CBD for IBS: Does It Work?
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Research suggests that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects about 12 percent of people in the United States. The digestive symptoms can vary from person to person, but they can be seriously uncomfortable regardless of the individual.
There are a number of home remedies and medications that can help manage IBS symptoms like cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. Some research suggests that cannabidiol (CBD) may also help.
Keep reading to learn about the basics of CBD and how it may help treat the gastrointestinal symptoms of IBS.
CBD is a cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. Unlike its close cousin tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD doesn’t produce a “high” feeling. It also has fewer potential unpleasant side effects than THC, even if taken in large doses.
There are three different types of CBD:
- full-spectrum CBD, which contains all the plant’s cannabinoids, including THC
- broad-spectrum CBD, which contains most cannabinoids but no THC
- CBD isolate, which is pure CBD only
THC in CBD products
Even though broad-spectrum CBD and CBD isolate have had the THC removed, there’s a chance that any CBD product you take may have trace amounts of THC.
If you want to avoid THC altogether, or if you get drug tested, it may be best to avoid using CBD products.
While an IBS-friendly diet and stress relief can help reduce IBS symptoms, some people may want to try additional treatments — especially during flare-ups.
Doctors sometimes prescribe medications for IBS, but some of these only target specific symptoms and may have undesirable side effects. If you’re looking for something natural that might help with IBS, you may wonder about CBD.
Because there are cannabinoid receptors all over our body, including our stomachs, it’s possible that ingesting cannabis-derived products, like CBD, may help with digestive symptoms.
Studies have also shown that cannabinoids have anti-inflammatory qualities, something that might make them good at treating gastrointestinal disorders like IBS. However, studies from 2011 and 2012 on cannabinoids and IBS have specifically looked at the effect of dronabinol, a synthetic cannabis product that mainly contains THC.
One review from 2020 suggests that CBD may also have potential therapeutic benefits for conditions like IBS. However, more research is needed to confirm the link. Right now, there’s just not enough evidence to firmly declare that CBD can help with IBS.
There’s no specific research about which type of CBD is best for IBS. That said, research suggests that taking THC and CBD together might be more effective than taking either alone — this is called the entourage effect.
Because of this, full-spectrum CBD products might be better at easing symptoms than broad-spectrum CBD or CBD isolate.
As for product type, topicals won’t be particularly helpful for IBS symptoms. Ingesting edibles like gummies and oils might be a better bet.
When shopping for CBD, whether for IBS or another concern, consider the following:
Buy from a company that’s open and honest about where they source their hemp.
A quality product should come with an up-to-date, detailed certificate of analysis (COA) from a reputable third-party lab.
A COA lets you know whether the product’s potency actually matches what’s on the label. It’s also best to look for a COA that contains information about contaminant testing. That way, you can be sure the product has been tested for potentially harmful substances like heavy metals and mold.
Avoid companies that promise you the moon. It’s not OK for companies to make claims that their CBD products cure ailments -— not only because there isn’t enough research to support this, but it’s also against Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules.
In fact, the FDA sends warning letters to companies that make false health claims. Checking the warning letter database can be a good way to steer clear of brands that have a poor reputation.
Full-spectrum products are thought to be more effective than other types, but they do contain small amounts of THC (no more than 0.3 percent).
If you prefer to avoid THC, opt for a product made with CBD isolate or broad-spectrum CBD. But keep in mind that any CBD product may contain trace amounts of THC.
Dosing varies a lot across CBD products, so always check the label to learn more about the potency. A higher potency might be the reason for a higher price tag — but not always.
CBD has many health benefits, but can it help IBS? We dive into the research and explain how to find a quality product.
CBD Oil and Holistic Remedies for IBS
- Discover the current research on irritable bowel syndrome
- Clarifying the relationship between IBS and leaky gut syndrome
- Learn about the best natural remedies for IBS
- How CBD oil can be used to treat IBS
- Benefits of CBD rectal suppositories
- How serotonin affects diarrhea and constipation
What happens when a doctor can’t pinpoint the source of your digestive pain? They call it IBS. In other words, they’ve labeled your digestive tract “irritable” and easily upset — and unfortunately, they can’t offer you a good reason why it’s so upset.
