Can Medical Marijuana Help Your Celiac Disease?

Cannabis can improve pain and nausea in some conditions

medical marijuana
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Celiac disease symptoms frequently include abdominal pain, which can be severe, and occasionally include nausea. There's also some evidence that medical marijuana can combat both pain and nausea in other conditions. So, can consuming marijuana—either by smoking it or in edible form—help with symptoms of celiac disease that are not controlled by the gluten-free diet?

So far, there's some anecdotal evidence that marijuana might help with celiac disease—a few people with celiac say consuming cannabis curbs abdominal pain, helps them gain weight, and even may alleviate diarrhea.

However, there's no real medical evidence for any of these possible effects. There are studies showing that cannabis might help with certain autoimmune diseases (celiac disease is an autoimmune condition), and there's even an intriguing study showing that the digestive tracts of those with celiac disease have increased receptors for the active chemical in marijuana. But it isn't clear what exactly this research means, and there haven't been any studies that specifically looked at whether cannabis assists in relieving symptoms in people with celiac disease.

Therefore, if you have ongoing symptoms of celiac disease, you shouldn't assume marijuana will help you, despite the fact that some people say it might based on their own experiences. Read on for what the medical literature shows about medical marijuana, symptoms, and autoimmune conditions.

What Is Medical Marijuana?

Marijuana refers to both the whole, unprocessed cannabis plant (including the flowers and the leaves) and extracts derived from the plant.

People who consume marijuana by smoking it, vaporizing (vaping) it, or eating it describe a "high" that generally leaves them relaxed and more content.

Marijuana use makes many people drowsy, but it also can improve perceived alertness and increase sensory awareness. Different varieties of cannabis can have different effects.

Medical marijuana is cannabis used for medical purposes. It's legal in more than half of U.S. states for doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat specific conditions and symptoms.

Medical Marijuana's Effects on Chronic Pain, Nausea, and Weight Gain

There's no suggestion that medical marijuana can treat celiac disease—the gluten-free diet is the only treatment currently available for celiac. But it's possible that marijuana might have an effect on some celiac symptoms.

For example, it's common for people with celiac disease to say they have abdominal pain. This pain may result from bloating and excess gas, and it occurs both in people who have undiagnosed celiac and those who are diagnosed and following the gluten-free diet.

Medical marijuana often is used to treat chronic pain, and has been explored as a possible treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. Medical researchers have found good evidence for low-dose marijuana in the treatment of nerve pain. However, they haven't shown that it helps in other types of chronic pain, including chronic abdominal pain.

Nausea is a less common symptom of celiac disease, but some people with the condition report experiencing nausea, especially if they've been badly glutened.

Medical marijuana commonly is used by cancer patients to alleviate the nausea that often comes from treatment, and those who experience nausea from other conditions say cannabis sometimes can be helpful, as well. There are anecdotal reports from people with celiac disease who say consuming marijuana helps them combat nausea, but medical studies haven't yet explored this issue.

Finally, many people with celiac disease are underweight when first diagnosed. Since a well-known side effect of marijuana is "the munchies," it's possible that consuming cannabis could help some people re-gain weight they've lost prior to diagnosis.

However, gaining weight usually isn't a problem once someone is diagnosed and begins eating gluten-free; in fact, lots of people complain that they gain too much weight.

Medical Marijuana for Autoimmune Conditions

Although researchers haven't studied medical marijuana treatment in people with celiac disease, they have looked at the drug's effects on people with other autoimmune conditions, including thyroid disease and multiple sclerosis. Celiac disease shares some links with other autoimmune conditions, and those who have one autoimmune condition are more likely to develop another.

Initial results from people with thyroid disease were interesting: Recent marijuana users had significantly lower levels of TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), a hormone that is used to measure thyroid function. Lower TSH levels may mean the thyroid gland is working better, so the study hints that marijuana use might help thyroid disease, although more research is needed.

In multiple sclerosis, multiple studies have found that medical marijuana can slow or halt the erroneous nerve signals that cause pain, muscle stiffness, and muscle spasms. However, there's also medical evidence that cannabis use can make cognitive problems in multiple sclerosis worse.

Researchers are investigating the active compounds in cannabis to see if they possibly can serve as a way to calm the immune system. This research ultimately might have implications for all autoimmune conditions, including celiac disease, but it's just in its beginning phases.

Negative Effects of Medical Marijuana

All drugs have side effects, and medical marijuana is no exception. Researchers have found that headaches, sleepiness, unease or agitation, confusion, and poor concentration all are associated with cannabis use. 

Medical marijuana use also is associated with poor memory and impaired attention and learning, especially at higher doses. Fatigue, throat irritation (for those smoking marijuana or using a vaporizer), and anxiety also were reported following use. Since medical marijuana is relatively new, scientists aren't certain how long-term use will affect people. 

The high obtained from marijuana will impair driving skills similarly to the way alcohol impairs driving skills, and will increase your risk of an accident. And, you should remember that marijuana is illegal in many states, so using it places you at legal risk as well.

Is Marijuana Gluten-Free?

Yes, marijuana is gluten-free. The actual plant, found in the Cannabaceae family, is known scientifically as cannabis and is most closely related to hemp. Cannabis is not closely related at all to the gluten grains wheat, barley, and rye.

Hemp, a grain substitute that's found in gluten-free baked goods, can be subject to gluten cross-contamination because of the way it's grown. Many farmers who cultivate hemp also cultivate gluten grains, and they use the same fields and the same equipment for both hemp and their gluten grains.

The same issues don't apply to marijuana. The farmers growing weed (both legally and illegally, depending on the state) generally aren't also growing grains like wheat and corn. So pure marijuana should be gluten-free.

However, you should be cautious with marijuana edibles if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Plenty of those, ranging from cannabis brownies to cookies and more elaborate pastries, do contain gluten in the form of wheat flour. Always check with the supplier—if marijuana is legal where you live, you may be able to find gluten-free edibles such as chocolate candies or gummies.

A Word From Verywell

Medical marijuana is not legal in every U.S. state, and celiac disease is not on any state's list of approved diagnoses that allow you to obtain medical marijuana. However, an increasing number of states are legalizing marijuana for all adult use, and in some states you can obtain a medical marijuana card with a diagnosis of "chronic pain" or "nausea." So depending on where you live, a celiac diagnosis isn't strictly necessary, assuming your doctor believes you might benefit from using the drug.

But would you benefit? There's no proof that you would, despite the many first-person stories from people with celiac disease who say marijuana helped them.

If you have ongoing celiac disease symptoms, you first should make sure you're following a strict gluten-free diet—cleaning up your diet can help eliminate lingering problems. If after doing this you continue to have symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about whether you have another condition in addition to celiac, since symptoms can overlap.

Once you've ruled out these potential causes for continuing symptoms, if you're still interested in trying medical marijuana, then you should discuss the pros and cons with your doctor.

Sources:

Battista N et al. Altered Expression of Type-1 and Type-2 Cannabinoid Receptors in Celiac Disease. PLoS One. 2013; 8(4): e62078.

Deshpande A et al. Efficacy and Adverse Effects of Medical Marijuana for Chronic Noncancer PainCanadian Family Physician. 2015 Aug; 61(8): e372–e381.

Katz D et al. Medical Cannabis: Another Piece int he Mosaic of Autoimmunity? Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 2017 Feb;101(2):230-238.

Malhotra S et al. Effect of Marijuana Use on Thyroid Function and Autoimmunity. Thyroid. 2017 Feb;27(2):167-173.

National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Medical Marijuana (Cannabis) fact sheet.

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