Study Finds Cannabis Preventing Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

New evidence, from research out of both South Korea and the United States, points to marijuana as having a preventative effect on the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD. Most commonly, people with obesity have symptoms of a fatty liver, but the condition can afflict those with type 2 diabetes, as well as those who drink large quantities of alcohol.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, however, occurs when people who do not consume much or any alcohol start storing excess fat in their liver. While having liver fat is not normal, in many cases, having some does not harm the organ. However, in other cases, it can scar the liver and cause non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH. Eventually, this can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, which can and often is lethal.

According to the findings of a study conducted in 2011, non-alcohol fatty liver disease is the primary cause of severe liver disease throughout the Western world, including within the United States itself. The disease is extremely common, with prevalence rates as high as 30 percent throughout the population. However, science may have found a potential answer.

Researchers at both Seoul National University Hospital in South Korea and Stanford University in the United States arrived together at a surprising and very interesting conclusion after analyzing cross-sectional data from two National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, or NHANES: For the periods 1988 to 1994 and 2005 to 2014.

Both groups of researchers found a decreased risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease among those who were actively using marijuana, and even more interesting; heavy pot users had the lowest rates of prevalence for the condition. Another unique finding was that the weed consumers had higher nutrient and caloric intake, and they were drinking more alcohol and soda than non-users. Although everyone knows that alcohol contributes to fatty liver, few know that soda is another suspected culprit.

Despite eating and drinking significantly more calories, sodas, and alcohol than non-users, marijuana consumers were still notably less likely to develop a fatty liver. “In this nationally representative sample, active marijuana use provided a protective effect against NAFLD independent of known risk factors,” the researchers wrote. “The pathophysiology is unclear and warrants further investigation.”

The scientists speculate that cannabidiol, or CBD, one of the many cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant, might be what is causing its protective effects. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, cannabidiol is non-psychoactive and does not make users high. “Therefore, a non-psychotropic cannabinoid may be a potential candidate for the development of a new class of NAFLD drugs,” the researchers said.

The teams also noted, in the paper itself, that recent studies suggest an association between the use of marijuana and a significantly decreased risk of developing metabolic issues, such as diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. Almost daily now, scientists are uncovering the crucial roles that marijuana-derived cannabinoids can play as potential therapeutic agents in the endocannabinoid system.

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