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Digestive Disorders

Updated on April 1, 2020. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer

Digestive disorders can be annoying at best and debilitating at worst. Many people are all too familiar with just how uncomfortable — both physically and emotionally — dealing with digestive problems can be. To make matters worse, treatment options may be ineffective, and even when they do provide relief, can involve unwanted side effects. The good news for those dealing with digestive disorders is that marijuana can be a uniquely beneficial solution. This wonder plant promotes gut health through natural and effective means.

The Digestive Process

To get the necessary nutrients out of the food you eat, your body must break food down into smaller parts and ultimately into a form it can actually work with. The digestive process begins as soon as you start chewing and continues throughout your entire gastrointestinal (GI) tract until you discard the leftover waste through your stool.

Your GI tract isn’t the only part of the body involved in digestion. Your pancreas, liver and gallbladder play important roles too. Your muscular system, nervous system and hormones also contribute to the process.

What Are Digestive Disorders?

Since digestion is a complicated process involving numerous parts of the body, there are many ways by which it can be disrupted. Though some disruptions may be due to short-lived problems such as a viral infection, others can be associated with more long-term issues. These issues are considered chronic digestive disorders.

Common chronic digestive disorders include Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) — which includes both Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease — and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Symptoms of Digestive Disorders

Since disorders can affect different parts of the digestive system, symptoms can vary. Some common symptoms of digestive disorders include:

  • Chronic constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Heartburn
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Bloody stool
  • Depressed appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Growth retardation

Digestive Disorder Statistics

Digestive problems are extremely prevalent. According to the National Institute of Health, digestive diseases affect 60 to 70 million people in the United States. Some more statistics that highlight the severity of the issue are:

  • 3 million visits to physicians in the U.S. are made by patients whose primary diagnosis is a digestive disease.
  • Up to 12 percent of visits to primary doctors in the U.S. are for IBS.
  • IBS affects approximately 1.6 million Americans, and that number is growing at a rate of up to 70,000 new diagnoses per year.
  • 74 percent of Americans in a 2013 survey said they suffered from digestive problems like diarrhea, gas, bloating and abdominal pain.

Conventional Treatment Options

Most Americans suffering from digestive disorders seek relief through a few different means. Though medical emergencies like gastrointestinal bleeding or appendicitis require surgery, most digestive disorders are treated through conventional medicine, natural supplements, and lifestyle changes.

1. Medication

Conventional medicine used to treat digestive conditions is typically aimed at either preemptively or reactively treating symptoms in order to minimize the effects of the disorder on a patient’s daily life. While some medications can be effective in treating symptoms, they typically cause some unfortunate side effects as well.

For example, proton pump inhibitors used to treat stomach acid issues such as GERD can cause other digestive issues, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, constipation, and gas. Patients with Crohn’s Disease are often prescribed steroids, which can cause many short-term side effects such as mood swings, insomnia, and weight gain, as well as more serious long-term effects like high blood pressure or glaucoma.

In addition to prescription medications, individual symptoms can be targeted through over-the-counter options such as antacids, antispasmodic or anti-diarrheal meds. These medications are typically not intended to have lasting healing effects but simply to provide temporary relief from symptoms.

2. Supplements

Patients who are wary of the side effects of conventional pharmaceuticals may turn to natural supplements as a healthier alternative. Supplements can help the body compensate for mild digestive problems and may even have longterm healing effects in some cases. For example, when the digestive tract becomes imbalanced, probiotics can help replenish good intestinal flora. A digestive enzyme supplement can assist the stomach in producing more acid in order to more effectively break down food. Natural substances like papaya and ginger root have also been shown to aid in digestion.

3. Lifestyle Changes

Certain lifestyle changes can also be a means of managing digestive disorders. These changes are typically focused on regulating the diet to avoid problematic foods and drinks. These foods and drinks can differ from person to person, but common ones to avoid include:

  • Chocolate
  • Dairy
  • Fried or greasy foods
  • Spicy foods
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeinated beverages like coffee

IBS can become so severe that some patients may find the list of foods they can consume shrinking while the list of foods to avoid continues to grow. Foods that are typically considered mild can still cause problems for an unhealthy GI tract.

Medical Marijuana for Digestive Disorders

Considering the limited benefits and sometimes dangerous side effects of conventional treatment options, it is no wonder those with digestive problems may become interested in alternative treatment options. Though clinical research on medical marijuana’s benefits is limited, the research that does exist demonstrates what many people already know from firsthand experience — that cannabis is powerfully effective at fighting pain, inflammation, and nausea.

