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medical marijuana for asthma

Why People With Asthma Can Benefit From Edibles

Asthma runs in my family, and growing up working-class in the inner city — pollution, roaches, and asbestos in public schools — didn’t help my lungs as a child. My respiratory issues could be worse, but they’re bad enough to get in the way of some of my favorite athletic pursuits like hiking and cycling. Even being within a block of a cigarette smoker can bring on a cough that lasts for hours. Doctors put me on a corticosteroid inhaler years ago, and I’ve often wondered what year after year of sucking steroids into my lungs is doing to my body over the long term.

These days, I live in Oregon where marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational use. I can walk just a few blocks from my Portland apartment and buy weed at a store, where a “budtender” can answer my questions about strains (indica or sativa), about chemical makeup (more terpenes, higher CBD-to-THC ratio, and other components), and about administration (tincture, syrup, or vaporizer). Recently, I decided to stop my daily routine of inhaling steroids and try using weed as my primary anti-asthma medicine.

How does weed use affect lung health?

Medical research has repeatedly shown that weed can benefit lung health. One 2012 study using data from a 20-year period had stunning results: Pot smokers not only had better lung function than cigarette smokers but “low to moderate” pot smokers also had better lung capacity than people who didn’t smoke anything. For many asthmatics, though, smoking a joint can cause more problems; even if the smoke carries beneficial medicine, it’s not really worth the trouble of irritating already-sensitive lungs even more.

However, Canadian researchers found that some pot smoke can be even more toxic than tobacco smoke. In the 2008 study published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology, government researchers from Health Canada’s Safe Environments Programme found that pot smoke contained 20 times the ammonia levels as did tobacco smoke. Hydrogen cyanide and nitrogen chemicals were also found in concentrations three to five times higher in marijuana smoke.

That doesn’t necessarily mean marijuana harms lungs — it just means that smoking anything can introduce unwanted chemicals into the respiratory system. But with recreational pot legally for sale in nine states and medical marijuana available in over half of U.S. states, it’s easy to find other ways to introduce cannabis into your health regimen.

Cannabis is not just THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that famously becomes psychoactive when heated and gets you high. There are over 400 different chemicals that make up the plant, according to a 2012 study in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, including at least 60 of what are called cannabinoids. Those cannabinoids interact with the human body, specifically with what medical professionals call the endocannabinoid system — numerous receptors that bind with chemicals present in marijuana and affect the body and mind in different ways.

So, why do people with respiratory issues use weed?

It may seem far-fetched to imagine a doctor telling their asthmatic patients to use weed, but that’s exactly what Janice Knox does. She’s spent 32 years working as a board-certified anesthesiologist before she began studying the impact of cannabis on illness, and now, she incorporates cannabis into her consultations with patients at her family’s American Cannabinoid Clinics in Oregon, where her husband and two daughters — all physicians — also practice.

Knox says endocannabinoid receptors called CB1 and CB2 work in the lungs to modulate immune responses to inflammation. “People have been treating the symptoms of asthma for years, but in the case of cannabis in the lungs, it’s a CB1, CB2 receptor on those bronchioles,” Knox tells Allure. “And if we know it’s chronic inflammation, we know which part of the cannabis is going to work best on those receptors — it’s going to be the THC and the CBD as an anti-inflammatory.”

She also says that one of the main building blocks for asthma is inflammation — in fact, inflammation is a major part of many disease processes. “[Asthma is] a chronic inflammatory process that involves the lungs, the bronchioles, etc. And it’s an imbalance in the immune system that the endocannabinoid system does address,” she continues. But Knox acknowledges that smoking pot can be less than ideal for people with asthma and other respiratory conditions: “With smoking, when you heat it, you get those breakdown cells, those byproducts that can cause some irritation to the bronchial tree. You want to avoid those products — polycystic aromatics, hydrocarbons, ammonia, carbon monoxide.”

How can you ingest cannabis instead of smoking it?

