How does cannabis affect gut health?

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
June 16, 2022

How does cannabis, widely consumed for both medicinal and recreational purposes, affect gut function and health? Nicholas DiPatrizio, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in the UC Riverside School of Medicine, is set to find out.

An expert on endocannabinoids, the body’s own “natural cannabis,” DiPatrizio has received a two-year, $300,000 grant from the UC San Diego Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research to conduct the research.

“The impact of cannabis consumption on gut function and health, and the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in these processes, remain unclear,” he said. “This grant will allow my lab to test whether cannabis protects against gut barrier dysfunction in metabolic and inflammatory bowel diseases.”

Nicholas DiPatrizio. (UCR/Stan Lim)

DiPatrizio explained that a weak gut barrier, or “leaky gut,” disrupts the intestine’s ability to maintain electrolyte and nutrient transport, regulate immune responses, and maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Leaky gut is associated with chronic inflammatory diseases, including Celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis, and increases the risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD.

DiPatrizio will collaborate on the research project with Declan McCole, a professor of biomedical sciences at UCR and an expert on IBD and epithelial barrier function. A single layer of cells that plays a critical role in human health, the intestinal epithelium provides a barrier while also allowing nutrient and water absorption. 

The study, titled “Impact of Cannabis Exposure on Gut Barrier Function in Health and Disease,” will attempt to identify the effects of cannabis exposure on gut barrier function in two mouse disease models that display a moderate vs. severe gut barrier dysfunction (diet-induced obesity and experimental colitis, respectively).  

“Our study will support evidence-based public policy associated with cannabis use and identify possible therapeutic benefits for treating disorders affecting the gastrointestinal tract,” DiPatrizio added. “We also hope the knowledge gained from our work will help guide the design and development of cannabinoid-based therapeutic options for diseases that affect gut barrier function, such as IBD.”

A major focus of DiPatrizio’s laboratory is on studying roles for the bodies’ endocannabinoid system in health and disease, with a focus on how this system controls gut-brain signaling important for food intake and reward. His lab has shown that the endocannabinoid system in the colon is dysregulated in mice rendered obese by a “western style” diet high in fats and sugar. 

“Our preliminary results suggest that cannabis serves a protective function for gut function in obesity,” DiPatrizio said.