Cannabis smokers face a lot of flack for their preferred consumption method. We’ve known for a long time that smoking tobacco causes a variety of lung diseases. So, it’s only logical that cannabis smoke would have the same effects, right? Well, not so fast. It may come as a surprise, but cannabis smoke is significantly less harmful than tobacco smoke, and can help keep your lungs healthy. Those with conditions like COPD and emphysema may even benefit from some forms of the herb. Here’s what you need to know about how cannabis affects your respiratory system and how to keep your lungs healthy with weed.
Does cannabis help or hurt the lungs?
By this point, pretty much everyone knows that smoking is not good for you. Smoke is hot, irritating, and filled with toxic chemical compounds. These compounds can cause serious lung diseases when you smoke plants like tobacco. Yet, for some reason, researchers are hard-pressed to find the same connections between cannabis and lung diseases.
Though the cannabis and lung health debate persists, two pieces of recent research have really shaken things up. The first came out in 2012, from researchers working on a long-term study on the risks of cardiovascular disease. During their 20-year study, the scientists tested the lungs of 5115 young adults.
Their findings were a bit astonishing. Tobacco use was associated with lung decline. But, moderate marijuana smokers had positive results on lung function. Specifically, cannabis-lovers had an increased lung capacity. The study authors conclude:
Marijuana may have beneficial effects on pain control, appetite, mood, and management of other chronic symptoms. Our findings suggest that occasional use of marijuana for these or other purposes may not be associated with adverse consequences on pulmonary function.
It is more difficult to estimate the potential effects of regular heavy use, because this pattern of use is relatively rare in our study sample; however, our findings do suggest an accelerated decline in pulmonary function with heavy use and a resulting need for caution and moderation when marijuana use is considered. – CARDIA
The next groundbreaking study was published in 2015 from Emory University. This study looked at cumulative lifetime cannabis use and lung health. The researchers tested the exhalation capacity of light, moderate, and heavy smokers. They found that cannabis smokers were able to smoke one joint a day for up to 20 years before they showed signs of lung decline.
Lifetime marijuana use up to 20 joint-years is not associated with adverse changes in spirometric (exhalation strength) measures of lung health. – Emory
For more information on cannabis and lung volume, check out our full article here.
The effects of long-term smoking
If you’re a heavy smoker, you might want to consider switching to a vaporizer. So far, the verdict on long-term, heavy cannabis use, and lung cancer is out. Thus far, studies are inconclusive. However, excessive exposure to smoke may cause other lung problems. This is true of any type of inhaled smoke, not just cannabis. If you smoke a lot, you’re more likely to experience the following:
- Chronic bronchitis symptoms
- Sore throat
Don’t be too alarmed just yet, though. These symptoms go away if you switch your consumption method or take a smoking break. One researcher, Dr. Donald Tashkin, has spent the last 40 years researching the effects of cannabis and tobacco smoke.
He explains that cannabis smoke does cause microscopic injuries to large airways, but these injuries subside once you remove the smoke and don’t seem to cause serious issue.
It’s not surprising that smoke can cause tissue injury. When you smoke a bowl or a joint, you’re breathing in extremely hot, ashy plant materials. If you were to accidently drop some of these ashen materials onto your arm, the skin beneath would become red and irritated from a slight burn.
When you light up a joint, you’re directly inhaling these hot materials into your lungs. So, it’s understandable that the tissue would get a bit tender. Ways to address this concern are outlined below.
When it comes to more serious issues like lung disease and lung cancer, researchers have been unable to conclusively draw connections between the herb and serious lung health issues. In a 2013 review, Dr. Tashkin explains:
Although marijuana smoke contains a number of carcinogens and cocarcinogens, findings from a limited number of well-designed epidemiological studies do not suggest an increased risk for the development of either lung or upper airway cancer from light or moderate use, although evidence is mixed concerning possible carcinogenic risks of heavy, long-term use. – Tashkin
Compared with tobacco, the risks of cannabis smoking are relatively low for light to moderate users. In heavy users, however, the results are a bit fuzzy. The good news is that these harms are very easy to avoid. Simply switching to a vaporizer over a joint or picking up an edible instead means that you avoid any potential harm from smoke altogether.
For more research and information on the long-term impact of smoking, read our article here.
Cannabis and COPD
Another major argument against cannabis is that smoking leads to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Earlier research from Dr. Tashkin suggested that smoking cannabis by itself probably does not lead to COPD. However, mixing cannabis with tobacco can, especially in older consumers.
Yet, if you already have COPD, cannabis may actually help. Though, you won’t be smoking the herb to reap the benefits. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cannabis oil may actually help relieve the debilitating symptoms of COPD. Medical cannabis patient, Jeff Waters, shared his story back in 2014.
Waters was first diagnosed with COPD when he was 36-years-old. He had taken several different medications to manage his condition, but nothing seemed to help. He had two trips to the ER. Eventually, his condition landed him in the intensive care unit (ICU). Waters could not walk up a flight of stairs without running out of breath, and he relied on his oxygen tank to get by.
