Can Weed Help Prevent Alcoholic Liver Disease?

marijuana vs alcohol blog

Most Americans agree that cannabis should be researched for its medicinal properties, even if they don’t support legalizing it outright. And thanks to an increase in scientific interest, it seems that every other day we’re presented with new evidence on the health benefits of marijuana. One of the most recent pieces of research has to do with marijuana’s effect on one of the body’s largest organs: the liver.

What’s the Deal with Your Liver?

The liver is the largest organ inside your body, clocking in at about 3.1 pounds in the average adult. Here are just a few of the key processes your liver carries out:

  • Producing proteins essential to blood clotting
  • Breaking down blood cells that are old or damaged
  • Secreting bile, which is key to the breakdown and absorption of fats
  • Helping regulate blood sugar
  • Storing vitamins and minerals, releasing them into your bloodstream as needed
  • Filtering out toxins

That last one is critically important. Whenever you drink alcohol, your liver has to break it down and filter it out of your body so you don’t die. When someone suffers from alcohol poisoning, it’s because they drank so much so quickly that their liver couldn’t keep up and just shut down. In most cases, the liver is able to repair itself with abstention from alcohol.

But when alcoholism kicks in and the liver is swimming in alcohol day and night, it will eventually lose its ability to regenerate new cells, and instead it will regenerate scar tissue that isn’t good for much of anything. The first stage of scarring is called fibrosis, and the advanced stages are referred to as cirrhosis. Once you reach a certain point, there’s no going back. In fact, liver fibrosis is the twelfth leading cause of death in America.

Cannabis and Liver Cirrhosis

Scarring of the liver doesn’t always arise due to too much drinking. Fibrosis is a common symptom of many liver conditions, and preventing it from progressing is often a difficult task. That’s where cannabis may come in.

Cannabis has been known to help with inflammation, which plays a critical role in the development of fibrosis. Two studies in particular laid the foundation for further research into the liver health benefits of marijuana.

One of the major events preceding the progression of fibrosis is hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) becoming activated. These are the cells that produce excessive collagen, which makes up the spreading scar tissue. When researchers isolated HSCs from the livers of rats fed an eight-month ethanol diet, they found that CBD actually killed a significant number of the activated HCSs.

Another study in the same year dealt with hepatic encephalopathy (HE), which is the loss of brain function experienced when a non-functional liver cannot remove toxins from the bloodstream. Researchers induced hepatic encephalopathy in female Sabra mice, then treated them with either CBD or a chemical similar to it. Their conclusion: CBD improves liver function and may serve as a “therapeutic agent for treating human HE.”

The Alcoholism Aspect

Man Smoking a Joint
Photo by: Darren J. Bradley/Shutterstock
While these and other studies have documented the health benefits of marijuana for the liver, only recently has cannabis been studied in relation to alcoholic liver disease in particular. To close this gap in the literature, a group of researchers decided to look specifically at the development of liver disease in alcoholics.

This 2018 study looked at past and current alcohol abusers in order to see how cannabis affects the progression of liver disease. 90.39% of the group were not cannabis users, 8.26% were non-dependent cannabis users, and a slim 1.36% of the subjects qualified as dependent users of cannabis.

Their findings “suggest that cannabis use is associated with reduced incidence of liver disease in alcoholics.” But what exactly does this mean? While cannabis can’t save an overly scarred liver, it may in fact keep heavy drinkers from developing liver disease in the first place. One of the most intriguing aspects of the study is that dependent cannabis users had “significantly lower odds than non-dependent users for developing liver disease.” This suggests that the higher your intake, the greater the liver health benefits of marijuana.

The authors of the study clarify that the research should not be taken as incentive to up your marijuana intake if you are also a heavy drinker. The combination of alcohol and cannabis can be treacherous for most, but if you happen to drink heavily and also use cannabis, it seems you may be partially shielding your liver from the onset of liver disease. The authors hope that their results may lead to cannabinoids being further studied for their liver-protective properties, and eventually to the development of a cannabinoid-based treatment for liver disease, alcoholic or otherwise.

For now, we look forward to further explanation of the health benefits of marijuana for your liver. While the results of this most recent study made a clear connection between cannabis use and lowered risk of liver disease, they don’t explain the mechanism by which the risk is lowered. Is it the CBD content? Perhaps it’s THCV? It could even be a cannabinoid we haven’t gotten around to studying at all yet. Only one thing is for sure: cannabis will keep surprising us.

Article by: Spencer Grey