Researchers continue to be intrigued by the potential medicinal benefits of the cannabinoid CBD. They’ve found it effective for treating inflammation, pain, anxiety, and even certain bacterial infections [1]. They’ve recently turned their attention to its usefulness in treating gastrointestinal diseases. In the United States, roughly 60-70 million people are affected by a variety of digestive diseases [2]. There’s a good change that if you aren’t personally affected, you know someone who is. Those who suffer from digestive tract disorders often battle with their quality of life because these diseases can be very disruptive to daily routines. The possibility of using CBD to help ease some of that discomfort drives researchers to learn more about CBD and how it can be used to treat GI problems.

How the Endocannabinoid System Works

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is an important part of human physiology. It’s responsible for maintaining the body’s state of homeostasis. If some sort of disruption is introduced in the body, the ECS will start working to make sure everything in the body remains at a stable and optimal level. This is an important function of the human body. All the internal systems need to be in a state of equilibrium to work effectively.  

There are three primary elements that make up the endocannabinoid system:

  • Endocannabinoids: These are compounds that are naturally produced by the body, but are very similar to the chemical compounds in cannabis, like CBD. The two main endocannabinoids in the ECS are called anandamide and 2-AG.
  • Cannabinoid Receptors: These receptors are found on the surface of cells throughout the body. The endocannabinoids the body produces, and any cannabinoids ingested will bind to these receptors. The action of binding allows them to communicate with different systems in the body, helping the ECS maintain an equilibrium in each of the specific systems. The two main types of cannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2.
  • Enzymes: After the endocannabinoids attach themselves to the cannabinoid receptors and the ECS has achieved stabilization in the body, enzymes start breaking down the endocannabinoids to avoid a possible overcorrection. Each type of endocannabinoid has a specific enzyme that works at breaking it down effectively. The two enzyme types are called FAAH and MAGL and each is specific to a particular endocannabinoid.

The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating several of the most important bodily functions, including appetite and digestion. The ECS regulates digestive functions by communicating with the digestive system using the cannabinoid receptors. Specifically the CB2 receptors, which reside in the digestive and immune systems. When the receptors notice an imbalance in one of these systems, the ECS acts with precision to pinpoint the issue and works to stabilize the problem and get back to homeostasis. 

Endocannabinoid System and CBD

Since endocannabinoids and cannabinoids from cannabis plants are so similar chemically, it’s possible for cannabinoids like CBD to attach themselves to the receptors in the same way the naturally occurring endocannabinoids do. CBD has the ability to bind to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Once attached, CBD acts as an antagonist, or blocker, binding to receptors and dampening their signals. 

For example, CBD works to inhibit the FAAH enzyme which breaks down the anandamide endocannabinoid the body produces. Anandamide produces a calming feeling, so by keeping the enzymes from destroying this compound a naturally therapeutic effect should be felt immediately [3]

Researchers have found that CB1 and CB2 receptors are found in immune cells, which indicates they are both used in regulating inflammation and immune response [4]. Because CBD can attach itself to both these receptors, it could prove to be effective for treating those with gastrointestinal issues. 

Common Gastrointestinal Disorders

The digestive system is made up of the gastrointestinal tract, the liver, the pancreas, and the gallbladder. This system helps break down and digest food. Effective digestion means the proper breakdown of food into nutrients and absorption of those nutrients to your body, where it’s used for energy, growth, and cell repair. There are many different kinds of digestive disorders, but the most common GI issues are listed below. 

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

There are two types of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) and in the United States a little over 1% of adults suffer from one or the other [5]:

  • Crohn’s Disease: This disease causes inflammation of the digestive tract. With symptoms including abdominal pain, cramping, fatigue, severe diarrhea, reduced appetite, and weight loss, it is a disorder that can be completely debilitating to those who have it. There is currently no cure for Crohn’s disease and the recommended treatments usually include a combination of dietary changes and a prescription for anti-inflammatory drugs or antibiotics.
  • Ulcerative Colitis: This disease causes inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract. While technically considered the same type of inflammatory bowel disease as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis differs in that it only affects the colon and the rectum. It does, however, have all the same symptoms as Crohn’s disease and is also without a cure. Treatment is typically a combination of immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory drugs, with additional prescriptions for pain relievers to manage any symptoms.


