Robust gut health isn’t just about digestion—although it plays a major role. The way your digestion system functions has been linked to an array of physiological processes, including hormone regulation, toxin elimination, defense against bacteria and viruses, cell regeneration, and more.
There’s so much control happening throughout your GI tract, that it’s been called the “second brain,” and when disease, stress, pollutants, or poor nutrition negatively affects that brain, it can have a profound impact on how you operate. That’s why a substance like CBD oil—which has effects throughout the digestive system—shows such promise for gut health.
“There are cannabinoid receptors in the GI tract that are there to help maintain homeostasis within the body,” says Michelle Weiner, DO, MPH, of the Spine and Wellness Centers of America. “When your gut is out of whack, it can have a ripple effect throughout every system, affecting everything from your immune response to your emotional health. CBD can help get you back on track by addressing and correcting imbalances in the gut.”
When it comes to the mechanisms of action that causes CBD to be beneficial throughout the digestive system, there are two major processes involved:
Whether you’re dealing with Crohn’s disease, which affects that lining of the digestive tract, or another problem affecting the digestive system, it’s likely that your biggest problem is inflammation. When any part of this system becomes inflamed, it can lead to a range of symptoms, from malnutrition due to lack of proper nutrient absorption to severe diarrhea that has a cascading effect of fatigue and dehydration.
CBD has been shown to reduce systemic inflammation, according to James Holley, molecular biologist with the International Cannabinoid Cancer Research Institute. For digestion, it does this in several ways, he notes.
“In the stomach, it does so by desensitizing the ‘capsaicin receptor,” he says. “This receptor is responsible for triggering inflammation in the mucous membranes in the gut, a phenomenon generally known to those who eat spicy foods and feel a burning sensation.”
In addition to lowering inflammation, CBD can be beneficial for improving the type of immune process that originates in the gut, Weiner adds.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have noted that there is significant interaction between the body’s immune system and gut bacteria, and that a huge portion of your immune system is actually in your GI tract.
With many types of GI imbalance, the immune response goes into overdrive, which is one of the reasons that inflammation is so prevalent. The body attacks what it believes to be invaders, but there are some good guys in there as well, sending the whole GI system off track.
CBD has been shown to suppress some immunological endpoints in a way that’s beneficial—basically, it may regulate immune response to tamp down a hyperactive immune system. Not only does that provide one more way to reduce inflammation, but it can also improve immune-related processes like handling allergens and toxins.
By making a significant difference in how these two processes are handled by the body—and particularly throughout the gut—CBD may help ease symptoms of numerous conditions that affect the digestive system.
In addition to potentially lowering inflammation and improving immune response, CBD oil may play a part in helping those with gut-health problems deal with emotional challenges as well.
Regulating anxiety, stress, and depression is a huge deal when it comes to better gut functioning, because the microbiome is constantly sending messages to the brain, and vice versa, according to Harvard Medical School.
Stress and other psychological factors affect movement and contractions of the GI tract, a recent Harvard post notes. That can make existing inflammation worse, and even make you more prone to infection or lowered immune response. Those with GI disorders also tend to perceive pain more acutely, Harvard researchers note, simply because an impaired GI tract can boost pain signals—creating even more anxiety and stress.
Although more research is needed into the effects of CBD on anxiety—and subsequent gut-health benefits—preliminary evidence is promising, and many health care practitioners who use CBD oil have a strong anecdotal basis for recommending CBD to patients.
“When you see someone with gastrointestinal symptoms, no matter what type of condition they have, it’s very common to see anxiety and stress as part of their condition,” says Weiner. “That becomes a vicious cycle. Their anxiety may be increased because their gut health is off, and then the resulting symptoms, in turn, cause them to feel even more stressed.”
CBD can be part of a comprehensive approach to address the underlying issues of gut imbalance, and ease symptoms like cramping, fatigue, and diarrhea.
Other strategies can include chewing food more thoroughly, eating smaller meals throughout the day, not eating for a few hours before bedtime, taking probiotics, and increasing vegetable consumption.
When tactics like these are employed together, along with CBD, they can help boost homeostasis and gut health, says Brandon Baird, a chemist and Chief Executive Officer of PolyPhase Health. That’s when your “second brain”—the digestive system—can get back online, and working the way it should.
Like other benefits of CBD, more research is needed to understand how strategies like probiotic use and CBD can work together for gut health, Baird says. But based on anecdotal evidence, he looks forward to more studies that emphasize the strength of using CBD in conjunction with other gut-happy tactics.
“I think there will be a paradigm shift when we have more data available, and many experts have no doubt that day is coming,” he says. “Using CBD products can provide a holistic solution to whole-body health, and that includes gut health.”