Marijuana May Protect the Liver from Alcohol — But Experts Urge Caution
Share on Pinterest Researchers are actively exploring cannabinoids that could be used to prevent or treat liver disease. Getty Images
The negative health consequences of misusing alcohol are becoming clearer every day.
Regularly exceeding the recommended daily limits of one drink for women and two drinks for men is associated with an increased risk for high blood pressure, stroke, and numerous cancers, including liver cancer.
Recently, researchers sought to understand the effects of regular alcohol and cannabis use on the liver.
While it may not be a good idea to combine intoxicating drugs, recent research finds that using alcohol and cannabis regularly has an unexpected effect on your health.
A 2018 study looked at about 320,000 people with a history of both misusing alcohol and using cannabis to discover what effect, if any, using both drugs had on liver health. What they found out was surprising.
Dr. Terence Bukong of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier Research Centre told Healthline: “The primary aim of our study was to assess the impact of cannabis use and the development of alcoholic liver disease.”
“Given that no clinical studies had previously evaluated the impact of cannabis use and the development of progressive stages of alcoholic liver disease in humans, we thought that this was an important research area which needed urgent investigation,” he added.
Dr. Hardeep Singh, gastroenterologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, told Healthline, “Alcohol increases fibrosis in the liver, it has a direct toxic effect to liver cells and causes them to become inflamed. This causes scarring to the liver — advanced scarring of the liver is cirrhosis.”
He emphasized that the effect was very individual, with some people harmed by much lower alcohol intake than others.
But Bukong and team found that regular users of alcohol and marijuana significantly reduced the risk of alcoholic liver disease (ALD), and the heaviest cannabis consumers benefited the most.
The anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis are well-documented. Previous research had already found that cannabinoid receptors in the liver are potential targets for new ways to treat liver disease.
Activating these receptors with cannabis reduces the inflammation that happens early in ALD, slowing the progression of the disease.
However, Bukong cautioned, “Our studies could not ascertain which cannabis strains were used. So we couldn’t determine the cannabinoid content of what each individual ingested. We also couldn’t ascertain the dosage or modes of use, although it’s most likely through smoking.”
Singh emphasized, “However, some of this scarring goes away as the healthy liver regenerates, so cirrhosis can improve if an individual simply stops drinking. But, some scarring will remain.”
“My research group is currently working to discover which cannabinoids or cannabinoid formulations will provide the best therapeutic benefits for specific liver diseases,” Bukong said.
These anti-inflammatory properties are already being used to relieve pain, colitis (inflammation of the colon), multiple sclerosis, and arthritis.
“Our findings revealed that cannabis users were less likely to develop alcoholic liver disease, and cannabis-dependent individuals were the least likely individuals to develop alcoholic liver disease,” said Bukong.
He’s confident that “specific formulations of cannabinoids might soon be used [to] prevent or treat liver disease. My research group is actively working on important cannabis formulations which we hope will be important drug leads for future testing in the prevention and treatment of liver disease from inflammatory, metabolic, and even viral causes.”
Dr. Singh cautioned that one liver disease, hepatitis, is made worse by cannabis.
“Patients with hepatitis C who used cannabis had way more liver scarring than those who didn’t and more progression of their liver disease. Something in the cannabis could actually be increasing fatty liver disease and fibrosis,” he said.
Singh theorizes that some people have sensitivity to cannabis that influences whether they can benefit from it or not. “You can’t just tell the public marijuana is good for your liver, because there may also be people whose liver is harmed by it.”
He said current treatment, in limited cases, consists of “a short course of a steroid drug called prednisolone, for about eight weeks, which can help combat the effects of alcohol on the liver.”
He added that in some people with fatty liver disease, drinking two to three cups of black coffee per day has helped reverse scarring in the liver, although it’s not known which ingredient in coffee is providing the benefit.
According to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking is responsible for roughly 88,000 deaths per year.
Could cannabis help reduce alcohol dependency to prevent liver disease?
A 2017 study looked at a clinical population of people with depression and alcohol use disorder (AUD) to find that marijuana had no beneficial effect, and could have worsened their depression.
The study concluded that — at least in people with depression — marijuana isn’t an effective treatment.
More evidence that cannabis won’t help wean people with AUD off alcohol is demonstrated in research that found that people treated for AUD, who also used marijuana, relapsed sooner than people who didn’t use marijuana.
There is strong evidence that stimulating the natural cannabinoid receptors in the liver can slow or even prevent the development of cancerous liver tumors. The health benefits associated with marijuana and cannabis products in general has created a lot of buzz.
Singh insists that, right now, too little is known about what effects cannabis compounds have on health.
