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.