Gastritis is marked by inflammation of the stomach lining, and can be caused by a bacterial infection or overuse of pain medication or alcohol. It can also be caused by Crohn’s disease. Symptoms of gastritis include pain of the upper abdomen, nausea, vomiting, and a sense of fullness in the upper abdomen. If untreated, gastritis can cause stomach ulcers which can then lead to stomach cancer. 2 out of every 10,000 people suffer from chronic gastritis [6], however it is a very treatable condition with a combination of antibiotics, antacids, and histamine blockers. 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) causes inflammation in the large intestine. Its symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and weight loss. One of the most common GI issues, it affects 10% to 15% of people in the world [7]. IBS is found to be more common in women than men worldwide. Like other GI disorders, IBS is a chronic condition and has no cure. Most people manage their symptoms with a combination of diet, lifestyle, and supplements. Stress is a trigger for IBS, so often therapy or antidepressants are also recommended. 

How CBD Can Help

Benefits of CBD

Cannabidiol (CBD) comes from the cannabis plant and is one of more than 100 chemical compounds found within the plant that are called cannabinoids. CBD is usually extracted from the hemp plant as it naturally has higher concentrations of CBD, whereas the marijuana plant has higher concentrations of THC. Both plants produce CBD, but it’s often easier to extract from the hemp plant when the psychoactive effects of THC are not required or preferred. CBD does not contain any psychoactive elements and therefore the user won’t feel any sort of intoxication from consuming CBD. It should also be noted that unlike THC, CBD is legal in the United States. 

CBD can be a powerful tool against digestive tract discomfort. Because it’s able to interact with the cannabinoid receptors in the digestive tract and immune system, it can help reduce inflammation and improve how the immune system responds to digestive disorders. It can also be a great option when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety which can be caused by digestive issues, or act as a trigger for them. 

  • Pain and inflammation relief: Studies have shown that CBD can be a powerful pain reliever and is especially beneficial when managing chronic pain [8]. Studies on mice have revealed that CBD works to manage pain by adjusting the way the brain reacts to pain. It is able to release neurotransmitters which in turn act as antidepressants [9]. CBD is also able to attach itself to the CB2 receptors in the immune system which work to suppress inflammation [10].

A recent study of mice who suffered from intestinal inflammation found that they had abnormal levels of endocannabinoid turnover [11]. This means the ECS might not be able to regulate inflammation effectively. To test CBD in cases like this, researchers gave the mice CBD oil and it relieved their inflamed intestines and effectively reduced their pain.   

The combined power of CBD against pain and inflammation makes it a great alternative to traditional prescription medications or treatments that aren’t seeing success in treating uncomfortable or painful gastrointestinal diseases.

  • Anxiety relief: Research is still on-going, but already studies on animals have found that CBD is helpful in reducing a range of anxiety and stress issues [12]. By using the ECS to manage situations that cause our bodies to feel discomfort or distress, CBD can be a great option for those who either experience anxiety or stress from their uncomfortable digestive disorders, or for those who suffer from something like IBS and need to maintain a calm lifestyle or risk upsetting their condition.
  • Nausea relief: There has been considerable research done suggesting the benefits of cannabinoids — including CBD — on easing nausea and vomiting [13]. As these are two very common symptoms of gastritis, being able to use CBD to assist in managing these is incredibly important.

CBD in Your Life

If you or someone you love suffers from a digestive disease, you know it can be frustrating to get the help needed. With many of these diseases currently incurable, it comes down to an effective and tolerable treatment plan. The symptoms of these diseases are life-altering enough, so adding further medications that could themselves come with side effects is not often a desirable choice for many people trying to find relief. For those people, CBD can be a great option. Using its powerful relation to the endocannabinoid system and its ease of use and gentle effect on the body, it can be a life-changing treatment. 

Always talk to your doctor before adding any new treatments and make sure that any CBD you purchase comes from a reputable source with proper certifications and analysis reports.