Smoking pot releases the chemical we’re all familiar with: THC, or specifically Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol. Knox explains that eating marijuana can result in a dramatically different body high because of the way the liver breaks down cannabis. “It’s broken down in the liver into something called 11-hydroxy tetrahydrocannabinol (abbreviated as 11-OH-THC). That’s more intoxicating than Delta-9 THC,” says Knox. “You may not want to start with edibles for a more naive patient.”

Eating marijuana can result in a dramatically different body high because of the way the liver breaks down cannabis.

That kind of breakdown and absorption process can also hinder the benefits of weed for people with GI issues like irritable bowel syndrome or colitis, Knox explains. “Something where the gut is sick, it may not absorb as well. We try to get a different way to get the product into the body.”

In a legal market like Oregon, alternatives to smoking are widely available in stores. A person with asthma or other lung ailments can walk into a weed store and buy a high-CBD, low-THC blend in the form of candies, capsules, drops, or even a nebulizer — a cool-mist, smoke-free inhaler. But what to do in the majority of the country where the most-likely available product is old-fashioned flower? That’s where a portable decarboxylator comes in handy.

How does a decarboxylator work?

Traditionally, making edibles or other consumable forms of marijuana at home meant “decarbing” weed by cooking it until stinky in an oven at a precise temperature or arduously distilling the flower into butter or oil form before making brownies. Raw marijuana won’t kill you if you eat it, but it won’t get you high or release the majority of its medicinal compounds, either, in its naked acidic form. So I was excited when Ardent — a woman-of-color-owned company based in Massachusetts — sent me a decarboxylator. About the size of a coffee grinder or an Amazon Echo, Ardent’s sleek little machine made prepping my weed simple without making my entire apartment building reek of pot.

Instead of risking further lung irritation by smoking, one writer tries making weed edibles with the help of a decarboxylator to see if they help ease the symptoms of her lifelong asthma.

Can marijuana help treat asthma?

Changes in marijuana laws and the increased use of medicinal marijuana have led to questions about what conditions it can treat. Many people wonder whether marijuana can affect or treat asthma.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that occurs when the airways in the chest get narrower or become inflamed. Symptoms of asthma include coughing, difficulty breathing, and wheezing.

There is no cure for asthma, so treatment involves managing the symptoms and preventing complications.

There is a growing interest in the use of medical marijuana to treat a range of health conditions, including asthma.

But people who use marijuana, or cannabis usually do so through smoking. What does this mean for a person with asthma? Is there any other way to use marijuana, and can it help reduce the symptoms of asthma?

Read on to find out more.

Share on Pinterest Marijuana contains anti-inflammatory properties.

Studies have suggested that some of the components in marijuana may benefit people with asthma.

Medical marijuana can refer to the whole plant, or it can be an active ingredient of marijuana taken from the plant and turned into a medication.

It is important to note the difference between recreational and medicinal uses of marijuana.

For recreational purposes, many people smoke marijuana. But smoking can have a negative impact on lung health, especially for people with asthma.

Smoking

Smoking cannabis can cause the same symptoms as smoking tobacco, even when people smoke cannabis alone, possibly because smoke from cannabis and tobacco have similar properties.

These effects can be particularly hazardous for people with asthma.

Vaping

In vaporizing, or “vaping,” the user inhales the vapor of the active ingredients but not the smoke. The vaporizer may contain a liquid cannabis extract.

There is little research on the use of vaporizers for marijuana use. However, a 2013 study found that using a vaporizer was likely to be less hazardous to the lungs than smoking.

Researchers in a 2015 review caution, however, “Preliminary findings do not support the idea that vaporization is an improvement over smoking.”

Non-smoking options

Using medical marijuana in other ways might provide benefits for people with asthma.

  • consuming marijuana or its extracts in foods or drinking a tea
  • consuming the active ingredients in capsules
  • applying topical preparations onto the skin

Marijuana contains a range of active substances, known as cannabinoids. These include CBD and various types of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

THC is a psychoactive ingredient, but CBD is not. CBD does not have mind-altering properties.

