The meat and potatoes of cannabis and digestion

cannabis and digestion

Cannabis patients have been using the plant to treat the symptoms of gastrointestinal conditions for generations. Nausea and vomiting aren’t fun, and cannabis may effectively tone it down. 

With more patients reporting cannabis alleviates these symptoms, there has been scientific inquiry over the last few decades regarding cannabis and gastrointestinal function

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The digestive system is vital to living a healthful life. The system absorbs, digests, and expels food through the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). See, nutrients from avocado toast, elaborate burgers, or hot dish can’t be absorbed by the stomach as is. To get those goodies, a delicate balance of secretions, saliva, mucus, and acids breaks down the food as it enters the digestive system. 

Many conditions and symptoms can develop with an imbalance of bile, secretions, and other vital components of digestion. With cannabinoid receptors found in the GI tract, research teams have been digging into how cannabinoids might play a role in some gastrointestinal functions.      

How does cannabis work in the GI tract?

Nerves help the gastrointestinal tract function. The enteric nervous system protects the stomach, keeps poops regular, and maintains optimal ratios of stomach acids and secretions.

Interestingly, CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors have been detected on these nerves. Cannabinoid receptors are also on other nerves in the digestive system, like those that manage the reflexes that help you digest and defecate. Various cells in the system also have cannabinoid receptors: epithelial, smooth muscle, inflammatory, and immune cells. 

The endocannabinoid system is essential to gastrointestinal function, so it’s no wonder researchers are interested in how cannabinoids interact with the gut. 

cannabis and digestion

Cholinergic-mediated contractions

In 1970, a hypothesis was formed after observing THC reverse nerve contractions in rats in the third portion of the intestines (the ileum). Overaction of these nerves is common in diarrhea. Based on this event, researchers figured that cannabis could work like OTC diarrhea aid Immodium. This was supported by a later in vitro studies on human and rodent intestinal tissue. 

Purinergic system

Another way that cannabinoids interact with the GI tract is through the purinergic system. From swallowing to terminating (enteric reflexes), this system plays a role in the neural control involved in the digestion process.

Receptors in this system help the intestine release the juices that break down food and do away with microbes that may have entered the digestive tract along with dinner. It keeps everything fluid as the stomach digests. 

A 2009 study on mouse ileum (remember, that’s that last part of the intestines) showed that CB1 receptors influence P2X (purinergic) receptors, illuminating another possible connection between the endocannabinoid system and the GI tract.

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GERD & Gastritis

In 2019, a scientific paper shared findings on how CB1R and CB2R antagonists and agonists impact gastric acid secretion and oxidative stress, which can break down cell tissue and cause DNA damage. 

Researchers stimulated gastric acid secretion in rats that already had excess acids. They tracked the gut’s makeup to see how it responded, tracking whether the gut was stressed. There was some success with CB1R antagonists and CB2R agonists, showing that cannabis could help patients with GERD, gastritis, and other conditions contingent on gastric secretions

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Up to 15 percent of the population has irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to Johns Hopkins University. This condition can cause bloating and a distended, swollen abdomen. Another qualifying symptom is a change in stool form or frequency. 

Many IBS patients return to the doctor after treatment with relapsing issues. The condition has no set-out pathology for how it develops, symptoms vary, and there is no known treatment. 

GI motility and an increase in organ sensitivity (like a tummy ache) are direct results of IBS. Since CB1 and CB2 receptors decrease gastrointestinal motility and visceral sensitivity, researchers ponder whether the endocannabinoid system plays a role in IBS.

A systematic review of IBS cannabis studies showed that there was ample data showing that endocannabinoid receptors modulate GI function at a cellular level. However, research has not yet pinpointed the cannabinoids that would play a direct role in reversing IBS. 

This is common in treating most gastrointestinal conditions with cannabis. There is not enough research to formulate condition-specific products. Additionally, there is research that indicates overconsumption could actually cause gut issues.

Cannabis hyperemesis syndrome

In 2014, a survey of over 4.7 million patients showed that cannabis use disorder increased the risk of IBS by 80 percent. A few years later, people in the cannabis industry started talking about Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS). 

This rare condition is caused by long-term overconsumption of cannabis resulting in cyclical, severe vomiting. One thing patients have in common is that a shower alleviates symptoms. Another is that the condition becomes manageable when patients stop smoking weed.

Experts are still seeking the exact cause of this issue because not all heavy consumers come down with CHS. What is probable is that CHS is related to endocannabinoid receptors in the GI tract.

With the bevy of research available, assuming that the endocannabinoid system is at play every time we munch on a snack is acceptable. But more research is required before medical practitioners understand exactly how cannabinoids correct mechanisms at play in gastrointestinal conditions. 

As researchers continue inching toward proof, cannabis is probably best consumed in moderation, even if it’s clearing up some nausea. 


Cara Wietstock is Senior Content Producer of and has been working in the cannabis space since 2011. She has covered the cannabis business beat for Ganjapreneur and The Spokesman Review. You can find her living in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, son, and a small zoo of pets.