Cannabis and Gut Health

Cannabis interacts with the gut through the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a network of cell receptors — called cannabinoid receptors — and chemical compounds — called endocannabinoids — found throughout the body. The ECS’s main responsibility is to balance and regulate various functions of the body, including:

  • Appetite
  • Pain
  • Mood
  • Memory
  • Immune function
  • GI motility
  • Stress response
  • Emotions

Levels of cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids can make the difference in a healthy and an unhealthy gut.

  • Cannabinoid receptors: There are two known cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptor plays an important part in bridging the gap from the digestive system to the brain through the nervous system. CB2 receptors appear to be scarce in a healthy gut but become more plentiful when the digestive tract is inflamed, as in patients with conditions affecting their bowels, such as IBD.
  • Endocannabinoids: Endocannabinoids function as the body’s natural equivalent to Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Multiple sources, including a 2011 study, reveal that a healthy digestive tract contains high levels of endocannabinoids. And, inversely, some research indicates that a deficiency in endocannabinoids causes digestive issues and inflammation and may even be the cause of IBS.

Why Synthetic Forms Can’t Compete

Opponents of medical marijuana use have presented the Schedule III drug, Marinol, as a legal alternative to cannabis. Though this drug is meant to offer the same benefits as cannabis, it merely contains a synthetic form of THC. This THC is intended to stimulate the appetite and reduce nausea. The cannabis plant, on the other hand, not only contains THC but numerous other cannabinoids as well. The combination of all of these components is what makes marijuana effective at not only stimulating appetite and controlling nausea but managing pain. Another advantage of cannabis over Marinol is that it is inhalable. This is especially relevant for patients who may have trouble keeping a pill down due to nausea-induced vomiting.

Side Effects of Medical Marijuana

When taken in appropriate doses, which can be determined with the help of medical supervision and a patient’s own self-regulating, cannabis has very few potentially negative side effects. Still, it is important to consider these side effects and how they might impact your daily life. Medical marijuana use can cause:

Some of these side effects may be desirable for some patients. For instance, digestive problems like IBS, indigestion, and heartburn are often coupled with insomnia. For those who have digestive disorders and also have trouble sleeping, the side effect of drowsiness can actually be helpful.

The Best Marijuana Strains for Digestive Disorders

Specific strains of marijuana can be used to target symptoms associated with digestive disorders or side effects of medications taken for digestive problems. The best strains for some common symptoms are listed below.

1. Abdominal Cramping and Diarrhea

Many digestive disorders and even temporary digestive upsets can cause painful abdominal cramps and diarrhea. In addition to cramping, diarrhea typically involves urgent trips to the bathroom that result in loose stool. Experiencing cramps and a loss of control over your bowels can be unsettling both physically and mentally. The following strains are helpful in curbing the effects of abdominal cramping:

  • Honey Bananas (hybrid)
  • Black Diesel (sativa)
  • Grape Kush (hybrid)
  • Jean Guy (sativa-dominant hybrid)

2. Fatigue

Diarrhea can cause more than just physical discomfort or embarrassment. Especially if it lasts for an extended period of time, having diarrhea can also cause fatigue. Other digestive problems can also result in fatigue. As mentioned previously, insomnia is often paired with digestive disorders, so fatigue can result from lack of sleep as well. If you regularly suffer from fatigue, you may even have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The following strains of marijuana are especially good at providing energy and fighting fatigue:

  • Lemon Jack (sativa)
  • Super Silver Haze (sativa)
  • Jack Herer (sativa)
  • Green Crack (sativa)
  • Laughing Buddha (sativa-dominant hybrid)

3. Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea consists of an uneasy sensation in the stomach sometimes referred to as feeling queasy. Nausea often precedes vomiting. Treating nausea and vomiting can be difficult since ingested medicines likely won’t have a chance to be absorbed into the bloodstream before being expelled. This is where the ability to vaporize marijuana becomes especially handy. The following strains are especially helpful at fighting nausea:

  • King’s Kush (indica)
  • Orange Haze (hybrid)
  • Allen Wrench (sativa)
  • Northern Lights (indica)
  • Lavender (hybrid)
  • White Fire OG (hybrid)

4. Loss of Appetite

Digestive problems can sometimes cause a depressed appetite which can lead to unhealthy weight loss. Cannabis is known for its appetite-stimulating properties which can be especially helpful for those experiencing loss of appetite. The following strains are exceptionally effective at restoring appetite:

