More than 700 million people worldwide are living with the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, known as IBS. Are you one of them? I am. According to a 2016 Global Impact Report, the most frustrating thing for IBS sufferers is finding a health professional who can correctly diagnose the condition.
I discovered this firsthand years ago when I spent two weeks in a hospital bed with chronic abdominal pain. The doctors sedated me till the pain was gone and sent me home none the wiser. I subsequently visited a specialist who told me I was fine, nothing wrong. Many IBS sufferers report similar experiences.
In a survey of more than 500 patients with IBS-D 32% of respondents agreed with the statement: “healthcare professionals do not take IBS seriously,” and in a separate survey, 22% agreed that: “healthcare professionals say you have IBS when they have run out of ideas.”
The medical community does not understand IBS, what causes it or how best to treat it. As a result, there is no reliable diagnostic test for IBS, and no known cure, leaving millions of people struggling daily to find ways to eat without enduring symptoms that include fatigue, pain, bloating, and gas as well as either chronic diarrhoea or constipation. It’s believed that the majority of IBS cases are undiagnosed.
Little surprise then the typical IBS sufferer is locked in a perpetual search for alternative treatments. This was the case for me. Since that stint in hospital fifteen years ago, I’ve been experimenting with diet to find a solution. It never occurred to me to return to a doctor for help – no matter how bad the symptoms – because they’d already made it clear they couldn’t help me.
As far as the doctors were concerned, there was nothing wrong with me, leaving me in a sort of health and wellbeing wilderness. Till I stop seeing my cannabis use as recreational and started to learn about its therapeutic properties.
People who are tired of the lack of support from the medical community, and interested in taking matters into their own hands have two options: make adjustments to their diet or try a natural remedy. When eaten, cannabis can be both. In this post, I’ll explain the 7 reasons I’m cooking with cannabis to cure my IBS symptoms while also exploring the factors that make IBS so debilitating and the importance of gut health.
IBS IMPACT ON QUALITY OF LIFE
- Limits professional options, productivity and performance at work
- Affects relationships negatively
- Limits participation in social activities
- Social isolation
- Forces sufferers to make considerable life changes
- Financial burden
- 32% of IBS-C report feelings depressed; 76% said they didn’t feel normal
“I never eat out, and have learned the hard way to decline dinner invitations.”
Type of IBS
The symptom-based criteria for IBS were first developed in 1989 by an international working committee based in Rome, and are known as the Rome Criteria. The criteria were most recently updated in 2016 – the latest set of criteria are known as Rome IV – but are regarded as too complex to be applicable to daily medical practice.
According to Rome IV, IBS is characterised by recurrent abdominal pain at least once a week and may also include defecation problems as well as changes in stool frequency and/or consistency.
Sub-types of IBS are recognized by Rome IV, and include:
- IBS-C: with predominant constipation
- IBS-D: with predominant diarrhoea
- IBS-M: with both constipation and diarrhoea
In one study of more than 500 IBS-D patients, the majority reported having symptoms for 8 to 17 days of the month, and in another survey of IBS-C patients, they reported symptoms for 10 – 11 days of the month.
IBS is most prevalent amongst women.
What Makes IBS So Debilitating?
On top of the difficulty of finding a medical professional that can diagnose and treat the symptoms of IBS, the condition comes with a bunch of direct and indirect side effects. Last year, I was in Madrid for a work event where the organisers went to great trouble to put on a spread of cold meats, cheeses and breads. I couldn’t eat a thing on that table, and the organisers were visibly put out.
I didn’t know those people well enough to delve into a conversation on the broken mechanics of my digestive system, and was embarrassed by my inability to offer an explanation. The discomfort of the situation, both mine and theirs reminded me why I avoid straying too far from home, and rarely eat in company.
That’s just one in a truckload of examples of the many ways IBS has dinted my social and working life. It’s one of the reasons I work from home, and have done so for twelve years. I never eat out, and have learned the hard way to decline dinner invitations. If I’m traveling, I prepare food in advance to take with me.
