Can Cannabis Cure Your Child’s Diarrhea?

Treating deadly diarrheal diseases in children with a novel therapy.

Posted Oct 12, 2020

Some aggressive intestinal bacteria are a significant risk to human health and remain an important cause of infant mortality in developing countries. Bacterial pathogens attack the colon and cause severe inflammation and diarrhea. Diarrhea kills more than 2000 children every day—more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Diarrheal diseases are the second leading cause of death among children under the age of 5.  The antibiotics used to treat these infections often do more harm than good.

Not all bacteria are harmful. For pathogenic intestinal bacteria to colonize, multiply, and cause disease they must first activate some specific genes that produce the required proteins. A recent study in the journal Cell reported that cannabis can shut down these critical genes.

Extracts of the cannabis plant have a long history of being used to relieve chronic gastrointestinal conditions, including diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease. Many years ago, scientists discovered that cannabinoids within the gut inhibit peristalsis and reduces the severity of diarrhea. Your body’s endocannabinoid system also plays an important role in controlling intestinal inflammation possibly by influencing the balance of specific gut bacteria.

The current study examined the ability of 2-AG, one of your body’s endogenous cannabis compounds, to protect the intestine from a particularly virulent strain of bacteria, Citrobacter rodentium. This bacterial pathogen attacks the colon and causes marked inflammation and diarrhea. The study reported that the endocannabinoid 2-AG protected the animals in the study from extreme gastrointestinal distress such as inflammation and infection. The study reported that 2-AG also attenuated Salmonella typhimurium infections and reduced the effectiveness of enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli, a particularly dangerous gastrointestinal bacteria that infects humans.

Bacteria possess specific receptors that sense the presence of our endocannabinoids. The cannabinoid genes are extremely ancient; they predate the divergence of vertebrates and invertebrates. When this ancestral receptor is stimulated by extracts of the marijuana plant, bacterial virulence is reduced. The researchers also identified some additional promising mechanisms that might underlie the benefit of 2-AG against intestinal infection that are not related to its actions directly on bacteria.

The results of this preliminary study are exciting because they indicate that safe and effective therapies for severe childhood gastrointestinal infections might be designed based on the ability of our endogenous cannabinoid system to influence the behavior of the three pounds of bacteria that reside in our colon.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D.

References

Ellermann M, et al., (2020) Endocannabinoids Inhibit the Induction of Virulence in Enteric Pathogens. Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2020.09.022