  • Ice (hybrid)
  • Sugar Kush (indica)
  • Purple Candy (hybrid)
  • Girl Scout Cookies (hybrid)
  • Candyland (hybrid)

5. Depression and Anxiety

Anxiety disorders can cause feelings of upset stomach, and likewise, digestive problems can cause anxiety. Depression is also sometimes a byproduct of digestive disorders, especially when they are severe and disruptive of everyday life. Fortunately, anxiety and depression can both be combatted naturally through cannabis use. The following strains are known to improve mood and fight against feelings of depression or anxiety:

  • Sour Tangie (sativa)
  • LA Kush (hybrid)
  • Caramelicious (hybrid)
  • Chocolate Chunk (indica)
  • Pineapple Express (hybrid)

6. Inflammation

Digestive disorders are often inflammatory in nature. Inflammation is the body’s immune response to heal itself and defend against perceived threats. While inflammation can serve a necessary and helpful role, it can also go awry. For those with IBD, for instance, immune cells needlessly attack the GI tract. Inflammation in the body can lead to long-term complications such as heart disease and cancer. The following strains of marijuana can help provide relief from inflammation:

  • Cookies Kush (indica)
  • Lemon G (sativa)
  • Mazar I Sharif (indica)
  • Cannatonic (hybrid)
  • Afghan Kush (indica)

How to Get Medical Marijuana for Digestive Disorders

Now that you understand just how beneficial medical marijuana can be for treating digestive disorders, you may need more information on how to legally become a medical marijuana user. Since marijuana’s legal status as a form of medicine is rather recent and is limited to certain states, regulations can be confusing.

In order to determine the best path forward, you should take advantage of the resources offered by MarijuanaDoctors.com. These resources will help you learn more and can assist in finding a marijuana doctor or a cannabis dispensary. We prescreen doctors to ensure that all are qualified to guide you in your selections and treatment. Once you are able to obtain a medical marijuana card, you’ll be able to shop for whichever strains are best for your digestive needs. The journey to better gut health can begin today.

For more information, find a medical marijuana doctor in your state today!

See how medical marijuana could help relieve your digestive disorder symptoms. Marijuana can be a natural and beneficial solution for your digestive issues.

Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome

What is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome?

Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS) is a condition that leads to repeated and severe bouts of vomiting. It is rare and only occurs in daily long-term users of marijuana.

Marijuana has several active substances. These include THC and related chemicals. These substances bind to molecules found in the brain. That causes the drug “high” and other effects that users feel.

Your digestive tract also has a number of molecules that bind to THC and related substances. So marijuana also affects the digestive tract. For example, the drug can change the time it takes the stomach to empty. It also affects the esophageal sphincter. That’s the tight band of muscle that opens and closes to let food from the esophagus into the stomach. Long-term marijuana use can change the way the affected molecules respond and lead to the symptoms of CHS.

Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in the U.S. Young adults are the most frequent users. A small number of these people develop CHS. It often only happens in people who have regularly used marijuana for several years. Often CHS affects those who use the drug at least once a day.

What causes cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome?

Marijuana has very complex effects on the body. Experts are still trying to learn exactly how it causes CHS in some people.

In the brain, marijuana often has the opposite effect of CHS. It helps prevent nausea and vomiting. The drug is also good at stopping such symptoms in people having chemotherapy.

But in the digestive tract, marijuana seems to have the opposite effect. It actually makes you more likely to have nausea and vomiting. With the first use of marijuana, the signals from the brain may be more important. That may lead to anti-nausea effects at first. But with repeated use of marijuana, certain receptors in the brain may stop responding to the drug in the same way. That may cause the repeated bouts of vomiting found in people with CHS.

It still isn’t clear why some heavy marijuana users get the syndrome, but others don’t.

What are the symptoms of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome?

People with CHS suffer from repeated bouts of vomiting. In between these episodes are times without any symptoms. Healthcare providers often divide these symptoms into 3 stages: the prodromal phase, the hyperemetic phase, and the recovery phase.

Prodromal phase. During this phase, the main symptoms are often early morning nausea and belly (abdominal) pain. Some people also develop a fear of vomiting. Most people keep normal eating patterns during this time. Some people use more marijuana because they think it will help stop the nausea. This phase may last for months or years.