A European survey showed that people with IBS are twice as a likely to take time off work, and that the symptoms could cause, on average, a 30% loss in productivity. In an American study of almost 2,000 IBS patients, it was found that performance was affected on average 9 days of the month, and that 13% of respondents were unemployed due to their poor health. Another study of almost 3,000 Canadian IBS sufferers found that 46% had missed work or school due to IBS symptoms.
In a 2017 study of more than 1,000 people on the effects of IBS on quality of life, 52% of respondents reported cancelling or changing plans at the last minute; 52% avoided eating before or during events; 42% skipped events with poor bathroom facilities; 38% missed work; 34% avoided dinner or social events with friends, and 33% avoided long journeys.
IBS affects intimate relationships, too. In a 2016 American study, two-thirds of respondents avoided having sex because of their symptoms. Much research needs to be done to uncover the ways the partners and families of IBS sufferers are impacted but this kind of research could reveal unique insights into how sufferers cope with the condition.
IBS can be a financial burden. A Canadian study found that 47% of IBS sufferers spent more than $150 per month on medication though 26% could only afford some of the treatments and 16% couldn’t afford any. Respondents in a U.S. report tried, on average, 3.6 over-the-counter (OTC) products before consulting a doctor. IBS costs the U.S. health system more than $30 million a year.
How IBS Affects Mental Health
When you’ve been told there’s nothing wrong with you but you’re living with symptoms that are so debilitating they stop you from working and socialising, it fucks with your head. Is the pain real? Am I imagining it? Am I making a fuss over nothing? These are questions I asked often till I found myself doubled up in agony or forced to sleep in the middle of the day while my body digested whatever bad thing I’d eaten.
IBS makes you feel like everything you’re eating is bad, which means food becomes an enemy. For years, especially in my thirties, I avoided meals as a way to avoid pain. Sometimes, I even thanked my condition for keeping me slim, as I’m a big grazer and would probably eat all day long if you let me. This tells you something about my relationship with food – complicated.
I tell people I have food allergies and that’s why I can’t go out or eat out or accept a dinner invitation. “Allergies” seem like a neater explanation, something tangible with known symptoms, a reason they can comprehend. When I say, “IBS,” their expression tilts towards confusion tinged with a pity that suggests they too think it’s all in my head. “What is it?” they’ll ask, feigning interest. These exchanges are painful.
Worse, they make me anxious, and numerous studies have shown that anxiety and depression both increase the chances of developing symptoms of IBS, and result from IBS, a vicious cycle that plagues sufferers. Where does it all begin? A 2013 study found a direct correlation between the “vicious cycle” of gastrointestinal symptoms and early childhood trauma.
On top, because societal taboos make it difficult to have open conversations about poop, many IBS sufferers learn early on to suffer in silence, a practice they’ve been honing since the original childhood trauma that taught them to swallow their emotions. Problem is when you swallow your emotions, there’s no room for anything else, not even food to keep you alive. Many IBS sufferers report significant weight loss.
Suffering in silence leads to stigma and reinforces the problem, spiking anxiety and depression. Unable to connect with others through honest conversations, it’s normal for the IBS sufferer to feel socially isolated. A 2015 study by the American Gastrointestinal Association (AGA) shows that more than one-third of IBS suffers feel self-conscious, embarrassed, fed up and depressed.
“Mental health conditions are now seen to be full body inflammatory responses to a compromised microbiome.”
The Gut Microbiome and IBS
The microbiome is a colony of bacteria that lives in the small intestine and colon, with each person harbouring up to 100 trillion microbiota or microbial cells. The microbiome has evolved with us to create an intricate and mutually beneficial relationship, and advances in the study of cell activity has allowed scientists to study communities of microbiota across different environments.
