo, the specific treatment administered included a cannabis oil containing 15% CBD and 4% THC.
While presenting the results of the study at the 2018 United European Gastroenterology meeting in Vienna, Austria, Naftali said:
“There are very good grounds to believe that the endocannabinoid system is a potential therapeutic target in Crohn's disease and other gastrointestinal diseases.”
The Bottom Line
As recent research suggests that symptoms of Crohn's disease may improve or even go into remission for a majority of patients who use medical cannabis, the overall outlook for future treatment is positive. However, there remains a need for further research on how marijuana can be used to benefit those who suffer from this debilitating condition.