Cannabis for IBS: Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Medical Marijuana

IBS and marijuana

Many people are using cannabis for IBS with great success in managing symptoms like nausea, cramps and stomach pains. Here’s how.

The science and research behind cannabis and IBS has linked the imbalances of our endocannabinoid system with certain IBS symptoms.

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a collection of symptoms which create discomfort in the abdominal area, resulting in the inflammation of the digestive tract.

Most of the times, the symptoms intensify over several years which makes IBS really tricky to diagnose.

There is no specific lab test that can detect it. Usually, the diagnosis involves excluding conditions like parasitic infections, lactose intolerance tests and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth which all produce symptoms like IBS.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

In general, IBS symptoms are characterized by acute discomfort in the abdominal region.

Strange pains and stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea and constipation, excessive gas production and bloating, food intolerances, weight loss, uncontrollable bowel movements are all very common IBS symptoms.

Constant gut symptoms often lead to the development of other conditions like anxiety, depression, migraines, sleeping problems and fatigue.

What causes IBS?

Although it’s still unknown what exactly causes IBS, many experts believe that IBS is a gut-brain axis related issue—the two are much more connected than you’d think, and it is now well known that stress can trigger gastrointestinal issues in some individuals.

The stress response in IBS patients causes abnormalities in the functioning of the sympathetic nervous system (one of the divisions of the autonomic or “subconscious” nervous system) and to the HPA axis.

The HPA axis is a term used to describe the connection of influences and feedbacks between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands.

These three glands control numerous processes within us, including our reactions to stress, digestion, immune system response, sexuality, energy storing and spending, and general mood.

Other possible causes of IBS include gastroenteritis infections, vitamin D deficiency, as well as some bacteria and fungi.

In fact, the risk of developing IBS increases after a gastrointestinal infection for about 10%.

The connection between IBS and the endocannabinoid system

The discovery of the endocannabinoid system prompted numerous physicians and authors to look the human biochemistry from a different angle.

The researchers quickly started to realize that the ECS is responsible for maintaining the delicate balance of all other systems of our body (including the GI tract), and this is why activating the endocannabinoid system helps with IBS issues.

There is a lot of cellular endocannabinoid receptors in practically every important part of our body, including the entire digestive system.

We produce endocannabinoids—internal cannabinoid-like compounds, that bind to these cellular endocannabinoid receptors.

When the body doesn’t produce enough endocannabinoids on its own, that throws the body out of balance. This is where compounds from cannabis make their entrance.

As one of the most famous pro-cannabis researchers, Dr. Ethan B. Russo was the first to make a link between the deficiency of internal endocannabinoid compounds and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Doctor Russo claims that people with IBS produce insufficient quantities of endocannabinoids which causes a domino-fall-like breakdown of other processes in the body. (1)

This is the reason why cannabis is viewed as a potential solution for IBS because cannabinoids from the plant can “replace” the endocannabinoids that the body is not producing.

Once triggered by these compounds, the cells within the GI tract change their behaviour, ultimately resulting in a healthier and more balanced digestion.

Research on cannabis and IBS

IBS is an inflammation-related condition. Cannabis (more precisely its compound CBD), is a proven anti-inflammatory agent. (2)

Cannabis is also known as a natural analgesic and anxiolytic, and both of these traits are sought-after for treating IBS symptoms. (3)

One study from 2004 looked at cannabinoids as a treatment option for managing bowel diseases symptoms (including IBS), because of their anti-inflammatory properties, but also the ability to diminish pain levels. The study found that there are potential benefits for stimulating endocannabinoid receptors. (4)

A more thorough study from 2012 showed more tangible results. During a three-month period, 13 patients with long-standing IBS were given cannabis.

After the three months expired, all patients reported an improvement in general quality of life, with positive markers on overall health, ability to work, social functioning, pain and depression. (5)

Another study also had positive results, but this time using just one compound—CBD. (6) This is promising to those looking to treat some of the persistent IBS symptoms without experiencing the psychotropic effects of THC.

Cannabis research still has a long way to go regarding this topic, and it will take more clinical trials to fully understand how cannabis helps with IBS.

How to choose the best strain for IBS?

According to the studies on cannabis and IBS, both high-THC and high-CBD strains have the potential to relieve symptoms.

Using products with a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD is probably the smartest therapeutic route as it will keep the inflammation down without any unwanted psychoactive effects.

Since the effects of cannabis are subjective you will need two things:

  1. Several strains to experiment with—check our Strainblazer tool which helps you easily filter through all the medical strains currently sold in Canada.
  2. An in-depth dosage guide—we teamed up with Dr. Dustin Sulak (he treated over 18,000 people with cannabis) to create a free eBook on cannabis dosage. It contains precise instructions on how to dose THC, CBD and THC/CBD products. You can download the eBook here for free.


  1. Russo EB; Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD): can this concept explain therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistant conditions?; Neuroendocrinology Letters; April 2008; 29(2):192-200
  2. Wright KL, Duncan M, Sharkey KA; Cannabinoid CB2 receptors in the gastrointestinal tract: a regulatory system in states of inflammation; British Journal of Pharmacology; January 2008; 153(2): 263–270
  3. Schier AR, Ribeiro NP, Silva AC, Hallak JE, Crippa JA, Nardi AE, Zuardi AW; Cannabidiol, a Cannabis sativa constituent, as an anxiolytic drug; The Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry; June 2012; 34(1): S104-10
  4. Hornby PJ, Prouty SM; Involvement of cannabinoid receptors in gut motility and visceral perception; British Journal of Pharmacology; April 2004; 141(8):1335-1345
  5. Lahat A, Lang A, Ben-Horin S; Impact of cannabis treatment on the quality of life, weight and clinical disease activity in inflammatory bowel disease patients: a pilot prospective study; Digestion; 2012; 85(1):1-8
  6. De Filippis D, Esposito G, Cirillo C, Cipriano M, De Winter BY, Scuderi C, Sarnelli G, Cuomo R, Steardo L, De Man JG, Iuvone T; Cannabidiol reduces intestinal inflammation through the control of neuroimmune axis; PLoS One; 2011; 6(12):e28159
About the author
Helena Miles

Experienced journalist with a decade-long experience of researching cannabis. She has been featured in many prominent outlets, such as The Growth Op, National Post and The Province.

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