Although there’s no diagnostic test for irritable bowel syndrome, scientists are discovering that the bodies and nervous systems of people with IBS are physically different compared to the “average” person — aka people who could stress-eat sugar-coated cardboard and feel fine. And it’s these physical differences that are helping us discover ways to naturally treat and hopefully one day cure IBS. It turns out that irritable bowel syndrome impacts (or is possibly caused by) imbalances in:
- The endocannabinoid system
- The gut microbiome
- The immune system
- Intestinal permeability (aka “leaky gut”)
- … and more
This shockingly broad spectrum of differences means we should stop considering IBS a mere digestive disorder. Irritable bowel syndrome is truly a “whole body” problem. The enormous scope of this problem is why seemingly unrelated treatments — restricted diets, probiotics, relaxation techniques, exercise and supplements like cannabidiol (CBD) oil — could all work synergistically towards your holistic wellbeing.
Read on to learn the recent scientific advances in IBS research and evidence for natural IBS treatments, as well as whether or not CBD oil could help.
Some background first
It’s probably not much of a consolation, but if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, almost one in eight Americans share your diagnosis. Unfortunately, although 12% of Americans experience visceral pain and discomfort related to bowel movements, people with IBS might discover they have little else in common. That’s because this catch-all diagnosis often lumps you together with people who:
- Had a previous GI infection that kick-started IBS symptoms
- Digest too quickly
- Digest too slowly
- Have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- Have food intolerances or sensitivities
- Have a mental disorder or a history of stressful life events
- Have increased pain from normal bowel movements
With all this diversity, it should be little surprise that no single treatment heals IBS. The current “types” of IBS ( ie IBS-C and IBS-D) only describe a single symptom of IBS, not the underlying cause. But when scientists study smaller cohorts of IBS patients, they can sometimes identify underlying problems with mucus production, muscle contractions, or gut inflammation that aren’t shared by the general population of IBS patients.
In the future, we can hope that IBS will be broken into many different subtypes – each of which will be treated differently. But until then, we’re all left to troubleshoot a treatment plan by trial-and-error.
IBS & your body
No matter what triggers your symptoms, don’t shoulder the blame for your flare-ups. IBS is not “in your head” — it’s deeply rooted throughout your body in small physical changes and stored biological patterns. Does stress trigger painful diarrhea? Well, the average person can study for an exam without having to run to the bathroom constantly. Even if stress management and therapy helps you manage IBS symptoms, the root of the problem is still within your body — because your body has become hypersensitized to life’s unavoidable stresses.
The Body Mind Connection
Science is just catching up to what natural practitioners have been saying all along: Our bodies and minds are intricately connected, which means they constantly influence and shape one another.
Even if you can trace your IBS symptoms back to a single traumatic event, it’s likely evolved into a physical problem. As evidence, when scientists emotionally traumatize baby rats , those rats grow up with the same IBS symptoms and physical imbalances seen in humans with IBS.
Whatever the psychological factors, studies show there are physical changes connected to irritable bowel syndrome. It’s too early to say which of these can cause IBS and which are caused by IBS — but in either case, the end result is pain and discomfort.
Imbalanced Endocannabinoid System
If you’re unfamiliar with your body’s endocannabinoid system, it’s a vital team of natural molecules and receptors that work together to regulate countless aspects of your health. The active molecules in cannabis plants (cannabinoids like THC & CBD) can modulate this natural system.
Within your digestive tract, the endocannabinoid system helps control the speed of digestion as well as sensations of pain . And natural genetic variations in this system predispose people to IBS . Many different parts of the endocannabinoid system have been linked to different symptoms in IBS patients. For instance, low levels of the little-known endocannabinoid, palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) , is linked to frequent IBS cramps .
Holistic approach: To bring balance to your endocannabinoid system, you might need to combine healthy lifestyle decisions with a little boost from supplements for extra assistance. For example, palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) is naturally found in egg yolks, milk and peanuts, and a recent clinical trial reported that PEA + polydatin supplements improve abdominal pain in IBS patients. For more natural tips, read our article on balancing the endocannabinoid system.
CBD’s effect: The endocannabinoid system was named after the therapeutic molecules found in the cannabis plant (cannabinoids like THC & CBD) because they affect this system. Unsurprisingly, many people report that cannabis and hemp-derived full-spectrum CBD oil relieves their IBS symptoms. CBD’s full impact on the endocannabinoid system is still being studied, but it might help increase your natural levels of endocannabinoids .
