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
One of your most important organs, the liver, could be helped by medical marijuana in preventing or treating disease. Thanks to current research projects that show links to pot and healing livers, the chances of recovering from an ailing liver are increasing. Also, due to marijuana’s low level of side effects that are generally well tolerated, cannabis could be a future treatment for liver disease patients.
If you currently have liver disease, discuss all possible treatments with your doctor. Marijuana could become a new addition to your liver disease prevention or treatment options.
Medical Marijuana and Liver Disease
Cannabis may have several benefits for preventing or treating liver disease:
- Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: In one study, scientists found a 15 percent lower chance of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in those not dependent on marijuana and a 52 percent lower chance in those dependent on weed.
- Alcoholic Liver Disease: Another study looked at how marijuana affected the development of liver disease in those who drank alcohol. That study linked alcohol and cannabis use with a lower chance of developing liver disease compared to those who did not use marijuana.
- Hepatic Encephalopathy: Scientists discovered that cannabidiol (CBD) helps the inflammation and mental functioning of those with the brain-affecting cirrhosis complication called hepatic encephalopathy.
- Autoimmune Hepatitis: In a study modeling autoimmune-caused hepatitis, the blood plasma levels of the studied mice’s liver enzymes improved with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
- Cirrhosis: Mice with cirrhosis that were also treated with cannabinoids had a reduction in the fibrosis markers and showed signs of healing their livers. Though this study seemed promising, cannabis for people with hepatitis C increased the chances for fibrosis, making medicinal marijuana not the best option for those patients.
How Marijuana Can Help With Symptoms
The studies on cannabis and liver disease focused on how weed and its components can help with slowing or preventing liver problems rather than treating individual symptoms. Additionally, with liver disease, most people do not experience symptoms until they have cirrhotic livers, which is too late to regain full functioning.
If you are considering cannabis for your liver condition, always talk to your doctor first. Marijuana, though natural, may still interact with other treatments you’re using. Don’t stop any medications your doctor has prescribed, whether traditional or alternative, unless you’ve been given medical clearance to do so. Using marijuana for liver disease needs to be done under the supervision of a physician who also knows any other medications you’re taking.
Best Forms and Strains of Cannabis to Use
The form of cannabis you use depends on your tolerance and the benefits you want. Because marijuana can ease the pain, reduce nausea and stimulate appetite, it can be useful for those with advanced liver disease alleviate these symptoms.
If you have an autoimmune condition, you might try some of these strains:
- Bay II: This Sativa strain helps with anxiety, depression, and stress as well as nausea, inflammation, and pain.
- Orange Dream: This is a hybrid that fights inflammation, pain, muscle spasms, and depression.
- Green Lantern: Another Sativa strain, this helps to treat stress, fatigue, pain, nausea, and vomiting.
If your liver disease has progressed to cirrhosis, consider these strains for your symptoms:
- Outer Space: This Sativa strain relieves fatigue, anxiety, depression, and inflammation.
- Watermelon: This Indica strain fights depression, stress, sleep problems, loss of appetite and pain.
- Citrix: This hybrid strain helps with stress, depression, anxiety, pain, and inflammation.
There are many different ways to consume marijuana. Whether you choose to smoke, use a tincture or consume edibles depends on your tolerance. Liver disease or medications you take for it could affect your appetite. Discuss with your doctor about how you wish to use cannabis. This information will make it easier to find the right dosage for your condition and physical build.
Side Effects of Medicinal Cannabis
Even the most natural of substances can have side effects, marijuana included. Be aware of the possible side effects of cannabis when using it. If you feel concerned about any of these consequences of using weed medically, talk to your doctor first. And if you develop any side effects while using medicinal marijuana, contact your certified cannabis physician first before discontinuing use.
Never stop taking any medicine without letting your doctor know what side effects you’re feeling and why you want to cease using it. Your doctor may recommend a step-down approach to stop marijuana or suggest waiting out the side effects until your body becomes accustomed to them. Your doctor’s advice about marijuana side effects and what you should do about them should be paramount. Do not take advice from anyone other than a medical professional who is familiar with your case.
Side effects vary widely among patients. You may not experience the same reactions as another person, or you may have a milder version. If you take a variety with less THC, you’ll likely experience less of the “high” feeling some associate with using marijuana.
As with all medications, don’t drive or engage in other dangerous tasks until you know how your medical cannabis will affect you. The following may occur when taking medicinal marijuana:
- Dry Mouth
- High Blood Pressure
- Low Blood Pressure
- Loss of Appetite
- Blurred Vision
Find a Doctor or Dispensary
You have options when it comes to your medical treatment. Find a marijuana-certified doctor here at MarijuanaDoctors.com. With the help of an expert in medicine and in recommending cannabis and its effects, you’ll be able to get a full picture of your options for liver disease treatment. Never make a self-diagnosis and treat yourself without talking to a doctor first. The liver is a vital organ that requires consideration before taking any medicine, including marijuana. With a physician in your corner who can help you navigate the various pot strains and options, you can become an advocate for your health.
If you already have a recommendation from a doctor for cannabis, you will need to locate a dispensary convenient to your home. When you visit the dispensary, you’ll have a wide selection of products to fulfill your healthcare needs. If you have concerns about what form or type is best for you, discuss your concerns with the staff at the dispensary, your marijuana doctor or by contacting us.
What Is Liver Disease?
Liver disease affects nearly five million adults in the United States. This condition occurs for several reasons. Some you can prevent, while others are conditions you’re born with or unknowingly exposed to. Anything that causes damage to the liver can fall under the banner of liver disease, also known as hepatic disease. Liver disease can start mild, but over time, it can worsen, depending on the cause. Left untreated, it could be fatal.
