Healthy Lungs #3: Marijuana And Emphysema

Marijuana smoke has developed a bad reputation. But can compounds in the herb help those with emphysema? Here’s what research has to say.

May 4, 2016
Marijuana And Emphysema

Smoking marijuana has a bad reputation when it comes to lung health. Yet, research has shown that the herb itself may actually help with certain respiratory conditions. So far in our Healthy Lungs series, we’ve learned that the plant can help increase lung capacity and some patients have used it to cope with COPD. Next, we’ll look more closely into marijuana and emphysema. 

What is emphysema?

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Emphysema is a respiratory disease that leads to a condition known as chronic obstructed pulmonary disease (COPD). While emphysema can contribute to COPD, emphysema occurs when tissues vital to lung structure and function begin to die. Part of the damage is caused by excessive inflammation, which causes scarring and continues to harm tissues over time.

Emphysema leads to shortness of breath, the inability to properly expel oxygen and carbon dioxide, a puffed chest, and extremely rapid breathing with minor physical effort. Emphysema is most often caused by tobacco smoke. Genetic factors are also thought to be involved, as only a minority of smokers develop emphysema. It’s also a common age-related condition.

Is there a link between marijuana and emphysema?

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Smoking marijuana can have an impact on the lungs. But, its result might be a little different than you’d think. When you breathe in marijuana smoke, you’re taking extremely hot vapor and irritating ash particles into your respiratory system.

Over time, these particles gather and accumulate into a kind of tar. In marijuana, this tar has not been linked to lung cancer like it has been with tobacco. Though, it’s definitely not an ideal substance to have in your lungs for a significant amount of time.

No significant lung damage is correlated with smoking moderate amounts of marijuana (about a joint a day). But, in heavy smokers that have consumed the herb over many years, negative lung impacts have been reported. Namely, chronic bronchitis-like symptoms, increased mucus production, and irritation. These symptoms go away if you stop smoking.

If you continue to smoke, over time, this constant bronchial irritation may lead to greater pulmonary problems. This is especially true if you also smoke tobacco. But, does marijuana automatically lead to emphysema? That’s a bit more controversial.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the answer is yes. But, other studies have found that the correlation between marijuana smoke and emphysema and COPD is a bit sketchy.

The research

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The “most comprehensive and authoritative review on the subject ever published” made headlines in 2013. A research team from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles found that the respiratory complications associated with cannabis were “relatively small”.

The review examined research that was conducted over 30 years. After looking over all of the evidence, the team concluded that the commonly held belief that marijuana led to emphysema, COPD, and other lung diseases were unsubstantiated. Primary study author Donald Tashkin concludes:

“…the accumulated weight of evidence implies far lower risks for pulmonary complications of even regular heavy use of marijuana compared with the grave pulmonary consequences of tobacco.”

Another expert from McGill University, Dr. Mark Ware, writes:

“Cannabis smoking is not equivalent to tobacco smoking in terms of respiratory risk. … [C]annabis smoking does not seem to increase risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or airway cancers. In fact, there is even a suggestion that at low doses cannabis may be protective for both conditions. … This conclusion will affect the way health professionals interact with patients, parents with teenagers, and policy makers with their constituents. … Efforts to develop cleaner cannabinoid delivery systems can and should continue, but at least for now, [those] who smoke small amounts of cannabis for medical or recreational purposes can breathe a little bit easier.”

What makes marijuana different from tobacco?

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If you’re a heavy cannabis user and you want to protect your lungs, switching your consumption method may be your best bet. Low-temperature vaporizers, tinctures, edibles and cannabis capsules all deliver a nice high while avoiding any tar buildup or irritation in the lungs.

The active compounds in marijuana are quite different from tobacco. While smoke ,in general, isn’t really a good thing, marijuana contains powerful cannabinoids that work to reduce inflammation and protect cells from damage. This is possibly why the rates of lung damage from marijuana use are significantly different from those of tobacco.

By consuming cannabis, you’re taking in anti-inflammatory THC, which limits and prevents tissue damage.

Both psychoactive THC and non-psychoactive are also potent antioxidants. This means that they help maintain cellular health by preventing damage from free radicals. Free-radicals are various environmental compounds that can cause negative health effects or even cancers over time. Smoke, in general, contains many free-radicals, some of which are known carcinogens. Compounds like THC and CBD reduce the impact of free radicals, thereby protecting DNA from damage.

Can marijuana treat emphysema?

The strong anti-inflammatory properties in marijuana may actually help treat emphysema. Of course, smoking the herb is not the best way to reap the benefits if you’re suffering from a respiratory ailment. Rick Simpson Oil (RSO), marijuana tea, or tinctures are effective, fast-acting ways to consume medical marijuana without having to inhale anything.

While no clinical trials testing medical marijuana’s efficacy in emphysema have been completed, many patients have found relief with ailments such as asthma and COPD.

In our second Health Lungs segment, we shared the story of Jeff Waters. Jeff was on an oxygen tank and has been hospitalized various times from COPD. After two months of treatment with cannabis oil, he was able to stop his prescription medications and leave his oxygen tank behind.

In another anecdotal example, medical marijuana patient Vey Linville described treating his emphysema with marijuana in an interview with San Diego ASA. He nearly underwent a double lung transplant to manage his illness. When asked what marijuana does for him, he explains:

“It acts as a bronchodilator. This effect has been very well known and understood since the 70s. There were very useful studies done in the 70s comparing smoked or edible mariujuna with albuterol, which is usually the first drug anyone with breathing problems lasts. It’s a bronchodilator. They both last about five hours. They both do about the same thing.”

Linville goes into much more detail about his experience with medical cannabis in the interview. Be sure to watch the video above for more details on his incredible story.

To really ensure lung health, you’ll want to switch up your consumption method. There’s no guarantee with any kind of smoke. But, if you’re undergoing some extreme respiratory distress, anecdotal evidence suggests that cannabis may be able to help. To stay safe, make sure you stick to something like Rick Simpson Oil and always talk to your doctor before making any changes to your treatment.

Do you have experience with marijuana oil for marijuana and emphysema or another respiratory illness? How did it work for you? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below.

May 4, 2016