It may sound crazy, but research suggests that some of the toughest-to-treat gut disorders may benefit from treatment with two very different plants: cannabis and chili peppers. As it turns out, there’s a wealth of science behind the claim that we can use both chilies and cannabis for gut health.
To be fair, cannabis has a long history as a medicine, and specifically as a treatment for digestive troubles. We mean really long, as in thousands of years. The first medical texts to reference cannabis for gut health date back to 1500 BCE, though cannabis had already been in wide use for over a thousand years at that point.
On the other hand, chili peppers are more often associated with upset stomachs than healthy guts. So, what’s the link? Why should these two unrelated plants have a positive impact on our digestion?
Chili: Firing Us Up, Inside and Out
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) draws a link between our nervous systems—which, after all, is what interacts with the cannabinoids in marijuana and the endocannabinoids produced by our bodies—and a healthy and happy gut. Essentially, the nervous system helps maintain a gut environment that’s friendly to foreign bodies.
In essence, we want our guts to be tolerant of these potential invaders because they include food. When the normal immune response of our gut becomes oversensitized, it turns on itself, launching an attack to repel the invaders (that is, the perfectly safe food we’ve just eaten) when it shouldn’t. The result? Autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, and many other painful and difficult-to-treat conditions.
What’s this got to do with chilies? It turns out that cells in your immune system are stimulated by heat, including those produced by capsaicin, the heat-mimicking molecule in chilies.
Scientists gave capsaicin to mice with type 1 diabetes, thinking it would increase their autoimmune response. Instead, the opposite happened. Here’s where it gets truly fascinating: the capsaicin spurred the mice’s guts to produce anandamide, an endocannabinoid that controls appetite and energy, among many other functions. The mice grew healthier, experienced less gut inflammation, and even became “cured” of diabetes.
So….what about cannabis for gut health?
Cannabis for Gut Health
Because it’s unrealistic for humans to consume enough chiles to have the same effect as that experienced by the mice in the experiment, scientists looked for other molecules that might perform the same function in our bodies. What they found, dear reader, was THC.
THC is the cannabis plant’s analog to the anandamide in our bodies. Further experiments on mice showed that orally administered THC was equally effective in healing gut inflammation and other autoimmune conditions.
That said, it’s a bit early to begin the celebration. As researchers like to say, “Mice are not men”. Until clinical trials on human subjects can be done, the healing effects of cannabis on the gut are still theoretical.
But then again, it just might be possible that all this further research will simply demonstrate what the Chinese physicians of 3500 years ago knew all along. Cannabis-infused tea, anyone?
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