Researchers have been able to identify links between changes in environment – such as dietary changes, ill health and/or antibiotics – and gut health. On top, mounting evidence shows a definite link between the health of the microbiome, digestion and metabolism. Because research is pointing to the microbiome as a solution for IBS, clinical trials currently focus on interventions that target the gut microbiota such as prebiotics, probiotics, fecal transplant and diet.
It’s now known that the range of beneficial services provided by the microbiome includes the strengthening of gut integrity, harvesting energy, promoting homeostasis, and boosting immunity. In fact, the bacteria in the small intestine and colon are essential for good health by not only keeping the GI tract moving but also providing essential amino acids, vitamins and short chain fatty acids.
In the average lifetime, up to 60 tonnes of food passes through the GI tract, along with an abundance of microorganisms, and both have the capacity to adversely affect gut integrity. Recent studies have shown that imbalances in the gut bacterial communities, known as dysbiosis, can contribute to IBS, and determine the range of symptoms – but it’s not clearly understood how or why. It’s suspected that once imbalances occur, a collection of diseases flare up.
New research into the flora found in the gut-brain axis, the bidirectional communication system that regulates the central and enteric nervous systems, and promotes homeostasis, is currently revolutionising both the fields of mental health and microbiome study. The two are so interlinked it has created a new field of study known as “pyschobiotics.” Mental health conditions are now seen to be full body inflammatory responses to a compromised microbiome.
Diet and IBS
Though the biggest obstacle for any IBS sufferer is diet – which a 2014 study confirmed when 90% of respondents listed certain foods as triggers – unbelievably, knowledge about the relationship between food and IBS remains undefined. Research is ongoing, meaning that in the interim sufferers are left in the dark about one of the most influential factors on their microbiome and health: diet.
The diet that’s recommended for clinically treating IBS is known as FODMAP, and is a type of elimination diet. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols, scientific terms used to classify foods that are known to trigger the symptoms of IBS. They represent a variety of legumes, fruits, vegetables as well as milk, yoghurt and soft cheese. The idea is to cut these out of the diet and slowly reintroduce them to figure out which ones are problematic.
Most IBS sufferers have tried some sort of elimination diet usually out of necessity. This was the case for me. A year after that stint in hospital, I was in so much pain, I stopped eating for a few days, and then ate only green salad for about six months. Besides losing weight, for the first time in years I had energy and wasn’t in constant pain. I slowly began re-introducing foods, and discovered the problem foods, which included milk, pasta, bread, potatoes, or anything with white flour. With time, it became clear that any foods high in acid or starch were triggers for my IBS symptoms. One of my rules: no white food.
One of the worst things about the reaction of doctors to my IBS, or rather their lack of reaction, was that it knocked me out of connection with my health, and made me distrust my body. They didn’t know what was going on, so I assumed that I didn’t either. However, it’s my opinion that the solution to IBS is 90% diet and over 15 years of experimentation, I’ve finally found the combination of foods that work for me.
My healing journey has forced me to evolve a new relationship with food and fitness, and as a result I have a much healthier connection with my body today. I understand the integrative nature of the digestive system, and know that it’s not just food that can aggravate my symptoms. A stressful situation can also be problematic, meaning my life choices are just as important as my food choices.
Most importantly, I now see my IBS as an in-built alarm system telling me what’s good and bad in my environment. I’m very careful about planning my weeks to minimise any stress, and spend a lot of time researching nutrition, and preparing food. Hormonal changes have made me even more sensitive to stress, increasing the importance of continuously adjusting my routine of self-care.
You have no idea how much of 180 this is for me. I’ve gone from assuming I’m “fine,” “nothing wrong” to recognising something is very wrong, and in the absence of support, I have a right to take whatever means necessary to improve my quality of life. Up until four years ago, I was locked in a cycle of sleeping 18 hours a day, or enduring days of pain to today becoming the healthiest and strongest I’ve been in a long time. I have a number of factors to thank, chief amongst them cannabis.
