Asthma is a condition where airways narrow and swell, and produce extra mucus. This can make breathing very difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease which causes constriction of the bronchial tubes, resulting in chest pain and difficulty breathing. Scientific evidence shows that medical marijuana for asthma can be very effective treatment.
Asthma is one of the most ubiquitous chronic inflammatory diseases in the U.S., affecting an estimated 35 million people, and claiming the lives of 4,000 people each year.
For some people, asthma is just a minor nuisance. For others, it is a major health concern that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack. Asthma cannot be cured but its symptoms can be controlled.
Traditional Asthma Treatment
Traditional treatment of asthma involves inhaling steroids with anti-inflammatory effect, which dilate bronchial passages and allow for normal breathing to resume. More severe cases require a nebulizer, which changes the treatment from a liquid to a mist, ergo more easily absorbed by the lungs.
Most people who suffer from asthma need two kinds of medications: quick-relief and long-term control medicines. Many patients are reluctant to take any type of medication due to costs or potential side effects.
Quick-relief Medicines for Asthma
For immediate relief, quick-relief medicines can be taken as soon as symptoms occur. The two types of drugs in this category are:
- Short-acting inhaled beta2-agonists
Both types of drugs are bronchodilators, meaning that they expand the passageways into the lungs (the bronchi). This allows more air in and out, which improves breathing. They also help clear mucus from the lungs by enabling the mucus to move more freely and get expelled from the body more easily.
If you have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), also known as exercise-induced asthma, your allergist may recommend that you use these medicines before exercise or other strenuous physical activity.
Quick-relief asthma medicines can stop symptoms, but they do not control the airway inflammation that causes these symptoms. If you find yourself needing quick-relief medicine to treat asthma symptoms more than twice a week, or two or more nights a month, then your asthma is not being controlled efficiently.
Long-term Control Medicines for Asthma
Long-term control medicines are taken every day to prevent asthma symptoms and attacks. The types of drugs in this category are:
- Antileukotrienes or leukotriene modifiers
- Cromolyn sodium and nedocromil
- Inhaled corticosteroids
- Long-acting inhaled beta2-agonists (always administered with another asthma-related drug)
- Oral corticosteroids
These medications need to be taken every day, even if you do not have symptoms.
How to Use Medical Marijuana for Asthma
The cannabinoids THC and CBN have been proven successful in treating asthma.
Published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, a study shows medical marijuana may have a similar effect on the airways as some traditional asthma medications.
Using samples of human lung tissue, French researchers found that THC could block muscle contractions caused by a signaling molecule called acetylcholine.
THC in Marijuana
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), THC acts much like the cannabinoid chemicals made naturally by the body.
Cannabinoid receptors are concentrated in certain areas of the brain associated with thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination and time perception. THC attaches to these receptors, activates them and affects a person’s memory, pleasure, movements, thinking, concentration, coordination, and sensory and time perception.
THC is one of many compounds found in the resin secreted by glands of the marijuana plant. More of these glands are found around the reproductive organs of the plant than on any other area of the plant. Other compounds unique to marijuana, called cannabinoids, are present in this resin. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, one cannabinoid, CBD, is nonpsychoactive and blocks the high associated with THC.
Acetylcholine is responsible for maintaining muscle tone of the airways and also contributes to contractions in asthma attacks. Interestingly, asthma medications block the same molecule but from a slightly different angle. They prevent the acetylcholine from binding to its receptor. THC works proximal to that. It doesn’t have any competitive effect for binding to receptors. It just prevents the acetylcholine from being released.
Marijuana for Asthma Treatment
Dr. Donald Tashkin, a lung expert and professor of medicine at UCLA, was part of the team that first discovered marijuana’s effect as a bronchodilator. In 1973, his group published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found airways widen in both healthy and asthmatic individuals after smoking marijuana.
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. In fact, Dr. Tashkin’s findings led to a number of subsequent studies on delivering THC through an inhaler. But the inhaler route didn’t work because THC was too large of a molecule and caused patients to cough.
When Dr. Tashkin was performing his research, it was before vaporizers were readily available and ‘vape pens’ common place. Vaping is a method of medicating for asthma sufferers.
Based on this research by Dr. Tashkin, cannabis-infused edibles and tinctures are the most common cannabinoid asthma treatment. Smoking cannabis is rarely encouraged, due to the carcinogens that still remain when smoking marijuana.
There has been no human research on medical marijuana for asthma treatment since the 1970s. These previous studies did show THC to be a temporary bronchodilator, lasting one to two hours after inhalation. THC was shown to be a more effective bronchodilator than isoproterenol, which was the most common prescribed treatment at the time of the 1977 study. Contrastingly, tobacco smoke is well known as a broncho-constrictor.
Recent studies involving cannabinoids and asthma in animal models have revealed that administration of THC and CBN were successful in reducing the presence inflammatory molecules and mucous overproduction. Synthetic cannabinoids have also been effective in reducing coughing and shortness of breath in similar studies.
When it comes to overall lung function, cannabis appears to be more of an asset than a hindrance. In a 20-year study that concluded in 2005, researchers proved that mild to moderate cannabis use actually increased lung volume and air flow in participants. There continues to be a call for further study into the dynamic interaction of inhaled cannabis and the lungs, and the properties of therein.