Gut Microbiome Dysbiosis
The gut microbiome , or the microbial zoo living within our digestive tracts, is intimately connected to our holistic wellbeing.
These little bugs help us digest food, they produce important molecules that circulate throughout our bodies, they help shape our immune systems, and they affect our health in countless ways that are still being discovered. So it should come as no surprise that many people with IBS have gut microbiomes that differ from the average person (a condition known as “dysbiosis”).
In recent years, the discovery that SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) is behind many people’s IBS symptoms has revolutionized how a subset of patients are treated. And within the colon, a few microbial signatures have been linked with different IBS symptoms .
The complexities of the gut microbiome are just being unraveled, so pay attention to this topic in years to come!
Holistic approach: Many people take probiotics — particularly Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria — to control their IBS symptoms. More than 50 clinical trials have tested probiotics on IBS symptoms , which collectively indicate that probiotics can provide IBS relief.
However, not enough research has been done to recommend specific strains, so finding a good probiotic might involve some trial and error.
Diet is an even more powerful way to impact your microbiome. Low FODMAP diets have recently exploded in popularity because they deprive the microbiome of microbe-food. However, use the FODMAP diet with caution: Although you might feel better today by starving the bad bugs, in the long run, you might be starving the good bugs as well.
CBD’s effect: If CBD oil relieves your IBS symptoms, you might be wondering if it also affects your microbiome. Although no studies have tested this, cannabidiol probably doesn’t impact your microbial zoo in the same way as diet (microbe-food) or probiotics (new microbes). Instead, microbiome changes could come from CBD’s influence on your immune system — which, like a zookeeper, has a say in what stays and what goes.
Overactive immune system
Although inflammation is not a hallmark feature of IBS, scientists are discovering that many people with IBS also suffer from low-grade inflammation. In particular, many IBS patients also have increased levels of inflammatory cytokines, killer T cells, and mucosal mast cells — which release histamine and sensitize pain-perceiving nerves. Scientists think this inflammation could contribute to IBS symptoms, and might stem from many different sources, including: stress, food allergies, previous infections, increased intestinal permeability, etc.
Holistic approach: The best way to combat inflammation naturally is to fight it at its source by identifying its triggers. Stress reduction, breathing exercises and low-impact exercise could all help reduce inflammation. Additionally, green vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, certain probiotics, and a variety of other popular supplements can be included in your anti-inflammatory arsenal.
CBD’s effect: One of the most promising uses of CBD (and other cannabinoids) is fighting inflammation. For a deep dive on this topic, read our article on using CBD to fight chronic inflammation .
Leaky Gut: Intestinal Permeability
There’s a lot of controversy over whether or not “leaky gut syndrome” exists, but the negative health effects of increased intestinal permeability are undeniable.
The tissue lining your digestive tract is semi-permeable, meaning it keeps undesirable stuff (bacterial toxins, etc) out while letting the good stuff (nutrients) in. Unfortunately, as it becomes more permeable, more and more of the bad stuff gets in — which triggers inflammation and other health consequences.
Gut inflammation and increased intestinal permeability typically go hand-in-hand, and many studies indicate that certain IBS patients — particularly with IBS-D — have increased permeability . In fact, it’s even been suggested that this could be the main source of their physical discomfort, inflammation, and other IBS symptoms — but the jury’s still out.
Holistic approach: Currently, the best way to deal with a leaky gut is to figure out what’s causing it. For instance, people diagnosed with celiac disease (not to be confused with IBS) have increased gut permeability, but after focusing on a gluten-free diet for a year, the majority of patients regain normal permeability . The gut microbiome has a massive impact on intestinal permeability, so troubleshooting the best diet for your body should also help address a leaky gut. Cutting out wheat or simple carbohydrates like sugar is a great place to start . Additionally, research indicates you should avoid heavy alcohol use and standard NSAIDs as much as possible
CBD’s effect: There is some very preliminary evidence from cell-based experiments that CBD could help improve intestinal permeability , but further research is necessary to say for sure.
Diarrhea, constipation, or some combination: This is how IBS patients are currently categorized and treated.
