Cannabis is noted for its two most powerful medicinal therapeutic advantages: It is a powerful analgesic (pain killer) and it effectively deals with inflammation in a variety of diseases and conditions throughout the body. From arthritis to Crohn’s to cancer, the basic anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis are clearly understood (although more research is necessary).
Which is precisely why cannabis is such a powerful and effective treatment for asthma, a relatively common disease that afflicts more than 35 million in the United States alone. It involves inflammation of the bronchial tubes, often with sudden onset in the form of an asthma attack.
Symptoms of asthma include coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness and pain. It is estimated that about 20 percent of the population in developed nations has asthma, the severity of which varies significantly. Each year, more than 4,000 people die from the condition.
Stress is a common asthma trigger. According to one leading medical resource, “Asthma, stress, and anxiety make for a vicious circle.” Cannabis is known to not only significantly reduce anxiety and stress, but can also minimize asthma symptoms and prevent the onset of attacks. Prevention is the best medicine, and anything that can deliver the overall health benefits of reduced stress while also both preventing attacks and decreasing the severity of asthma symptoms is a powerful tool in the medicine cabinet of any sufferer.
Traditional treatments for asthma include the administration of steroids, corticosteroids, and other anti-inflammatory drugs involving bronchial-dilation via inhalers and, in more severe cases, nebulizers (a device that turns a liquid medicine into a cold mist for delivery via inhalation). Those who choose to ingest their anti-inflammation therapy via cannabis vapor instead of a pharmaceutical drug delivered via an inhaler can gain the same benefits of rapid onset and effective bronchial dilation while avoiding any negative side effects of traditional drugs.
The biggest disadvantage of inhaled asthma drugs like steroids is that they help prevent asthma symptoms, but they do not relieve asthma symptoms during an attack.
In 1973, Dr. Donald Tashkin, a lung expert and professor of medicine at UCLA, and his team discovered that smoked cannabis acts as a bronchodilator. His work, which first found that lung airways widen in both healthy and asthmatic individuals after smoking cannabis, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“It also succeeded in reversing experimentally induced asthma, in a manner that was comparable to what could be achieved with a standard therapeutic bronchodilator that was widely used at the time.”
Tashkin’s research led to subsequent studies that attempted to deliver THC to asthmatic patients through an inhaler. Unfortunately, these efforts were unsuccessful based on the fact that the THC molecule was too large and also caused patients to cough. Based on the time period of his research, vaporization wasn’t an available approach to delivering cannabinoids and terpenes to patients for medical treatment. However, Tashkin was aware of the fact that smoking was not an optimal route for delivery of medicine to asthmatic patients:
“The problem with the smoke is that it contains a lot of noxious components that are irritating to respiratory tissue and could lead to an inflammatory response in the central airways, which would not be a good thing to develop in an asthmatic.”
Although vaporizers appropriate for cannabis weren’t available in the early 1970s, Tashkin did consider the role of vaporization in treating asthmatics with THC.
“If you vaporized it, you would eliminate all the other ingredients in the smoke that are similar to components in tobacco smoke.”
Asthma belongs to a family of diseases that are known as atopic because a major symptom is immediate allergic reactions. Because of the nature of atopic diseases, and asthma in particular, a cannabinoid delivery method that features rapid onset but doesn’t exacerbate problems with respiration is necessary.
While smoking has, ironically, been shown to benefit asthma sufferers (Tashkin’s 1973 study was the first evidence of this), it’s obviously not optimal. Technology, the general understanding of trichomes and cannabinoids, and modern, affordable electronics have transpired to create a market for cost-effective desktop and pocket vaporizers that help asthma patients avoid further damage to their lungs while they regain their breathing capacity or stave off an attack.
There’s one trendy hipster device that no cannabis fan in a legal state like Colorado, California, or Washington can do without, and it’s not an iPhone. The venerable vape pen, a small, ultra-portable pocket vaporizer, is available in all shapes and sizes, from single-use disposable models to those that accommodate refills or convenient pre-filled cartridges.
More advanced pocket vaporizers, which can’t accurately be called pen vaporizers due to their additional girth and sophistication, also deliver high-quality vapor, sometimes matching that of desktop vaporizers and even approaching premium models. Some of these portable vaporizers cost $200-350, so they are not a small investment for an asthma sufferer considering using such a device instead of a traditional inhaler containing something like a steroid.
Some portable vaporizers and pen vapes are designed exclusively for cannabis flower, whereas others are intended for concentrates like butane hash oil and wax. More advanced models at a variety of price levels can accommodate both flower and concentrates such as live resin.
THC, the infamous cannabinoid known for its psychoactive effect and euphoria, is also a bronchial dilator, making it an effective treatment for asthma and related respiratory conditions due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Coincidentally, THC and other cannabinoids are also vasodilators, meaning they reduce blood pressure and decrease stress. Decreased stress means less tension and slower, easier breathing for many asthma patients, some of whom suffer from only 20 percent lung capacity.
A study published in 2014 in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that THC blocks a signaling molecule called acetycholine, which contributes to lung contractions in asthma attacks. Traditional asthma medications, like steroids and corticosteroids, block the same molecule, but in a slightly different way. The study found that THC prevents the acetylcholine from being released and, thus, asthma attacks from coming to fruition.
A study published in 2012 in the European Journal of Pharmacology concluded that the cannabinoid CBD was effective in reducing inflammation in acute lung injuries. The study observed that treatment with CBD decreased leukocyte counts only one day after the induction of lung inflammation. Concluded the study:
“[CBD] decreases production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid [of the lung].”
A study published in 2015 in the journal Mediators of Inflammation found that the cannabinoid CBD decreases inflammation and may cause a reduction in mucus hyper-secretion, a major symptom of asthma.
“In conclusion…these effects suggest a potential for a new asthma treatment since CBD controls the exaggerated inflammatory response observed in this model.
The Future of Cannabis Therapy
Given the need for more research into all areas of cannabis as medicine, it’s difficult to predict what innovations in cannabis therapy might benefit asthma sufferers. It is conceivable that genetic engineering and 21st century breeding technologies could create a strain of cannabis that contains the perfect mix of THC, THC-V, CBD, CBG, CBC, CBN, and their acidic precursors, such as CBD-A and THC-A, as well as powerfully influential terpenes like myrcene and limonene.
Modern technology and advanced cultivation and extraction processes will eventually permit the creation of cannabis products, be they edibles, concentrates, flowers, or even pocket inhalers, that will target the exact needs of asthma sufferers with quick delivery of maximum inflammation relief right where it’s necessary, the bronchial tubes of the lungs.
Until then, asthma patients can safely vaporize cannabis flowers or concentrates anywhere they happen to be by using a variety of affordable devices. Those who prefer to smoke will also find significant relief, but, just as with vaping, it will depend on the particular strain they are using.