“There are many substances in cannabis and it could be that one is really bad for the liver while another is beneficial. The take-home point is that more research is needed because we need data on both sides, good and bad,” he said.
The fact remains that cannabis is illegal in many parts of the United States and the world. It’s also important to remember that cannabis, like almost all drugs, is not harmless.
However, in a nod to the growing evidence that cannabis has medical benefit, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it will hold a public hearing May 31 to gather more information on the science, manufacturing, and sale of cannabis compounds.
Recent research finds that marijuana use is associated with a reduced risk of alcohol-related liver damage — including liver cancer.
However, there’s scant evidence that people who drink excessively can use marijuana to overcome a disorder. Research actually shows that it can worsen depression in some people with an alcohol use disorder.
As evidence grows that cannabis and cannabis-derived products can treat or prevent a broad range of health issues, it’s important to remember that marijuana is still illegal in many parts of the world.
Cannabis is a drug, and like any other drugs, has the potential to cause harm if misused.
A recent study shows that certain components in cannabis may help reduce inflammation associated with alcohol use and serious liver health issues.
Updated on April 13, 2020. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Each year in the U.S., around 31,000 individuals die from cirrhosis — primarily due to chronic hepatitis C and alcoholic liver disease. Doctors can’t reverse or cure the disease, except through a liver transplant, in some cases. Its symptoms, which include pain, fatigue and depression, can be unpleasant and interfere with daily living.
Conventional medication has an additional set of harmful side effects. Luckily, there’s now the option of medical marijuana and cirrhosis treatment to help address these unwanted side effects and symptoms.
How and Why Marijuana Can Be an Effective Treatment for Cirrhosis
Research on medical marijuana for cirrhosis treatment is complicated. Cannabis’ cannabinoids influence or bind to the CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in your body. Certain studies implicate CB1 action in cirrhosis or other liver disease progression.
However, studies do show CB2 receptor activation offers therapeutic effects on things like:
- Hepatic inflammation
- Alcoholic fatty liver
- Liver injury
Evidence suggests using medical weed for selectively activating your CB2 receptor could, in fact, offer the therapeutic and beneficial potential for cirrhosis and other types of liver disease.
Another 2013 study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Disease reported the regular consumption of medical pot doesn’t accelerate the progression of liver disease, particularly fibrosis. This study is one of the most comprehensive and inclusive of its kind, involving around 700 human participants. According to the researchers, this study showed there’s no link between smoking cannabis and significant HCV/HIV coinfection liver fibrosis.
Livers in individuals with cirrhosis have more CB2 receptors, although individuals without cirrhosis don’t have this issue. Because of this, researchers believe the ECS plays a crucial role in treating and preventing liver disease while maintaining a healthy immune system.
Cirrhosis has an association with inflammation, and is thereby an ECS function. People who aren’t getting enough terpenes or cannabinoids are at an increased risk for cirrhosis.
What Side Effects and Symptoms of Cirrhosis Can Medical Marijuana Treat?
Liver disease side effects and symptoms marijuana and cirrhosis treatment can help with include:
- Loss of appetite
- Sleep problems
- Weight loss
- Drowsiness (Sativa strains are good for this)
The anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis are well-documented, and explain why it makes such a great painkiller. It’s also the reason behind using weed as a treatment for nerve inflammation — the main cause of numerous neurological conditions like MS and epilepsy. According to a study published in Liver International, there’s enough evidence to suggest cannabis’ anti-inflammatory properties protect the liver from alcohol abuse damage.
Records of high pain prevalence in chronic liver disease patients with reports estimate it’s in the range of 32 to 77 percent. And, while opioid-based treatment plans work fairly well in relieving the pain liver disease patients often experience, they do come with harsh side effects and addiction potential. Medical cannabis is all-natural and provides highly effective pain relief. Plus, it doesn’t produce these harmful side effects.
Exploring some of the strains below can help you create the perfect cannabis treatment to address all these symptoms.
Best Strains of Marijuana to Use for Cirrhosis Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects
Many medical marijuana patients, either self-medicating or official, have to experiment quite a bit before they find the perfect fit. Trial and error are normal parts of the process. A qualified marijuana doctor can help you choose the right medical weed strains for your symptoms. But, to get you started, you can try these effective strains.
