CBD & Gut health: Everything you need to know
Updated: May 8
They say the key to a man's heart is through his stomach. Unfortunately, for millions of people suffering from digestive disorders, enjoying a good meal isn't as simple as it seems. Gut problems are increasingly common these days: it's estimated that digestive disorders affect 60 to 70 million people in Europe. Conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis can be uncomfortable at best, and debilitating at worst. Encouragingly, CBD may provide some relief.
While many studies on the benefits of CBD are preliminary, interest in its therapeutic potential is growing. This is coming at the same time as groundbreaking research into the complex role of the gut in overall health. Recent breakthroughs suggest links between gut bacteria and conditions as diverse as fibromyalgia and depression.
In this context, we can expect to see further scientific revelations emerge about both CBD and digestive health. Here's what we know right now:
Fascinating facets of the gut
Our digestive system allows us to absorb the energy and nutrients we need to survive. Everybody needs to eat, after all. That much is obvious. However, the connection between our digestive system and overall health goes beyond what is immediately apparent. Fascinatingly, our gut bacteria could be key to our well-being.
The gut microbiome: a vital organ
The human digestive tract contains over 10 trillion bacterial cells—some good, and some harmful. Along with other microorganisms, these cells are collectively known as the gut microbiome. Together, they outnumber all other cells in the body combined, and constitute a functional human organ.
A healthy gut microbiome may decrease your risk of developing diseases such as diabetes, celiac disease, and inflammatory conditions like IBS, Crohn's, and arthritis. Researchers have recently discovered that people with fibromyalgia and depression have abnormal levels of certain gut bacteria. A few studies even indicate certain probiotics may be beneficial for mental health.
These links suggest a connection between gut bacteria and diverse bodily functions outside the digestive system. While the extent and nature of these connections are still being investigated, part of the explanation may rest with our immune system.
Our immune system is mostly in the gut
A whopping 70% of the human immune system is found in the gastrointestinal tract. A professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins found that colon cancer may result from an interaction between the immune system, gut microbiome, and the cells that line the colon. Research has also suggested a link between tuberculosis in the lungs, immune response, and decreased levels of certain gut bacteria.
While these phenomena are still under investigation, one thing is clear—caring for your digestive health is an important way to support your immune system (and vice versa).
Gut health and the endocannabinoid system
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is expressed throughout the body. It presents as a series of cell receptors and related neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids. The two primary cell receptors are CB1 and CB2. Endocannabinoids bind to these receptors, triggering a response in the related cell. Enzymes are responsible for synthesising and deteriorating endocannabinoids, mediating their effects on the body.
The ECS contributes to maintaining homeostasis, the body's delicate internal balance. It helps to regulate diverse biological processes, including immune response, metabolism, digestive motility, and appetite. Cannabinoid receptors are found on cells throughout the digestive system. This includes the enteric nervous system, which has been referred to as a "second brain" in the gut.
There is evidence that dysregulation of the ECS may play a role in poor gut health. Studies have found that levels of endocannabinoids are altered in patients with intestinal diseases like IBS, celiac disease, and colon cancer.
CBD and gut health
CBD is an exogenous cannabinoid or phytocannabinoid—whereas endocannabinoids are produced internally, CBD originates outside the body. Both can influence the ECS and its diverse interconnected systems. Through interaction with the ECS, CBD could help to promote proper gut health. Here are some of its possible effects:
CBD and inflammatory conditions
Many diseases and disorders affecting the gastrointestinal tract are inflammatory in nature. The exact causes of conditions like ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and IBS are unknown. However, experts suggest immune system malfunction may play a role. The body turns on itself, attacking cells in the gut as if they were foreign invaders, resulting in inflammation.
Research has highlighted CBD's potential as an immune system regulator. It has been shown to reduce inflammation and intestinal damage during periods of both chronic and acute inflammation. It acts through multiple mechanisms, influencing the immune system specifically, as well as intervening at the axis between the immune and enteric nervous systems.
CBD and “leaky gut syndrome”
The mucous membrane of cells and proteins that line our intestines plays an important gatekeeping role. It allows nutrients to pass into the bloodstream while preventing the escape of harmful bacteria and other pathogens.
Certain diseases and infections can damage the intestinal barrier, allowing toxins to leak out of the GI tract. This is often referred to as “leaky gut syndrome”, or increased intestinal permeability. If left untreated, it can potentially lead to pain, irritation, and inflammation. CBD may help to restore proper intestinal barrier function, modulating intestinal permeability, and calming inflammation. It may also have protective properties, possibly helping to prevent intestinal lining damage in the first place.
It is important to note, however, that mainstream medicine doesn’t recognise leaky gut as a valid condition at present. This is largely due to a lack of comprehensive studies on the matter.
The exciting future of CBD and the gut microbiome
The endocannabinoid system and the gut microbiome have both been the subject of recent cutting-edge research. Fascinating connections have been found between the two, and both have been implicated in the link between gut health and broader well-being. Researchers have found altered levels of endocannabinoids and certain gut bacteria in patients suffering from a variety of ailments.
CBD, through its interactions with the ECS, may have a role to play in mediating this complex relationship. While research is still preliminary, it shows promise as a supplement for easing inflammation and encouraging healthy digestion in myriad ways. It may even promote a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome. This is good news for sufferers of digestive disorders and beyond. With further breakthroughs on the horizon, the future only seems brighter and brighter.