SNL Star Treats Crohn’s Disease with Marijuana
— "I wouldn’t be able to do [the show] if I didn’t smoke weed"
by Michele R. Berman, MD, and Mark S. Boguski, MD, PhD December 6, 2018
Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson has had a roller-coaster year. In June, it was announced that he was engaged to pop star Ariana Grande. By October, the engagement was off. Then he received harsh criticism over a bad joke he made about Texas congressional candidate Dan Crenshaw — a Navy Seal veteran who had lost an eye in Afghanistan. A week later, congressman-elect Crenshaw accepted Davidson’s apology and took a few swipes back at him on SNL’s Weekend Update.
But this past year was, unfortunately, emblematic of Davidson’s life. Pete lost his father, a New York City firefighter at the World Trade Center on 9/11. His father’s death took a heavy toll on him. In a New York Times article, his mother Amy said, “It was sad how sad he was growing up . In school, he would act out.” “At one point, he said, he ripped all his hair out until he was bald. He became a ‘lab rat’ for doctors studying the children of Sept. 11 victims. ‘It was overwhelming,’ he said.”
Davidson was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was 17 or 18. In a recent interview with Nicki Swift, he explained, “Whenever I wake up, if I don’t hit the bowl or something, it’ll feel like someone punched me in the stomach.” He’s been treated with oral drugs as well as the monoclonal antibody drug infliximab (Remicade). He’s tried nutritional therapy, but Davidson told the Breakfast Club crew that “healthy stuff” doesn’t help him, but instead “just goes right through” his body.
But he did eventually find something that seemed to help. In an interview with High Times Davidson said:
“And I found that the medicines that the doctors were prescribing me and seeing all these doctors and trying new things . weed [cannabis] would be the only thing that would help me eat.”
“My stomach would be in pain all day, and I wouldn’t be able to eat, but then I’d smoke and I can eat and do my shows . I wouldn’t be able to do SNL if I didn’t smoke weed. I wouldn’t be able to do anything really. Me performing not high has gone awful. It’s awful for me because I don’t feel well.”
What is Crohn’s Disease?
Crohn’s disease (CD) is one of two varieties of inflammatory bowel disease or IBD (ulcerative colitis being the other). Both are disorders that involve chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. CD can involve any portion of the digestive tract, from the mouth to anus, however, it most commonly affects the small intestine and proximal colon. Unlike ulcerative colitis, in which the inflammation is relatively superficial, inflammation in CD can involve the entire thickness of intestine.
Researchers estimate that more than half a million people in the United States have Crohn’s disease. Studies show that, over time, Crohn’s disease has become more common in the United States and other parts of the world. The reason for this increase is unknown.
Crohn’s disease can develop in people of any age and is more likely to develop in people
- between the ages of 20 and 29
- who have a family member, most often a sibling or parent, with IBD
- who smoke cigarettes
The most common symptoms of Crohn’s disease are
- abdominal cramping and pain
- weight loss
Other symptoms include
- eye redness or pain (uveitis)
- joint pain or soreness
- nausea or loss of appetite
- skin changes including erythema nodosum and pyoderma gangrenosum
What are the complications of Crohn’s disease?
Complications of Crohn’s disease can include the following:
- Intestinal obstruction. CD can thicken the intestinal wall which, over time, can cause intestinal narrowing and blockage.
- Fistulas. Inflammation which extends the full thickness of the intestinal wall creates tunnels, or fistulas. Fistulas may become infected.
- Anal fissures may cause itching, pain, or bleeding.
- Ulcers. Inflammation anywhere along the digestive tract can lead to ulcers in the mouth, intestines, anus or perineum.
- Extraintestinal inflammation. CD can cause inflammation in the joints, eyes and skin.
- Colon cancer. There is an increased rate of intestinal cancer in Crohn’s disease, including both colon and small bowel sites. (Freeman, 2008)
How is Crohn’s disease treated?
Although there is yet no cure for Crohn’s disease, there are many drugs that can reduce symptoms. According to the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), drugs to treat Crohn’s disease include:
Aminosalicylates contain 5-aminosalicylic acid (5-ASA), which helps control inflammation. Doctors use aminosalicylates to treat people newly diagnosed with Crohn’s disease who have mild symptoms. Aminosalicylates include balsalazide, mesalamine, olsalazine, and sulfasalazine.
Corticosteroids are prescribed for people with moderate to severe symptoms. Corticosteroids include budesonide, hybrocortisone, methylprednisolone, and prednisone.
Immunomodulators reduce immune system activity, resulting in less inflammation. Immunomodulators can take several weeks to 3 months to start working. Immunomodulators include 6-mercaptopurine, azathioprine, cyclosporine, and methotrexate.
Biologic therapies target proteins made by the immune system. Neutralizing these proteins decreases inflammation in the intestines.
Even with these medicines, however, surgery is often needed to treat complications.