Cannabis and IBS
Further research is needed to understand the relationship between cannabinoids and IBS, and any potential benefits. What is known is that cannabinoids play a crucial role in regulation of the immune system and have the potential to be an effective treatment for a variety of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions. As with all things cannabis-related, further research is needed to fully understand the application of cannabis for IBS sufferers.
While a 2009 study showed that gut inflammation is regulated by two important processes that are in constant flux and responding to environmental changes in the GI tract, a 2018 study demonstrated the role of cannabis in those processes. The first process sparks an aggressive immune response in the gut to kill off any unwanted or dangerous pathogens.
However, if not kept in check, these immune cells can get out of control and attack the lining of the stomach, as is the case with Crohn’s Disease, IBD, IBS or stomach ulcers. That’s where cannabinoids come in. They regulate the second part of this process, keeping the immune system balanced, and ensuring the environment returns to homeostasis. Cannabinoids also affect how food is broken down and stored for energy.
The body has its own way of producing cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids. The compounds found in cannabis are almost identical to those produced by the body, which means that when cannabis is consumed, the body recognises it and knows how to use it to calm inflammation.
But IBS isn’t just a physical problem, it affects emotional and mental wellbeing, too, and that’s another way cannabis can offer relief. The research is still in its infancy but there’s evidence to suggest that cannabis is a reliable anxiolytic, and can also alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and social anxiety disorder (SAD.) Further research showed that cannabis eased depression in patients with co-morbid conditions.
“Before long, the constant gnawing in my stomach ceased and the bloating disappeared.”
7 Reasons I’m Cooking with Cannabis To Cure My IBS
I started cooking with cannabis about six months ago though I’ve been smoking it for years. I’ve been curious about edibles for a long time but whenever I got the chance to sample any, they were sugary sweets or floury cakes or something else I couldn’t eat. As I follow a keto diet I’m used to amending recipes to fit my dietary needs, so researching ways I could integrate cannabis into my diet was a natural leap for me.
At first, like most people, I made cookies, and lots of dark chocolate fat bombs, high in fat to fit the keto diet. Pretty quickly I realised that cannabutter added a rich nutty flavour to all sorts of dishes, and I started spreading it on homemade bread, or melting it on roasted Brussels sprouts. Eating cannabis affects the body differently from smoking, but I wasn’t eating large amounts to get high, just enough to add flavour. Soon, I started to experience a bunch of other benefits.
Full disclosure: what follows is anecdotal but considering the lack of research into the links between IBS and diet, and IBS and cannabis, anecdotes are the best we can do for now. My guess is that as the field of psychobiotics opens up, we’ll hear a lot more about the essential role of cannabinoids in the health of the brain, gut-brain axis and digestive system.
1. Effective Treatment for Bloating
When I’m bloated I have no energy, feel gross, and don’t want to go outside. I don’t even want to get dressed. I hide at home and fantasise about swapping my body with a healthy one that wants to do things, and can eat anything. Then I make crazy promises to myself about the changes I’m going to make to eradicate the problem – though it’s frustrating when the solution is always to cut out more food, a cycle that demands discipline and can be unrewarding.
I’ve endured this cycle for years. But in the last year things have changed, as I get more serious about the keto diet. In that time I’ve only been in ketosis twice, as I have to tailor the diet to my IBS, and am still figuring out what I can eat. There are lots of keto foods like cream and mayonnaise – White food! No! – that I can’t eat so I have to make adjustments. I tried muesli with coconut flakes thinking it could be an ideal substitute as I bake with coconut flour. Nope! Too much white. Bloated for a week.
I didn’t see real improvements till four or five months ago, and the key change to my diet was adding cannabutter. I noticed immediately that I could eat cookies without triggering my symptoms, and began to experiment, adding cannabutter to veg and meat dishes. After a few weeks, my appetite was more regulated, and the bloating eased. Before long, the constant gnawing in my stomach ceased and the bloating disappeared. When it returns, I add a teaspoon of cannabutter to my dinner, and it disappears again. Every time.