Then came cannabis oil. After his stay in the ICU, Waters needed a change. After doing some research online, he stumbled across a group of people who have had success in treating COPD with Rick Simpson Oil. Waters decided to give it a try.
Since making the switch to cannabis, Waters now walks 3 to 5 miles a day and no longer needs an oxygen tank. He’s off of all pharmaceutical medications. Cannabis oil drastically changed the course of his life.
Though this evidence is anecdotal, there are a few reasons why cannabis oil may be an effective treatment for COPD. First, the herb contains extremely potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds. It calms down the immune system, relieving chronic inflammation.
Cannabinoids also help protect cells and DNA from damage. Research from the ’70s has found that psychoactive THC is an effective bronchodilator, opening up vessels in the lungs and allowing for better air flow.
While you may be on the fence about whether or not smoking causes harm, there is still some very interesting evidence that cannabinoids can help treat the lung diseases caused by smoking. A little peculiar, isn’t it?
For more information on cannabis and COPD, check out our article here.
Cannabis and emphysema
Emphysema is often thought of as a smoker’s disease. Yet, not all smokers develop the condition. There is actually thought to be a genetic component to the disorder that makes some people more susceptible to this debilitating condition than others. But, does cannabis increase the risk for developing this disease?
If you look on common medical resources like Mayo Clinic, you’ll quickly find articles that suggest that it does. Another study suggests that 36 cases of emphysema have been attributed to cannabis smoke in prolonged, heavy users. However, no population-based reports have been able to confirm a clear correlation.
Further, recent research suggests that cannabis has not yet been linked to debilitating lung diseases. Here’s what Dr. Mark Ware from McGill University had to say:
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. – Ware
Emphysema is a precursor to COPD, so it seems as though moderate cannabis use is not related to increased risks of progressive respiratory illnesses. Some medical cannabis patients even use the herb to ease emphysema symptoms. Vey Linville is one of those patients. His emphysema became so bad that his doctors urged him to accept a double lung transplant to save his life.
I went out and joined a collective. At the time, I could barely drag my tank behind me. It was quite difficult to walk and I was plainly dying. With the compassionate help of several local collectives, and because at that time there was a large robust community of collectives, more than 200 in the county available, I was able to obtain at very low cost more than a quarter pound of kief which I put in a small amount of alcohol according to [a recipe] and consumed that over the next 10 weeks.
That’s a great deal of medicine. I mostly need to stay in bed. When you have a serious internal condition like that that you’re recovering from, you need to rest and [cannabis] helps you to do that. But, I improved dramatically. And although I am still taking oxygen, I’m clearly not dying and clearly don’t need a transplant.
For more information on cannabis and emphysema, check out our article here.
How to keep your lungs healthy and smoke weed
So, moderate cannabis smokers can rest assured that they’re not at high risk for respiratory diseases. However, if you’re a medical patient or simply love to smoke cannabis all day long, there are a few things you can do to lessen the body burden of cannabis smoke. Here’s what they are:
1. Change your consumption method
The risks debated above are all attributed to smoke. So, want to avoid the risks? Cut out the smoke. Investing in a vaporizer eliminates many of the harms of smoking. Vaporizers work by heating compounds like THC and CBD to their boiling point. This means that you get the benefits of activated cannabinoids without burning the plant. Charred plant material contains toxins and releases harmful smoke. Vaporization uses just enough heat to get the job done, but not enough to actually burn the cannabis.
This means you get to inhale a nice, creamy vapor rather than harsh, ashen smoke. Of course, edibles are another great option. If you’re attached to smoking a joint or a daily bowl, simply swapping in an edible a few times a week will help cut back on the amount of smoke you’re consuming. Opting for natural, unbleached rolling papers, or using a bong rather than a pipe will also reduce some of the harmful toxins in smoke.
2. Exercise your lungs
Making sure your lungs get a workout will also help keep them nice and clean. Smoke of any kind leaves behind tar from ash particles. For truly healthy lungs, you’ve got to get that stuff out. The best way to clear your lungs is through intense exercise or deep breathing. Basically, anything that forces you to take long, hard, and full exhalations.
Both deep breathing and exercise increase the amount of clean oxygen you’re taking into your lungs. They also force you to breathe through your whole lung, rather than just the shallow top-half. This helps clean out any gunk that’s left deep down in the lung tissue.
For complete details on how to keep your lungs healthy while smoking weed, check out our article here.
Cannabis and lung health are topics of hot debate. Medical professionals will advise you against smoking pretty much without fail. In all honesty, smoking cannabis is not the healthiest thing you could be doing for your lungs. But, moderate amounts of smoke seem to be less harmful that most of us anticipated.
If you’re concerned about any potential impact on your lung health, simply switching to a vape will help you avoid the risks while still enjoying the blissful benefits of the herb.
How do you keep your lungs healthy while smoking cannabis? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.