Clearing the Air | Cannabis to Treat Asthma
For roughly 25 millions Americans suffering from asthma, the simple and necessary act of breathing doesn’t come without complications. This chronic lung diseases is triggered by lung and airway inflammation highlighted by an increase in mucus production (1). Asthma attacks can vary from mild to serious and the onset of an attack can be fatal if a severe episode isn’t promptly treated. Although the modern pharmaceutical industry has cultivated effective treatments, the question of whether or not marijuana and its cannabinoids can be a useful treatment has recently come into the spotlight.
The notion of using cannabis to treat asthma is confusing for many. Because the most popular consumption method involves inhaling combusted plant matter, one may automatically assume cannabis use could actually trigger an asthma attack. However, as our understanding of cannabis deepens, evidence suggests cannabis consumption – even when smoked – can be beneficial for asthma patients.
Decoding Airways | The Anti-Inflammatory Benefits of Cannabis
To understand how cannabis can positively influence asthma, it’s important to understand this disease. In the most fundamental sense, asthma is an inflammatory-based condition. Asthmatic patients suffer from excessive inflammation throughout their airways.
Cannabis is regarded throughout the medical community as a potent anti-inflammatory agent as it inhibits the release of various compounds responsible for inflammation (2)(3). However, the anti-asthmatic properties of cannabis are also related to its ability to dilate respiratory passages. According to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the well-known compound, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), actually enlarges airway passages. In fact, the study found participants experienced a 44% increase in airflow rate and a 25% increase in vital capacity (4).
These findings surprise many in the medical community as inhaled plant matter, such as tobacco, actually constricts airways. Even though physicians and researchers agree on THC’s ability to open airways, many are concerned that the act of smoking combusted materials can cause lung tissue irritation – a symptom no asthma sufferer wants to experience. However, a long-term study conducted over a period of two decades found cannabis smokers with asthma experienced overall lung function improvement (5).
But how exactly does cannabis reduce asthma symptoms outside of blocking inflammation? The answer may have been uncovered by a group of French researchers. In the May 2014 edition of the British Journal of Pharmacology, researchers uncovered a direct connection between THC and the molecule known as acetycholine. This unique compound is important as it’s tasked with supporting and maintaining airway muscle tone. However, in asthmatic patients, acetycholine triggers airway contractions/constriction. Interestingly, the majority of asthma medications work by preventing acetycholine from binding to its receptors. THC offers the same end result but via a different pathway.
Instead of blocking acetycholine from its receptors, THC inhibits the release of this molecule. Therefore, cannabis offers the same level of asthma-relief as its pharmaceutical counterparts (6). But what if patients wish to avoid smoking cannabis? Can the same benefits be experienced via alternative consumption methods?
Unfortunately, dosing with cannabis via oral supplements or via an inhaler hasn’t proved to be successful. However, patients who wish to avoid smoke may experience symptom relief via vaporizers. Because no study has been published to determine whether or not appropriate amounts of THC are inhaled via vaporization, the medical community cannot official recommend this use. This being noted, many asthma patients have found success vaporizing cannabis.