Alcoholics who use cannabis less likely to get cirrhosis, liver cancer and steatosis: study

This doesn't mean cannabis use can "erase" the effects of alcohol use, researchers warn

A new study from Liver International concludes that patients who are current or former alcoholics are significantly less likely to get alcohol-related hepatitis, steatosis (also known as "fatty liver"), cirrhosis and liver cancer if they were cannabis users.

The researchers linked marijuana use with lowering odds of being diagnosed with these diseases by 40 to 50 per cent.

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Researchers with the North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Massachusetts aimed to see if weed’s anti-inflammatory properties could also help protect the liver from alcohol-related damage. Researchers focused on 319,000 patients with a past or current history of alcohol abuse, and then divided the patients into non-cannabis users, non-dependent cannabis users, and dependent cannabis users.

They found that cannabis users had “significantly lower odds” of developing various alcohol-related liver diseased. They also found that cannabis users classified as “dependent” displayed the lowest chances of developing liver disease.

Alcohol-related liver disease is caused by excessive consumption of alcohol and is a common, but preventable, disease. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, an individual with alcohol-related cirrhosis who does not stop drinking has a less than 50 per cent chance of living for at least five more years.

The Salem study is aligned with previous results about how cannabis affects alcohol users. According to a study published in the journal Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, cannabis consumption is associated with a reduction in the presence of alcohol-induced inflammatory molecules (cytokines). 

“...Cannabis may have a role in mitigating inflammation in the body among people who drink alcohol, but further research is needed to better understand these relationships,” says that study’s author Hollis Karoly, a doctoral student in clinical psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Why does cannabis mitigate inflammation among alcohol drinkers? Karoly explains  that cannabinoids act on cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and body, and many of these receptors are located on immune cells. “Alcohol also binds to receptors located on these same immune cells,” she continues. “Through interacting with these important immune cells, alcohol is thought to increase inflammatory signaling, while certain cannabinoids like CBD are thought to decrease immune signaling, and this may be especially true in the liver. “

Karoly notes that the study suggests that some cannabinoid compounds may decrease levels of inflammation in alcohol users but cautions that “these results don't suggest that cannabis can ‘erase’ the negative effects of heavy alcohol use.”

In a 2014 study, researchers found when mice were given CBD, it also protected the liver from alcohol-related damage. The study authors report that CBD can work as both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and has been noted to block the progression of arthritis and Type 1 diabetes, among other ailments.

For those interested to learn more about the cannabis-alcohol relationship, that 2015 study found that “simultaneous use of alcohol and cannabis produces significantly higher blood concentrations of cannabis's main psychoactive constituent, THC, as well as THC's primary active metabolite than cannabis use alone.”

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