- Outer Space (Sativa): Treats inflammation, anxiety, depression and fatigue
- Kraken (Indica): Relieves inflammation and pain
- Citrix (hybrid): Helps with anxiety, depression, stress, pain and inflammation
- Nova OG (Indica): Aids loss of appetite, sleep problems and pain
- Green Haze (Sativa): Treats depression, loss of appetite, fatigue, pain, nausea, gastrointestinal disorder
- Watermelon (Indica): Relieves pain, depression, stress, loss of appetite, sleep problems, gastrointestinal disorder
- King Kong (hybrid): Helps with lack of appetite, anxiety, pain, stress and depression
Best Methods of Marijuana Treatment for the Side Effects and Symptoms of Cirrhosis
Just like there are almost endless types of weed strains, there are also various ways you can ingest the herb to benefit from its effects. Below is a simple list of some methods you can experiment with.
Some things you may want to consider when choosing your medical cannabis and cirrhosis treatment method are if your pain is localized, if you want to medicate discreetly, whether you are looking for sustained effects and your tolerance to THC.
Conduct research on the methods if you fit any of these categories. For instance, if you’re looking to be discreet, you’d probably want to stay away from smoking and choose edibles or patches. Likewise, if you’re looking for immediate relief, edibles are probably not the way to go, and you might opt to smoke instead.
Start Your Medical Marijuana and Cirrhosis Treatment Now With Marijuana Doctors
To begin your cannabis and cirrhosis treatment plan, you need to contact a marijuana-friendly doctor who can guide you to that required recommendation. Feel free to start your search for your new medical marijuana doctor here at MarijuanaDoctors.com. Jot down all the questions you have to discuss with the doctor during your online consultation.
Already have a doctor? No problem! Browse our extensive list of medical marijuana dispensaries to find your perfect cannabis products. Here, you can also shop for medical cannabis products and learn more about its benefits through our abundant resources.
What Is Cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis is a severe degenerative condition where there’s damage to your healthy liver cells and scar tissue, typically due to chronic hepatitis or alcohol abuse. As tough scar tissue begins replacing your liver cells, your liver starts to lose its ability to function properly. When you have severe damage to your liver, it can result in liver failure or potentially death.
Cirrhosis can also cause dense scarring, which can slow down the normal blood flow through your liver and cause the blood to find different passages back to your heart. These passages could include your veins in your esophagus and stomach. Pressure can build up in these blood vessels, causing them to enlarge and even rupture. The real threat here is if this occurs in your esophagus blood vessels.
Types of Cirrhosis
While there are many types of cirrhosis, these are just some of the more common types.
- Hepatitis C-related cirrhosis: This is a viral condition causing your liver to swell. According to HVC Advocate, around 20 to 25 percent of individuals with hepatitis C end up developing cirrhosis of the liver too.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis: Alcoholic cirrhosis is the most severe form of alcohol-induced liver disease, the American Liver Foundation says. Between 10 to 15 percent of alcoholic individuals develop cirrhosis, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
- Atrophic cirrhosis: Atrophic cirrhosis is where your liver decreases in size and is a condition that occurs in some alcoholics, along with postnecrotic or posthepatic cirrhosis.
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC): PSC is a condition causing blockage and damage to your bile ducts. Your bile ducts help excrete bile in your small intestines and gallbladder from your liver. PCS causes bile duct inflammation resulting in narrowing and scar formation of your bile ducts. The more scar tissue you get, the more the bile duct narrows. When the bile can’t move out of your liver, it can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.
- Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC): PBC is a chronic, autoimmune condition that destroys your liver slowly. It affects your bile ducts and causes inflammation. When this inflammation becomes excessive, it can lead to the destruction of your bile ducts, where scar tissue replaces the ducts.
History of Cirrhosis
Since ancient times, the leading cause of chronic liver disease in developed countries has been alcohol. An inscribed Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1500 BCE reveals evidence of this disease. In the East, for millennia, people have known the hepatic consequences of consuming excessive amounts of alcohol.
In the U.S., during the Prohibition years from 1916 to 1932, cirrhosis death rates dropped significantly. During World War II, from 1941 to 1947, when the ration of wine decreased from five liters to one liter per week, cirrhosis death rates also dropped, but went back up with the reinstatement of the supply of wine.
The repeal of Prohibition profoundly impacted the public and medical health understanding of alcohol’s role in liver disease.
Symptoms of Cirrhosis
Often, cirrhosis doesn’t show any symptoms or signs until you already have extensive damage to your liver. When you do experience symptoms, they might include:
- Bruising and bleeding easily
- Loss of appetite
- Itchy skin
- Accumulation of fluid in your abdomen
- Redness in the palms of your hands
- Drowsiness, confusion and slurred speech
- Breast enlargement in men
- Weight loss
- Spiderlike skin blood vessels
- Leg swelling
- Testicular atrophy in men
If you notice any of the above symptoms, consult with your doctor.
Effects of Cirrhosis
You could potentially experience certain complications of cirrhosis, including the following.
