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People who live with inflammatory bowel disease deal with a lot of physical discomfort, and for some reason cannabis seems to give them relief. IBD, which includes conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, is an autoimmune disease, meaning that it involves the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking part of the body — in this case, the lining of the intestines. Patients who use marijuana report that it helps with pain and discomfort. A few studies support this claim, but until now, doctors haven’t really understood what was going on.”

In a paper published Monday in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, microbiologists from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the University of Bath report that they’ve figured out what’s going on at the molecular level. In a study on mice, they found that cannabinoids — the active ingredients in marijuana — appear to restore the microbial balance that’s lost in individuals with inflamed guts.

marijuana joint
A new mouse study suggests that marijuana could restore an immune system imbalance that leads to gut inflammation.

There’s not much inflammation in a healthy gut, despite the fact that it contains massive colonies of bacteria, viruses, and yeasts. At any time, these microorganisms could potentially trigger an inflammatory response as the body tries to get rid of foreign invaders, but they rarely do so when unprovoked. Maintaining this balance is crucial to gut health. “Dysregulation of this balance can have serious consequences that may drive a variety of pathological conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD),” write the authors.

This balance involves two processes. The first is the migration of cells called neutrophils across layers of the mucous lining of the intestines. This crucial immune process helps fight infection, but in the case of IBD, it causes the body’s immune system to attack the intestines, causing pain and discomfort.

The second process, involving a protein called P-glycoprotein, halts this inflammatory response. What the researchers found is that P-glycoprotein requires endocannabinoids — the body’s natural cannabinoids — to halt the out-of-control inflammation response. Endocannabinoids, which share a chemical structure with cannabinoids from marijuana, are involved in all sorts of physiological processes, including inflammatory responses. In the case of people with IBD, a lack of endocannabinoids seems to prevent the body from maintaining homeostasis, thus leading to an unregulated inflammatory response. This is where marijuana comes in.

What is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

It’s possible, the team writes, that the relief IBD patients get when they consume marijuana products comes from their body finally getting back into balance.

“The results of this study identify an important mechanism by which endogenous endocannabinoids facilitate the resolution of inflammation,” writes Andrew Neish, M.D., a professor of pathology at Emory University, in an invited commentary on the new study. “This mechanism has potential to be therapeutically exploited.”

And exploiting this mechanism is exactly what the paper’s authors plan to do. In the conflict-of-interest disclosure — a standard part of any published research — two of the study’s authors note that they secured a patent based on this research. So even though it’s possible that good old-fashioned pot can help relieve the symptoms of IBD, it seems that this research will likely aid in the development of future drugs to treat the condition.