The role of cannabinoids in the treatment of Crohn’s Disease
People have used cannabis for a variety of health conditions for at least 3,000 years. More recently, individual components of marijuana or similar synthetic substances, called cannabinoids, have also been used for health purposes. Cannabinoids are active chemicals in cannabis that cause drug-like effects throughout the body, including the central nervous system and the immune system. The main active cannabinoid in cannabis is delta-9-THC. Another active cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD), which may relieve pain, lower inflammation, and decrease anxiety without causing the “high” of delta-9-THC.
Research into the effects of cannabinoids lead to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a biological system composed of endocannabinoids, which are endogenous lipid-based neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors, the cannabinoid receptor proteins that are expressed throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems and the enzymes responsible for synthesis and degradation of the endocannabinoids. ECS has emerged as an important neuromodulatory system.
Endocannabinoids exert their effects by finding to specific receptors on their target cells. There are two main types of cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors, the most predominant form, are found mostly in neurons in the CNS and PNS, while CB2 receptors are commonly identified in immune cells. The best characterized endocannabinoids are N-arachidonoylethanolamide (anandamide) and two-arachidonolyl glycerol (2-AG).
In the gastrointestinal system, CB1 and CB2 are found in all layers of the intestinal wall. According to Ahmed and Katz, “Cannabinoids predominately mediate inhibitory pathways in the GI tract through reduction of vagal cholinergic tone. CB2 modulate inflammation, whereas CB1 control central functions, including pain control, satiety, nausea, and vomiting.”
Surveys by Garcia-Planella, Lal, and Allegretti found significant proportions of patients with IBD use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for additional management of symptoms. Ten to 16% of patients reported active use, while 32-50% of patients reported lifetime use of medical cannabis specifically for symptom relief of IBD. The patients cite ineffectiveness of current therapy, fewer side effects, and a sense of gaining control over their illness as motives for CAM use. It should be noted that the surveys also showed that patients infrequently reported their cannabis use to their physicians.
Is there any scientific evidence to support the use of cannabis in IBD? A 2014 Canadian study by Storr et al had 313 patients with IBD seen at the University of Calgary fill out a questionnaire covering motives, pattern of use, and subjective beneficial and adverse effects associated with self-administration of cannabis. “Cannabis had been used by 17.6% of respondents specifically to relieve symptoms associated with their IBD, the majority by inhalational route (96.4%). Patients with IBD reported that cannabis improved abdominal pain (83.9%), abdominal cramping (76.8%), joint pain (48.2%), and diarrhea (28.6%),” However, they also found that in patients with CD with a prolonged use of cannabis (>6 months), there was an increased history of surgery. But they acknowledge that it was not possible to associate the time of cannabis use with surgery, so temporal relationships or causation could not be made.
Naftali and her colleagues in Israel have presented several studies on the response of patients with CD to cannabis. The first, a retrospective observational study in 2011, interviewed 30 patients with CD who had been prescribed cannabis. Disease activity before and after cannabis was estimated using a Harvey Bradshaw index (a simplification of the Crohn’s Disease Activity Index-CDAI). They found that “Of the 30 patients 21 improved significantly after treatment with cannabis. The average Harvey Bradshaw index improved from 14 ± 6.7 to 7 ± 4.7 (P < 0.001). The need for other medication was significantly reduced. Fifteen of the patients had 19 surgeries during an average period of 9 years before cannabis use, but only 2 required surgery during an average period of 3 years of cannabis use.
Her second study in 2014, was a prospective placebo-controlled study with 21 patients with CD who did not respond to therapy with steroids, immunomodulators, or anti-tumor necrosis factor-α agents. They were divided into two groups, one given cannabis, twice daily for 8 weeks, in the form of THC-containing cigarettes or placebo containing cannabis flowers from which the THC had been extracted. “Complete remission (CDAI score, <150) was achieved by 5 of 11 subjects in the cannabis group (45%) and 1 of 10 in the placebo group (10%; P = .43). A clinical response (decrease in CDAI score of >100) was observed in 10 of 11 subjects in the cannabis group and 4 of 10 in the placebo group. Three patients in the cannabis group were weaned from steroid dependency. Subjects receiving cannabis reported improved appetite and sleep, with no significant side effects.
At the United European Gastroenterology conference in Vienna, October 2018, Naftali reported her latest findings. Forty-six people with moderately severe CD were randomized to receive wither cannabis oil (15% cannabidiol and 4% THC) or placebo for 8 weeks.” The group receiving the cannabis oil had a significant reduction in their Crohn’s disease symptoms compared with the placebo group, and 65%met strict criteria for clinical remission (versus 35% of the placebo recipients).”
But the most surprising aspect of the study came when they measured inflammation in the gut using endoscopy and measuring inflammatory markers. “We have previously demonstrated that cannabis can produce measurable improvements in Crohn’s disease symptoms but, to our surprise, we saw no statistically significant improvements in endoscopic scores or in the inflammatory markers we measured in the cannabis oil group compared with the placebo group,” said Dr. Naftali. “We know that cannabinoids can have profound anti-inflammatory effects, but this study indicates that the improvement in symptoms may not be related to these anti-inflammatory properties.”
Although the early scientific evidence is promising, larger scale, longer follow-up trials are needed.
Do any of you have any patients using cannabis as a complementary treatment for Crohn’s disease? What has been your experience?
