People with asthma may now be able to breathe a little easier. Research shows that medical marijuana can potentially provide relief from asthma attacks.
Asthma is a chronic lung disorder in which the airways are inflamed and compressed. During an acute episode--called an asthma attack--the airways become narrowed or blocked, making it difficult to breathe. Symptoms of asthma include:
According to the World Health Organization, 235 million people across the globe have asthma, and asthma causes about 250,000 deaths each year. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute estimates that 25 million Americans have asthma.
Although the cause of asthma is unknown, it can be triggered by a number of factors, including:
Treatment involves avoiding triggers, modifying exercise and taking medication, such as inhaled bronchodilators, to open airways. In severe cases, hospitalization may be required.
The cannabinoid system in the human body helps regulate many functions, including respiration. Scientists have shown that anandamide, which is a naturally occurring cannabinoid in the body, helps maintain airway function. It can relieve coughing and bronchospasms (tightening of the airways) caused by inhaled irritants.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the cannabinoids found in marijuana. It has strong anti-inflammatory properties and is similar to anandamide. Recent research has found that THC causes bronchodilation, a widening and opening of the bronchioles or tubes, in lung tissue in the laboratory.
One of the triggers for asthma is tobacco smoke, so it seems probable that marijuana smoke could cause problems in patients with asthma. Marijuana contains more than 400 compounds, including THC. Some of these compounds are naturally occurring toxins and some are toxins, such as ammonia, that are introduced through fertilization of the growing marijuana plant. Thus, a safer delivery method is needed. Two options are vaporization and aerosolization.
Vaporization involves heating cannabis to a temperature that promotes evaporation and prevents combustion. This method avoids toxin release while delivering the same amount of THC. Research into vaporization shows that it can improve lung function in long-term recreational marijuana smokers.
An aerosolized medication is one where the active ingredient is converted into tiny particles suspended in liquid. Asthma inhalers are aerosolized versions of bronchodilator medication. A recent study found that aerosolized THC has improved breathing in patients with asthma and did so more rapidly than albuterol, a traditional bronchodilator medication.
While evidence is preliminary and clinical studies are needed to further define the effect of cannabis on asthma, the story is compelling. Medical marijuana may have an important role in helping people cope with asthma.