CBD, THC, and some other substances in marijuana appear to have various health benefits, including anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties.

Some people use marijuana to treat chronic conditions that cause pain and inflammation, such as multiple sclerosis (MS). Some countries have approved the use of medical marijuana for this purpose, but the United States has not.

Researchers have looked into whether people with other inflammatory conditions, such as asthma, can use marijuana safely.

Findings of an animal study published in 2015 suggested that CBD might benefit people with asthma, due to its anti-inflammatory action.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not yet approved the use of medical marijuana for asthma.

At this point, there is not enough evidence to ensure it can be safe and effective for asthma. However, it is possible that the anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic effects might reduce symptoms.

However, in June 2018, the FDA did approve the use of a purified form of cannabidiol (CBD) for the first time.

The FDA approved a drug called Epidiolex to treat two rare and severe forms of epilepsy that do not respond to other medications.

Research has found that THC can help suppress the immune system. This might help reduce symptoms that stem from autoimmune diseases, such as asthma. Since asthma is an allergy reaction, the immune system is over-reacting to something in the environment that is triggering the attack.

Studies have also suggested that one type of THC may have bronchodilatory properties, which means it could help make breathing easier for people with asthma.

However, it is often difficult to study the effect of marijuana and its components. This is because most people who use marijuana use the whole plant, and they smoke it regularly. This can make it hard to assess any positive effects on the lungs.

Using marijuana to treat asthma can involve some risks.

Studies have found that smoking marijuana can trigger an asthma attack. It may also increase the risk of both asthma and allergies.

Smoking marijuana during an asthma attack could further irritate the lungs, worsen coughing, and increase health risks.

As with any drug or medication, marijuana can have some side effects.

  • changes in perception and mood
  • reduced coordination
  • difficulty thinking, reasoning, and remembering

Using marijuana without a doctor’s supervision increases the risk of these problems.

For people who begin smoking marijuana early, there appears to be a higher risk of asthma later in life. Another review discourages the use of marijuana for allergic asthma because of its potential to cause respiratory symptoms.

Complications of smoking

Smoking any substance, including marijuana, can irritate the lung tissue. Lung irritants can trigger or worsen asthma attacks in some people.

The immediate effects of smoking marijuana, tobacco, or a combination can include:

  • increased sputum
  • a chronic cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • a hoarse voice
  • tightness in the chest

Anyone with asthma should avoid smoking any substance, including marijuana.

The long-term effects of smoking marijuana regularly include a higher risk of developing bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A review of studies published in Nature linked bullous lung disease with marijuana use.

Bullae are large air sacs in the lungs that can put pressure on the lungs and chest, making it more difficult to breathe. They can also rupture or pop, which can trigger a lung to collapse. A collapsed lung can be life-threatening if it does not receive immediate treatment.

It is unclear whether smoking marijuana increases the risk of lung cancer. However, since marijuana smoke contains many cancer-causing chemicals similar to those in tobacco smoke, it is likely to contribute to the risk.

The American Lung Association warn the public that smoking marijuana can be a health risk. This may include second-hand marijuana smoking, too.

As one study concludes, “There is unequivocal evidence that habitual or regular marijuana smoking is not harmless … recreational use is not the same as medicinal use.”

Medicinal marijuana may help relieve asthma, but smoking is likely to make it worse.

Legal issues and regulation

The laws regarding marijuana and medical marijuana are continually developing. Check whether any form of marijuana is legal locally before obtaining or using it.

Some forms of medical marijuana, such as CBD oil may be legal, but there may be restrictions, or a person may need a prescription.

CBD oil and other marijuana-based products that do not have FDA approval are not regulated. This makes it difficult to know exactly what is in the product. The FDA do not approve marijuana for asthma.

Asthma is a condition that causes chronic inflammation in the airways. Research about the anti-inflammatory effects of marijuana is ongoing and often positive. In this article, we look at whether marijuana can be used to help reduce asthma symptoms. We also look at the possible risks, as smoking can worsen symptoms.