After a battery of tests and misdiagnoses, I was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease twelve years ago, and thus began a long battle with trial-and-error medical treatments. I changed my diet several times, even though my doctors didn’t seem confident it would change much (it didn’t), went to physical therapy for pain-related issues, and took so many different pharmaceuticals I can’t even begin to recall each and every one. My days were foggy due to side effects from pharmaceuticals, such as steroids, that made me feel worse than I did before I even took them.
Crohn’s Disease (CD) is a chronic autoimmune disease that falls under the umbrella of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). The severity of the symptoms can shift at any given time, alternating between flare-ups and periods of remission, when the disease is manageable. A “trigger” (a mental or physical event that suddenly exacerbates symptoms) can cause either a minor flare-up (maybe resulting in flu-like symptoms) or a severe flare-up that results in a hospital stay and surgery. The cause of CD is still unknown, though there is evidence that it's rooted in genetics, or environmental factors that can influence its onset.
Symptoms of CD include severe abdominal pain and cramping, persistent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, anal fissures and fistulas, ulcers, abdominal inflammation, weight loss, and appetite suppression. It affects the entire digestive tract, from mouth to anus, and can impact areas outside the GI tract, as well. Those complications can also lead to painful joints, osteoporosis, kidney stones, rare liver conditions, vision changes, and skin problems. There is currently no cure for CD, though traditional treatment involves pharmaceuticals that can result in worse-off side effects like Lupus and exaggerated symptoms.
I was frustrated from the pharmaceuticals' side effects, and feeling stressed from the financial strain of spending hours in doctors' offices and hospitals every month, when I finally decided to change my routine. I began experimenting with alternative medicine by using things like probiotics, kratom, and valerian root to manage my symptoms, and found that I was struggling less and able to manage my CD in a more productive way. Over time, I have augmented my regimen, and am still always looking for natural ways to treat my illness. And so, I was excited to find that a certain cannabinoid could really help: THCa.
THCa (THC-acid) is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in raw cannabis flower that converts into THC with the introduction of heat. Through the process of decarboxylation (applying low heat for an extended period), which happens when cannabis flower is cooked, vaped, or smoked, the THCa becomes THC. In addition to other non-decarboxylated plant material like leaves and stems, raw flower can be used for juicing and reaping the benefits of THCa, which include anti-proliferative properties that can slow cancer growth and disease progression.
THCa also has neuroprotective properties, which can be useful for those with Crohn's, since “brain fog” is a major concern. One study found that people with the disease have 10 percent slower cognitive response times than the average healthy population. The study also found a strong correlation between "brain fog" and abdominal pain, active inflammation, and fatigue.
I became aware of THCa a couple years ago, but didn't realize it could be used as a treatment for CD until I interviewed Katie Stem, CEO of Peak Extracts, for my podcast Your Highness. Like me, Stem also has Crohn's Disease. To manage her symptoms, she relies on a variety of remedies, including Chinese herbs (she’s a licensed herbalist and acupuncturist), an anti-inflammatory diet, acupuncture, and a couple supplements.
She also uses her background as a scientist to make cannabis products that could help someone with this complex condition. Without making any medical claims, Stem has a deep understanding of how THCa could help treat IBD, and with that knowledge she created a THCa tincture through Peak Extracts.
With experience in the fields of physiology, pharmacology, and natural products and pharmaceutical interventions at Washington State University and Oregon Health and Science University, Stem developed her THCa tincture using a special process. “We use CO2 extraction, which is under intense pressure, but we keep everything cold so that the sensitive terpenes, flavonoids and lipids don't degrade during our process," she explained. "The result is much like an extra virgin olive oil — as close to the plant as we can get, while leaving things like chlorophyll and cellulose behind.”
In her ongoing search for anti inflammatory agents to add to her personal routine (a lot of the pain from CD is from inflammation), Stem became aware of THCa and its potential in that arena. After a particularly bad flare-up last winter, she noticed more relief when she vaporized flower at a low temperature. When she found promising studies mentioning THCa and IBD, she began doing more research about how it differs from other cannabinoids.
By systematically withdrawing the THCa from her routine, she can isolate the benefits to her health. Stem continues to experiment with the dosage of THCa she consumes, but currently takes the following in one dose (repeated one to six times a day depending on pain levels): 1ml 22:1 CBD:THC Tincture (12mg CBD + 0.5mg THC) and 5 drops of THCa Tincture (1.5mg THCa + 0.75mg THC).
"I've noticed that during a flare-up, if I don't consume [THCa] at all, the next day I have more pain and cramping in the morning," she said. "I've found it to be helpful with abdominal spasm and cramping, especially right after a bowel movement."
Occupational medicine specialist Dr. Um V.A. Dhanabalan (MD, MPH, FAAFP, MRO) seconds the opinion that THCa can help with abdominal spasms, bloating, inflammation, peristalsis (involuntary constriction of muscles), diarrhea and constipation. The decarboxylated version of THCa works well for CD, she says, because it is easily absorbed. Furthermore, she adds that THCa can help CD patients with sleep, relaxation and overall quality of life when used with other cannabinoids like THC.
When Stem told me how THCa could possibly help CD, I purchased Avexia’s Black Raspberry Road THCa 1000 MG tincture (I couldn’t purchase Stem’s tincture because it’s only available in Oregon and I live in Maryland) from a local dispensary. The tincture consists of extracted THCa and MCT oil.
So far, I have been taking it for about four months, and can see a noticeable difference when I use it as directed. I’m not dragging nearly as much in the morning, and I’m able to approach my day with more focus. What helps even more is how the tincture reduces the stomach cramping I usually experience in the morning (and sometimes at night) that keeps me from being as productive as I want to be. The strong anti-inflammatory benefits of THCa are what keep the cramping at bay and the pain manageable.
For me, when my stomach is cramping and seizing throughout the day, being hungry is not the issue – it’s the fear of how each food item will affect my system. When my symptoms flare up, I avoid eating much, because I know that certain foods can make the situation much worse. Treating my CD holistically has been working well for me, but I still have minor flare-ups from time to time, and the pain and stomach seizing are the most difficult symptoms to treat naturally.
While we still need more research around THCa, the evidence that does exist is promising. And even if you aren’t searching for THCa specifically, you may already be experiencing the benefits of this compound, says Stem.
“Anyone who smokes or vaporizes (non-distillate) oils is already consuming THCa, just not in a controlled way," she said. "If you've noticed that smoking flower or raw extracts gives you better benefits than other methods of consumption, it's possible that THCA is already a big part of the benefits you're enjoying."