Michele R. Berman, MD, and Mark S. Boguski, MD, PhD, are a wife and husband team of physicians who have trained and taught at some of the top medical schools in the country including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Washington University in St. Louis. Their mission is both a journalistic and educational one: to report on common diseases affecting uncommon people and summarize the evidence-based medicine behind the headlines.
Can Medical Marijuana Improve Crohn’s Disease Symptoms?
Studies have found benefits and risks to using cannabis for Crohn’s disease. Here’s what you should know before you give it a try.
With medical marijuana now legal in a large number of states, many people with Crohn's disease may be wondering if they should give it a try. After all, this drug is often touted for its ability to relieve both pain and anxiety — both of which are common in Crohn’s, according to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation.
A large body of research points to potentially therapeutic substances in marijuana that could help with Crohn’s symptoms, and some studies have even found a direct link between marijuana use and certain benefits in people with Crohn’s. But many experts still urge caution.
"There really isn't data to tell us that it’s effective for Crohn's disease," says Mark Gerich, MD, a gastroenterologist and the clinical director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at the University of Colorado in Aurora. That means that while using marijuana may improve your appetite or reduce your perception of pain, there's no clear evidence that it actually reduces the gut inflammation at the core of the disease, he says.
What’s more, using marijuana has been associated with certain worse outcomes in people with Crohn’s disease. So before using this drug, it’s important to understand its potential risks and benefits to the best of your ability. Here’s what you should know about marijuana and Crohn’s.
The Benefits of Marijuana for Crohn’s Disease
Cannabis or marijuana (aka pot or weed) is a group of plants that can be used medicinally in a number of ways, including smoking, ingesting edibles, using a vaporizer (vaping), and applying topically. While cannabis contains nearly 500 chemicals, the best known ones are cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9‐tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), according to a review published in the March 2019 issue of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases.
There have been a few studies of marijuana in people with Crohn’s disease in recent years. But because different studies have looked at different doses of different chemicals from the plant, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions about how this drug may or may not help with Crohn’s management.
In one review of three different studies, published in November 2018 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, the authors found that overall, the effects of marijuana on Crohn’s disease were unclear or mixed. Some beneficial effects were found in individual studies, such as a greater likelihood of reduced Crohn’s disease activity in people who smoked marijuana containing THC compared with those who smoked a version with the THC removed. But certain risks also emerged from the three studies, such as a higher likelihood of sleepiness, nausea, and difficulty concentrating among marijuana users.
Some other studies have simply looked at people with Crohn’s disease who already use or don’t use marijuana, instead of randomly assigning participants to be in one group or the other. One such study, published in October 2019 in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences, compared hundreds of otherwise similar marijuana users and nonusers with Crohn’s disease between 2012 and 2014. It found that marijuana users were less likely to have active fistulizing disease or an intra-abdominal abscess, or to require a blood product transfusion, parenteral nutrition, or a colectomy.
But a larger study with a similar design, published in June 2019 in the journal Annals of Translational Medicine, had more mixed results. It found that while cannabis users with Crohn’s disease had lower risks for colorectal cancer, anemia, and needing parenteral nutrition, rates of active fistulizing disease or intra-abdominal abscess formation were actually higher in this group.
The Risks of Marijuana for Crohn’s Disease
Most studies on marijuana and Crohn’s disease have had major flaws, such as a small number of participants or a brief follow-up period, according to Waseem Ahmed, MD, who coauthored a review article on the topic — published in November 2016 in the journal Gastroenterology & Hepatology — as a resident in internal medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
What’s more, marijuana use also comes with certain risks. For one, its symptom-soothing effects may actually mask ongoing inflammation in Crohn’s disease, making people think their disease is in remission when it's not, according to the article by Dr. Ahmed.
And a study published in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases found that using marijuana for more than six months at a time to help with symptoms was a strong predictor of needing surgery in people with Crohn's disease. Of course, it’s possible that people with worse symptoms and more advanced disease were more likely to use marijuana, so this doesn’t mean the marijuana contributed to the risk of needing surgery.
Marijuana use also carries risks of dependence, psychosis, and — with long-term use — neurocognitive impairment, says Ahmed. He therefore suggests considering it to help control pain or other Crohn’s symptoms only if you don’t respond well to other types of treatment.
Obtaining Medical Marijuana to Treat Crohn’s Disease
Even if you might be inclined to try marijuana for your Crohn’s disease, you may face legal or logistical barriers in acquiring it depending on where you live in the United States. In a November 2018 statement, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation warned that both patients and healthcare providers “need to be aware of the unique state laws pertaining to prescribing and use of cannabis,” and that your employer’s policy regarding marijuana use should also be a consideration.
As of October 2019, 33 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have comprehensive medical marijuana programs — but each program works differently. You can find out whether your state or territory has such a program, along with certain details about how each specific program works, at the National Conference of State Legislatures website.
Ultimately, though, your best resource for discussing the medical and practical reasons for and against using marijuana for your Crohn’s disease is likely to be your doctor. If you think cannabis might be an option worth considering, bring up the topic at your next appointment.