In a healthy liver, the organ filters out toxins you ingest. These toxins include substances such as alcohol, which is why drinking is linked to liver disease. As a liver condition sets in, the organ becomes inflamed. At this early stage, you may not feel any pain, but if you get prompt treatment, the swelling can go away without permanently damaging the liver.
With inflammation, the liver builds up scar tissue, in a stage called fibrosis. The fibrous scar tissue can reduce your liver’s function, but you can still make a full recovery with the appropriate treatment at this stage.
The next stage, cirrhosis, is when the scar tissue hardens, disrupting the liver’s operations. Though it’s a dire condition and late in the process of liver disease, this is the stage where most people start to exhibit classic symptoms of liver disease. With cirrhosis, you cannot wholly recover your liver’s original functioning. Treatment focuses on preventing the condition from worsening to end-stage liver disease because it cannot be reversed.
End-stage liver disease is the condition when the liver no longer functions. Other parts of the body will also be affected such as the kidneys and the brain. Those with this stage of the condition are prioritized on the transplant list.
Symptoms of Liver Disease
Though liver disease has many causes, most forms progress similarly. The condition begins innocuously, with yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. This symptom, called jaundice, is a hallmark of liver problems.
Other signs of a developing liver problem are often similar to those of other chronic conditions. These include nausea, abdominal pain, fatigue, itchiness, swelling of the extremities, pale stool, and dark urine. These are not normal functions of the body. If these symptoms persist for more than a day or two, visit your doctor for a diagnosis.
Causes of Liver Problems
Though often associated with alcoholism, that is not the only cause of liver problems. Many people experience liver disease from birth or after an illness. Several things can cause liver problems including the following:
- Congenital Defects: Conditions that can result in liver damage from birth include Wilson’s disease and hemochromatosis. These are some of the problems from birth that cause damage to your liver through the build-up of various substances, such as iron in the case of hemochromatosis.
- Viruses: The forms of hepatitis — A, B, C, D, and E — are viral infections that can damage the liver.
- Cancer:Liver cancer may start in the liver or spread there from another part of the body. Hepatitis B and C infections, as well as cirrhosis, are risk factors for liver cancer. Obesity and alcohol use are lifestyle factors that could play parts in developing liver cancer.
- Autoimmune Disorders: An autoimmune disease happens when the body perceives itself as a threat and attacks it as an invader. Some of these disorders that specifically damage the liver are primary sclerosing cholangitis, autoimmune hepatitis, and primary biliary cirrhosis.
- Damage to the Liver: Certain things you do can cause damage to the liver. Long-term alcohol use is linked to liver disease as is fat accumulation through nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. You can prevent damage by cutting down on drinking and watching your weight.
Effects of Liver Disease
Left untreated, liver disease progresses through its various stages. Luckily, if diagnosed and treated before cirrhosis sets in, you could make a full recovery and regain complete function of your liver. Regular checkups and blood tests can detect liver problems early, even before you show physical symptoms. Finding the issue early in the course of the disease can result in a better prognosis.
The later stages of cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease can become fatal as more of the liver function is lost. Those who lose most of their liver’s operation and cannot get a transplant will likely die from the condition.
Current Liver Disease Treatments
Treatments for liver disease depend on the cause. Doctors try to diagnose and treat liver conditions early when their progression can be halted and sometimes reversed. Here are some of the treatments based on the causes of the liver problem:
- Congenital Defects: Congenital conditions are treated by mitigating the effects of symptoms on the individual’s lifestyle.
- Viruses:Hepatitis A and E only last for a short while, during which your body fights off the condition. These forms do not typically produce long-lasting effects and often don’t need medical treatment. Hepatitis B, C, and D can cause severe liver damage, even cirrhosis after years. Antiviral medications have been shown to cure 85 to 90 percent of people with chronic hepatitis C. Similar antiviral medicines may also help slow the progress of hepatitis B and D.
- Cancer: Cancer treatments for the liver are similar to those for other cancers. If cancer has not spread far, doctors may surgically remove the cancerous cells. Chemotherapy is another treatment possibility.
- Autoimmune Disorders: Doctors use immune system-suppressing drugs to treat autoimmune conditions. These include corticosteroids and azathioprine.
- Damage to the Liver: For alcohol-related liver damage, your doctor will tell you to give up drinking and may give you a referral to an alcohol treatment program. For nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, you’ll be counseled to lose weight.
Side Effects of Current Treatments
Current treatments for liver problems are not without risk. Side effects are inherent with any treatment, but if your doctor recommends a specific medication, they believe the benefits warrant the risk of side effects.
- Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids suppress your immune system. When taking these drugs, you’re more likely to become sick, so you must always be vigilant about avoiding sick people and washing your hands. Additionally, corticosteroids have serious side effects such as psychosis, high blood pressure, osteopenia, diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts, weight gain, and pancreatitis.
- Azathioprine: Azathioprine is another immune suppressant that can increase your chances of getting sick and raise the likelihood of having more severe complications if you do become ill. Aside from this, azathioprine can cause pancreatitis, low white blood cell count, skin rash, liver damage, and nausea.
- Antiviral Medications: Despite the reported effectiveness of antiviral medications for hepatitis C, some patients who had also suffered from hepatitis B had the condition reactivated during treatment for hepatitis C.
- Surgery: Surgery to remove cancerous cells or for transplants always comes with the same risks as any major operative procedure. If your liver condition has progressed to require surgery, though, it may be one of the only options available to save your life.
See how medical marijuana could help relieve your liver disease symptoms. Find patient reviews on local doctors and information on treatment options.