2. No More Stomach Pain
IBS sufferers know that most days your stomach feels like a pressure cooker that could explode at any minute. For me, cannabutter is the release valve. When I first started to eat it, it was like an internal massage for my digestive system. Instantly, I felt relief, as it eased any pain. Generally, the pain comes when I’ve eaten something I shouldn’t, but on stressful days, anything I eat can cause problems.
What’s impossible not to notice is the calming effect cannabutter has on my stomach, and how quickly it works. For example, I was traveling last weekend, an event that’s guaranteed to spark my IBS symptoms including constipation and bloating. Last night, after five days of bloating, I added a teaspoon of cannabutter to my broccoli, which enabled me to have a healthy bowel movement this morning, and today the bloating and discomfort is gone.
3. Bowel Movements
This is a difficult topic to talk about, and so many bad puns about constipation are pooping, I mean popping into my head right now – but no conversation on IBS is complete without it. There’s no question the keto diet has changed my metabolism, as has more than four years of working out, but there’s been a noticeable shift in the last four or five months. Instead of alternating between days of constipation and diarrhoea, lately I’m regular as RyanAir, meaning I still have bad days but nothing like before.
In fact, I’m so regular, pooping has almost become something I don’t have to think about; I say “almost” because as any IBSer knows, when you can’t go, or can’t stop going, it’s impossible not to think about it. It’s easy to get obsessed, which ups anxiety, and sparks symptoms: the vicious cycle. Because cannabutter has regulated me, I’ve gotten more relaxed about it, meaning everything has relaxed. My bowel movements have become more compact, and look the way normal poo should look. After years of suffering, this is a miracle.
4. Mental Clarity
When asked what was their most important advice to anyone who wanted to replicate their success, both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett said: Focus. Any IBSer knows focus is challenging if not impossible when the gnawing in your stomach overwhelms you. What did I eat to cause this feeling? What can I eat to get rid of this feeling? How long is it going to last? Will I ever feel normal again? Familiar questions to any IBS sufferer.
I don’t ask myself these questions any more – there’s no need because the pain is gone, and everything is moving along nicely. As a result, I have time to concentrate on the things that are important to me. More than that, I have time to stand back, review what’s important, and tailor my activities to those goals. For the first time in years, I’m planning ahead, and I’m sticking to my plan. It’s also enabling me to take on more stressful tasks, such as this blog. This kind of mental clarity would have been impossible a year ago.
5. Aids Sleep & Regulates Hormones
As a woman in my forties, I’m in perimenopause, which is the hormonal shift that occurs before full-on menopause. The side effects of perimenopause include insomnia and hot flashes. Before I began eating cannabutter, I was smoking a ton of joints before bed in the hope of getting some sleep. Sick of being tired, drained and grumpy all the time, some days, I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up.
Then I started eating my canna cookies at night, and noticed that on those nights, I slept like a baby. The insomnia is now gone, but any night I have trouble sleeping, I eat a cookie, and it guarantees me good sleep. That’s not all. Up until last November I viewed my hash habit as recreational only. In November I stopped smoking for four days, and was immediately hit with an avalanche of hormonal symptoms: night-sweats, hot flashes, and insomnia.
On day 2, I went to the supermarket and had a hot flash so bad my clothes were soaked through by the time I got home. By day 4, I was awake for 22 hours, and wired. Unable to take any more, I relented and smoked a joint. After a few days, my symptoms eased. I still have hot flashes, but cannabis mutes them to the point that I can ignore them.
