Your body exists in a symbiotic relationship with roughly 100 trillion micro bacteria — 80 percent of which, live inside of your gut. This colony of microbiota is known as the gut microbiome.
The gut microbiome begins developing the moment you’re born. From then on, your gut microbiome is continuously shaped by everything you put into your body, how stressed you are, and where you live. Your age, metabolites, and genes also affect which microbiota colonize your gut.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the efficacy of treating gastrointestinal disorders and inflammatory conditions with cannabis. The efficacy is often attributed to the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids like CBD.
But an emerging field of research is now investigating how cannabinoids affect your gut bacteria, and what that could mean for your physical as well as your mental health. Is it possible these anti-inflammatory effects are the result of gut microbiome changes?
Why Do We Have Gut Bacteria?
Gut bacteria play multiple roles in maintaining your bodily functions, says a study in the Chinese Medical Journal. First and foremost, they’re part of your intestinal barrier. They also promote the regeneration of intestinal epithelial cells, which are important for digestion. Gut bacteria help you absorb nutrients, protect your body from infections, and help your intestines produce beneficial mucus.
Beyond their role in the gut, these bacteria aid in the maturation and maintenance of your immune, endocrine, and nervous systems. All of this is made possible through the gut-brain axis, which is a two-way communication path between your gut bacteria and your brain.
See, gut bacteria create various nutrients, vitamins, and hormones, which affect the brain. They can also produce and consume neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that deliver messages across the brain and to other cells throughout your body. Your brain and your gut bacteria are in constant communication with each other.
As a result, researchers have linked gut bacteria imbalance (gut dysbiosis) to a number of neuropsychiatric and physiological conditions, including:
- Autoimmune Diseases
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Neurodegenerative disorders (Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis)
Rebalancing the gut microbiome is a promising avenue for reducing symptoms of these conditions. Furthermore, recent studies have shown cannabis as a promising treatment option for many of the aforementioned conditions, such as depression, anxiety, epilepsy, autoimmune diseases, IBD, IBS, and neurodegenerative disorders.
While the efficacy of cannabis is often attributed to its anti-inflammatory properties, the mechanisms behind these properties are not yet fully realized. All that’s really known is that it works — but why? Is it possible that cannabis promotes a healthier composition of bacteria in the gut microbiome? Could this healthy balance be responsible for some of the therapeutic effects of cannabis?
Cannabis and Your Gut Microbiome
Research on the relationship between cannabis and the gut microbiome is still in its infancy. However, studies on the interactions between the cannabis microbiome and the gut microbiome have uncovered some intriguing results thus far.
In a pre-clinical brain, behavior, and immunity journal study, researchers observed how cannabinoids might aid in the treatment of multiple sclerosis through positive alterations in the gut microbiome.
Multiple sclerosis is a condition that causes the immune system to destroy the protective covering on nerves, disrupting communication between your brain and body. Over time, this leads to brain inflammation, and potentially, paralysis. MS is also associated with gut dysbiosis.
The mice who had MS-induced brain inflammation also had an abundance of gut bacteria called Akkermansia muciniphila (A. muc.), which breakdown intestinal mucus.
Having too much A. muc. increases gut permeability, which allows toxins to “leak through” your intestinal wall and cause harmful effects like inflammation. You might have heard of this referred to as “leaky gut,” which can lead to “leaky brain.” Having too little A. muc. isn’t good, either, so your body must establish balance.
After THC and CBD treatment, researchers observed a significant reduction of the overpopulation of A. muc. in the mice. The treatment also appeared to cause an increase in anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids, such as butyrate.
These positive effects strongly correlated with a reduction in brain inflammation and symptoms of MS.
How do the researchers know the results were — at least, in part — due to cannabinoids reducing A. muc.? Well, fecal transplants. The mice with MS that received the transplants from the mice who were treated with cannabis had a significant reduction of symptoms, too.
On the other hand, other studies have demonstrated THC may increase A. muc., but they’ve found conflicting results. While one study cautions what this could mean for long-term cannabis use, another study demonstrates how this is part of rebalancing the gut microbiome.
The second study focuses on HIV, and how it causes gut dysbiosis as well as gut and brain inflammation. To better understand how cannabis reduces symptoms of HIV, the researchers took a closer look at how endocannabinoid receptors in the gut and brain alter gut-brain axis signaling. These alterations were associated with an increase of necessary gut bacteria, a decrease in gut inflammation, and a reduction in leaky gut.
Further studies have assessed how lifestyle factors — such as diet, prescription drug use, exercise, and sun exposure — interact with the endocannabinoid system as well as the gut microbiome. A Nutrients Journal review cited multiple studies demonstrating how cannabis alters the gut microbiome and improves metabolic health when combined with other positive lifestyle factors.
In other words, this review indicates that cannabinoids do have positive effects on your health, but you have to put the effort in to reap the benefits. If you continue with an unhealthy diet or refuse to spend some time in the sun, your body is only partially benefiting from cannabis.
However, cannabis could provide enough symptom relief initially so that you can exercise or feel motivated enough to maintain a healthier diet.
Key Takeaway: Cannabis & Gut Health
Your body is an orchestra conducting a symphony between your organs and all of the micro bacteria that inhabit them. While the idea of microscopic bacteria living in your intestines may give you the heebie-jeebies, these bacteria play an immense role in facilitating your health — namely through the communication that occurs along the gut-brain axis.
Everything you do and consume affects the community of your gut microbiome, which in turn affects your brain and your immune system. Having an imbalanced gut microbiome is known as gut dysbiosis, which is associated with many physiological and mental health conditions.
Emerging research is now investigating how cannabis affects your gut microbiome. So far, studies have demonstrated that cannabis alters the composition of your gut bacteria. These alterations are associated with decreases in brain inflammation, gut inflammation, and gut dysbiosis.
But every gut microbiome is different, and our understanding of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system is constantly evolving. As research in this field progresses, we will gain a better perspective on how these interactions between the endocannabinoid system and gut microbiota could be responsible for the therapeutic effects of cannabis in larger populations.