Crohn’s disease (CD) is a chronic immune-mediated condition of transmural inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, associated with significant morbidity and decreased quality of life. The endocannabinoid system provides a potential therapeutic target for cannabis and cannabinoids and animal models have shown benefit in decreasing inflammation. However, there is also evidence to suggest transient adverse events such as weakness, dizziness and diarrhea, and an increased risk of surgery in people with CD who use cannabis.
The researchers extensively searched the literature up to 17 October 2018 and found three studies (93 participants) that met the inclusion criteria. One ongoing study was also identified. All of the studies were small in size and had some quality issues. One small study (21 participants) compared eight weeks of treatment with cannabis cigarettes containing 115 mg of D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to placebo cigarettes containing cannabis with the THC removed in participants with active Crohn’s disease who had failed at least one medical treatment. Although no difference in clinical remission rates was observed, more participants in the cannabis group had improvement in their Crohn’s disease symptoms than participants in the placebo group. More side effects were observed in the cannabis cigarette group compared to placebo. These side effects were considered to be mild in nature and included sleepiness, nausea, difficulty with concentration, memory loss, confusion and dizziness. Participants in the cannabis cigarette group reported improvements in pain, appetite and satisfaction with treatment.
Randomized controlled trials comparing any form of cannabis or its cannabinoid derivatives (natural or synthetic) to placebo or an active therapy for adults with Crohn’s disease were included.
The researchers studied whether cannabis is better than placebo (e.g. a sugar pill) therapy for treating adults with active Crohn’s disease or Crohn’s disease that is in remission.
One small study (50 participants) compared cannabis oil (composed of 15% cannabidiol and 4% THC) to placebo oil in participants with active Crohn’s disease. Positive differences in quality of life and the Crohn’s disease activity index were observed.
The effects of cannabis and cannabis oil on Crohn’s disease are uncertain. Thus no firm conclusions regarding the efficacy and safety of cannabis and cannabis oil in adults with active Crohn’s disease can be drawn. The effects of cannabis or cannabis oil in quiescent Crohn’s disease have not been investigated. Further studies with larger numbers of participants are required to assess the potential benefits and harms of cannabis in Crohn’s disease. Future studies should assess the effects of cannabis in people with active and quiescent Crohn’s disease. Different doses of cannabis and delivery modalities should be investigated.
Cannabis is a widely used drug which acts on the endocannabinoid system. Cannabis contains multiple components called cannabinoids. The use of cannabis and cannabis oil containing specific cannabinoids produces mental and physical effects such as altered sensory perception and euphoria when consumed. Some cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol, do not have a psychoactive effect. Cannabis and cannabidiol have some anti-inflammatory properties that might help people with Crohn’s disease.
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“If we followed patients longer, we might see some benefit,” Kinnucan says. “Maybe 8 weeks isn’t long enough.”
“If you are having regular abdominal pain, you need to look at the disease,” she says. “Often it’s untreated or undertreated. You don’t want to use cannabis as a Band-Aid.”
What the Studies Say
Some people with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), including Crohn’s, are using cannabis of one type or another for symptom relief. There’s also a little bit of evidence that cannabis may help with some symptoms of Crohn’s, including improving appetite and sleep. But there’s a lot to consider first before you run out to try it. For one, while some people do seem to feel better when using cannabis, it’s isn’t clear it helps with their disease.
The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s official position statement on medical cannabis notes that while there’s some evidence the cannabinoids found in our bodies naturally might help with inflammation, it’s less clear that similar compounds from cannabis do. There’s some evidence that cannabis may help with symptoms, but its use is limited by other concerns about side effects and safety.
The evidence available — while not convincing — doesn’t rule out the possibility that cannabis might help some people with Crohn’s. Kinnucan says one reason studies so far may not show a benefit is that they might not use the best cannabis formulations. There’s some experimental evidence that cannabinoids can help with inflammation. But, she says, it might take a more targeted approach to see those benefits in people with IBD. The existing studies also have been small and short-term.