Hyperemetic phase. Symptoms during this time may include:

  • Ongoing nausea
  • Repeated episodes of vomiting
  • Belly pain
  • Decreased food intake and weight loss
  • Symptoms of fluid loss (dehydration)

During this phase, vomiting is often intense and overwhelming. Many people take a lot of hot showers during the day. They find that doing so eases their nausea. (That may be because of how the hot temperature affects a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This part of the brain effects both temperature regulation and vomiting.) People often first seek medical care during this phase.

The hyperemetic phase may continue until the person completely stops using marijuana. Then the recovery phrase starts.

Recovery phase. During this time, symptoms go away. Normal eating is possible again. This phase can last days or months. Symptoms often come back if the person tries marijuana again.

How is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome diagnosed?

Many health problems can cause repeated vomiting. To make a diagnosis, your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and your past health. He or she will also do a physical exam, including an exam of your belly.

Your healthcare provider may also need more tests to rule out other causes of the vomiting. That’s especially the case for ones that may signal a health emergency. Based on your other symptoms, these tests might include:

  • Blood tests for anemia and infection
  • Tests for electrolytes
  • Tests for pancreas and liver enzymes, to check these organs
  • Pregnancy test
  • Urine analysis, to test for infection or other urinary causes
  • Drug screen, to test for drug-related causes of vomiting
  • X-rays of the belly, to check for things such as a blockage
  • Upper endoscopy, to view the stomach and esophagus for possible causes of vomiting
  • Head CT scan, if a nervous system cause of vomiting seems likely
  • Abdominal CT scan, to check for health problems that might need surgery

CHS was only recently discovered. So some healthcare providers may not know about it. As a result, they may not spot it for many years. They often confuse CHS with cyclical vomiting disorder. That is a health problem that causes similar symptoms. A specialist trained in diseases of the digestive tract (gastroenterologist) might make the diagnosis.

You may have CHS if you have all of these:

Long-term weekly and daily marijuana use

Severe, repeated nausea and vomiting

You feel better after taking a hot shower

There is no single test that confirms this diagnosis. Only improvement after quitting marijuana confirms the diagnosis.

How is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome treated?

If you have had severe vomiting, you might need to stay in the hospital for a short time. During the hyperemesis phase, you might need these treatments:

  • IV (intravenous) fluid replacement for dehydration
  • Medicines to help decrease vomiting
  • Pain medicine
  • Proton-pump inhibitors, to treat stomach inflammation
  • Frequent hot showers
  • In a small sample of people with CHS, rubbing capsaicin cream on the belly helped decrease pain and nausea. The chemicals in the cream have the same effect as a hot shower

Symptoms often ease after a day or 2 unless marijuana is used before this time.

To fully get better, you need to stop using marijuana all together. Some people may get help from drug rehab programs to help them quit. Cognitive behavioral therapy or family therapy can also help. If you stop using marijuana, your symptoms should not come back.

What are possible complications of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome?

Very severe, prolonged vomiting may lead to dehydration. It may also lead to electrolyte problems in your blood. If untreated, these can cause rare complications such as:

  • Muscle spasms or weakness
  • Seizures
  • Kidney failure
  • Heart rhythm abnormalities
  • Shock
  • In very rare cases, brain swelling (cerebral edema)

Your healthcare team will quickly work to fix any dehydration or electrolyte problems. Doing so can help prevent these problems.

What can I do to prevent cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome?

You can prevent CHS by not using marijuana in any form. You may not want to believe that marijuana may be the underlying cause of your symptoms. That may be because you have used it for many years without having any problems. The syndrome may take several years to develop. The drug may help prevent nausea in new users who don’t use it often. But people with CHS need to completely stop using it. If they don’t, their symptoms will likely come back.

Quitting marijuana may lead to other health benefits, such as:

  • Better lung function
  • Improved memory and thinking skills
  • Better sleep
  • Decreased risk for depression and anxiety

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if you have had severe vomiting for a day or more.

Key points about cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome

  • CHS is a condition that leads to repeated and severe bouts of vomiting. It results from long-term use of marijuana.
  • Most people self-treat using hot showers to help reduce their symptoms.
  • Some people with CHS may not be diagnosed for several years. Admitting to your healthcare provider that you use marijuana daily can speed up the diagnosis.
  • You might need to stay in the hospital to treat dehydration from CHS.
  • Symptoms start to go away within a day or 2 after stopping marijuana use.
  • Symptoms almost always come back if you use marijuana again.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS) is a condition that leads to repeated and severe bouts of vomiting. It results from long-term use of marijuana).