Article by Josh Kaplan, Leafly
We hear a lot about the effects of cannabis on the brain and body, but rarely do we consider its effects when used in combination with other drugs, like alcohol. Studying the health impacts of both alcohol and cannabis on their own is valuable, but it doesn’t always reflect the public’s use patterns. Therefore, it’s important to understand the impact that the combination of alcohol and cannabis has on health outcomes. A recent study took up this challenge by investigating the effect of cannabis consumption on alcoholic liver disease.
What Is Alcoholic Liver Disease?
Drinking a lot of alcohol over many years causes liver disease by consistently elevating levels of inflammation. Alcohol directly damages liver cells and causes an inflammatory response. Additionally, alcohol disturbs the walls of the intestine, leading to a recruitment of inflammatory cells to repair the damage. These inflammatory cells make their way through the intestine to the liver where they contribute to liver inflammation. Alcohol also disrupts the microbes in the gut, causing them to release toxins into the blood stream that the liver tries to break down and becomes inflamed in the process.
These processes lead to the onset and progression of alcoholic liver disease:
- The progression of alcoholic liver disease often brings a disruption of normal gut function, leading to an excess of fat deposits in the liver. This creates a condition known as “steatosis,” or “fatty liver.”
- The increase in the cellular stress by the excess of fat cells in the liver leads to a state of constant inflammation of the liver, even in the absence of alcohol. This state is called “alcoholic hepatitis.”
- Eventually, this inflammation leads to irreversible liver cell damage. The damage reaches a point where few healthy cells remain and the liver becomes scarred with non-functioning tissue. This stage is called “cirrhosis,” and liver function is severely compromised.
- Lastly, the ongoing inflammation for years, if not decades, also increases risk for liver cancer, called “hepatocellular carcinoma.”
These four manifestations characterize the devastating alcoholic liver disease, which turns out to be quite common. Nearly 29% of individuals have had an alcohol use disorder in their lifetime, and among them, 20% develop liver disease. And it can kill you. In fact, those with an alcohol use disorder are 23 times more likely to die from a liver disease. What if there was a way to reduce the risk of alcoholic liver disease in those with an alcohol use disorder?
Indeed there may be, and cannabis may hold the key.
Ten percent of individuals with an alcohol use disorder also have a cannabis use disorder, while even more use cannabis but aren’t classified as dependent consumers. Could cannabis’ anti-inflammatory properties protect against the development of alcoholic liver disease?