Stool consistency is determined by how quickly food passes through the digestive tract. The faster the speed, the less time the body has to absorb water — resulting in diarrhea. On the other hand, a prolonged transit can result in too much water absorption and constipation.
But what controls the speed? Surprisingly, serotonin (which is found at higher concentrations in your gut than your brain) has a major role to play in this process.
Within the digestive tract, serotonin has nothing to do with your mood. Instead, serotonin is used as a signaling molecule to control muscle contractions and secretions , which influences intestinal motility. When doctors prescribe SSRIs and other antidepressants for IBS, these medications can improve IBS symptoms independently of their mental effects. (This is also why very different antidepressants should be prescribed depending on whether you want to speed up or slow down digestion.)
Holistic approach: Numerous clinical trials indicate that psyllium husk helps improve IBS symptoms and normalize the consistency and speed of digestion — for all types of IBS. Regular exercise can also help relieve constipation by speeding up digestion. And most importantly, your gut microbiome influences serotonin levels in your gut , so pamper your microbiome!
CBD’s effect: It’s uncertain what CBD does for constipation, but rodent experiments find that both full-spectrum cannabis extracts and pure CBD can slow digestion for people dealing with diarrhea.
Faced with colon pressure, many people with IBS experience a heightened sensation of pain. Pain is a very subjective experience, but some molecular differences could account for increased pain.
Studies find that some IBS patients have a higher density of pain-perceiving nerves (containing TRPV1 channels) in their colons. Other factors that increase pain sensitivity include serotonin, stress hormones, and inflammation.
Holistic approach: Because stress hormones increase the sensation of pain transmitted from the gut to the brain, any relaxation techniques or therapies focused on stress reduction could help improve this symptom. Controlling inflammation and adjusting your diet could further help with sensitivity. Also, enteric coated peppermint oil has shown clinical effectiveness for IBS relief, with studies indicating it could help desensitize pain-perceiving nerves .
CBD’s effect: Many people praise CBD for its pain-relieving properties, which may be due to the finding that CBD can help desensitize pain-perceiving nerves through the TRPV1 channel .
CBD Oil: Exploring the Best Dosage & Format for IBS
If you want to include CBD in your wellness routine, you should familiarize yourself with all the different options available and how they differ.
When you swallow CBD oil, it slowly reaches your bloodstream through the digestive tract, whereas smoked products and vaporizers provide a more rapid route into your bloodstream. The best CBD dosage for your IBS symptoms will depend on the products you choose.
Another option to consider is a rectal suppository. Although we first released Explore Suppositories for “other” more playful reasons, we have since heard that the same properties that help relieve the discomfort of anal play can also help relieve IBS discomfort. One surprised customer even reported their IBS symptoms disappearing for two weeks after using one of our suppositories! However, this is new territory, so we can’t offer guidance on how to proceed. If you’d like to learn more about the localized effects of CBD suppositories, read here .
Before buying your first CBD product, keep in mind that not all CBD products are created equally. There’s plenty of fraudulent products and misinformation, so be wary of bold claims and brands without a solid reputation. Always discuss your plans with a trusted medical professional who can help advise you about any potential drug interactions. In addition to helping you design a treatment plan, they can also help you rule out other, more serious health conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) .
A Holistic IBS Treatment
As you can see, irritable bowel syndrome is a whole-body problem that is unlikely to be solved with a single pill. Neither pharmaceutical nor natural remedy can address all these issues at once.
When developing a treatment plan, many doctors will advise you to introduce new medications, supplements, dietary changes and other routines one at a time . If you give yourself time to adjust, you can determine which new treatments are helpful and which should be kicked to the curb.
Ultimately, everyone’s experience of IBS is unique, and we can’t say whether or not CBD or any of these other natural remedies will help relieve your symptoms.
Scientists are still unraveling the complexities of irritable bowel syndrome, and personalized medical advice could be years away. Until then, trial-and-error through careful experimentation is the best we all can do.
We wish you success in your search, and would love to hear about any luck you’ve had with CBD oil or CBD Suppositories. Email [email protected] to share your story .
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We should stop considering IBS a mere digestive disorder. Irritable bowel syndrome is truly a “whole body” problem. Read on to learn the recent scientific advances in IBS research and evidence for natural IBS treatments, as well as whether or not CBD oil could help.