- Portal hypertension (high blood pressure in your liver-supplying veins): Cirrhosis slows your normal blood flow through your liver, thereby raising the pressure in your veins responsible for bringing blood to your liver from your spleen and intestines.
- Swelling in your abdomen and legs: Portal hypertension may lead to edema or fluid accumulation in your legs and your abdomen (ascites). Both ascites and edema may also be due to your liver’s inability to generate enough albumin or other blood proteins.
- Decreased blood platelets and white blood cells: This could be an indication of cirrhosis with portal hypertension.
- Spleen enlargement: Portal hypertension may also lead to spleen changes.
- Bleeding: Portal hypertension may lead to where your blood is re-routed to your smaller veins leading to them increasing in size and becoming varices. These smaller veins can become strained by this excess load and can burst, leading to severe bleeding.
- Life-threatening bleeding: This typically occurs when your stomach or lower esophagus veins rupture. When your liver can no longer create adequate clotting factors, it may add on to the continued bleeding. Another frequent cause of this bleeding is bacterial infections.
Other complications include:
- Toxin buildup in the brain
- Acute-on-chronic liver failure
- Bone disease
Some studies show cirrhosis patients have impairment of not only physical aspects, but also of mental aspects of quality of life. In fact, one study measuring cirrhosis patients’ psychological status as it relates to their liver impairment severity showed the cirrhosis patients had signs of depression and mental distress.
Another study involving 54 men and 43 women with cirrhosis showed 62.9 percent of the patients had depression and 13.4 percent had anxiety.
Cirrhosis statistics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include:
- In 2015, around 3.9 million adults received a liver disease diagnosis.
- In 2015, around 40,326 individuals died from liver disease.
The National Institutes of Health report the following about cirrhosis:
- Researchers estimate in the U.S., around one in 400 adult individuals has cirrhosis.
- Adult individuals ages 45 to 54 have a higher risk of cirrhosis.
- In the U.S., around one in 200 adult individuals between 45 and 54 years old has cirrhosis.
- Researchers believe these numbers could be higher, since not all individuals with the condition receive an official diagnosis.
Current Treatments Available for Cirrhosis and Their Side Effects
Doctors don’t have specific treatments to constitute a complete and direct cirrhosis cure. However, doctors can treat a lot of the underlying conditions causing cirrhosis, and they can cure some of these conditions. When you receive treatment for the underlying cause of your cirrhosis, it could help prevent liver failure or the worsening of your cirrhosis. Treatment might also help improve some of the scarring of your liver.
Physicians typically prescribe medication to treat the underlying causes of cirrhosis. Your doctor may advise you to stop certain activities like taking certain medications or drinking alcohol, since these could cause your cirrhosis to get worse, or they may have even been the cause of your cirrhosis.
Alcohol Dependency Treatment
If regular, long-term heavy alcohol consumption caused your cirrhosis, it’s crucial you stop drinking immediately. Doctors, in most cases, will suggest you enter a treatment program to treat your alcohol dependency.
Your doctor may prescribe certain medications to control hepatitis B or C-related liver cell damage.
Control Portal Vein Pressure
As mentioned earlier, you can have a “backup” of blood in your portal vein supplying blood to your liver, which can cause high blood pressure in this portal vein. Doctors usually prescribe medications to control increased pressure in your other blood vessels. They can detect any signs of severe bleeding through an endoscopy. The goal is to prevent this severe bleeding.
If you’re vomiting blood or passing bloody bowel movements, you likely have esophageal varices that require immediate medical attention. Your doctor will discuss specific procedures, such as banding or injection sclerotherapy, to potentially help.
Other complications can arise, which your doctor will treat in various ways. These complications could include:
If you get an infection, your doctor will prescribe you antibiotics. Some potential side effects of antibiotics include:
- Abdominal cramps and severe watery diarrhea
- White patches on your tongue
- Allergic reaction, such as hives, fainting, shortness of breath, swelling of your face, lips or tongue
- Vaginal discharge or itching
Be sure to go over any possible side effects with your doctor for antibiotics or any other type of medication they prescribe to you.
Liver Cancer Screening
Cirrhosis patients have an increased risk of liver cancer. Therefore, your doctor will likely want to perform routine imaging scans and blood tests.
Your doctor may prescribe you certain medications for high blood toxin levels.
Sometimes, cirrhosis causes damage that covers almost all of the liver and becomes irreversible. In this situation, you’d need a new, transplanted liver. You could end up waiting for a while to identify a suitable donor. Doctors often recommend liver transplants as a last resort.
See how medical marijuana could help relieve Cirrhosis symptoms. Find patient reviews on local doctors and information on treatment options.