6. Increased Trust in my Body and Sense of Wellbeing
The effects of consuming cannabis are cumulative, meaning I don’t have to eat it every day to cure my symptoms. Eating it a few times a month is enough to keep the pain at bay, and my metabolism moving. I know this is down to cannabis because I’ve been working out intensely for four years and experimenting with diet for fifteen years, but neither of those factors improved my metabolism to the extent cannabis has – they didn’t give me miracle poos. Because my body finally feels like it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, my sense of wellbeing has skyrocketed.
This is likely due to a combination of factors including better sleep, improved mental clarity, better digestion and a working metabolism. I now feel like food is giving me what it’s supposed to give me: energy. I now have energy all day long and don’t experience slumps during the day. Considering I used to sleep 18 hours a day, this too feels like a miracle. More recently, I noticed that my sense of humour might be returning, and it’s been on hiatus for years. Lately, I smile more.
For me, eating cannabis is not about getting high, and rarely do I feel high after eating it. That’s because I’m micro-dosing, eating small amounts to manage my health, not wolfing down grams to get wasted. Because my intention is different so too is the result. The relationship is symbiotic. I eat cannabis whenever I feel the need, and am confident that it will deal with whatever symptoms I’m experiencing. While there’s evidence to suggest long-term cannabis use can aggravate IBS, that’s not my experience, and it’s certainly not the case with edibles.
7. Cannabis is a Nutritional Powerhouse
Because cannabis gets so much bad press, its unique nutritional profile is overlooked, which is unfortunate because it’s one of the most nutrient-packed plants on the planet.
The seeds, for example, contain protein, carbohydrates, insoluble fibre, beta-carotene, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, sulphur, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins E, C, B1, B3 and B6, and essential fatty acids. Plus, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is 3:1, which is considered optimal for human nutrition.
Likewise, the leaves and flowers contain a bunch of nutrients. The leaves can be eaten fresh off the plant, mixed into soups, juices, salads or smoothies. They are a rich source of fibre, free radical scavenging polyphenols, flavonoids, 9 essential amino acids, essential oils, the minerals magnesium, calcium, phosphorous, and THCA.
Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants found in fruit and vegetables, and various studies have shown that a diet rich in them can prevent against diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. THCA is the non-psychoactive form of THC, and both forms have medical benefits that include anti-inflammatory, nueroprotective, anti-emetic, and anti-proliferative. Studies show THC is effective treatment for pain relief, treating PTSD, and increasing appetite.
The buds contain the same bunch of nutrients, but are also packed with resin, THC, and terpenes. Terpenes are found in all plants, and are what give lemon, lavender and cannabis their unique scents. There are more than 100 terpenes in cannabis but common ones include limonene, mycrene, linalool, and phytol, and each one has medicinal benefits that include reducing stress and anxiety, kill bacteria, improve cognitive function, relieve gastric reflux and ulcers, and reduce the risk of heart disease.
So there you have it, the reasons I’m cooking with cannabis to cure my IBS symptoms and the various benefits I’m seeing. As I’m not a scientist or nutritionist, I can’t explain to you in more detail what’s happening in my body but I can promise you that the change is real, and absolutely not in my head. Honestly, I feel like a new person. Dare I say, I even feel normal or at least, normal-ish.
Personally, I believe that my microbiome has been so badly out of wack for so many years, destroyed by bad food and anxiety that it was always going to take something stronger than diet and exercise to return it to homeostasis. Eating cannabis, with its powerful nutritional profile designed to regulate digestion, protect the brain and relax the nervous system, has restored balance to my microbiome.
Over the coming months, I’m going to monitor my progress, and seek out experts who can help verify my results. Finding the right people to work with will be challenging, as I’m wary of the medical community due to my disappointing experiences in the past. However, I’m also aware that the idea of adding cannabis to the diet is a radical one for most people, and I’m keen to be proof it works. Thanks to cannabis, I have the energy and strength to take on the challenge.
If you’re someone with a similar story to mine – there are millions of us! – please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you, and will be happy to share further tips.
#followtheplant #cookingwithcannabis #cannabishealsIBS