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Overview of Lung Function:
The ability to breathe is something we often take for granted. Breathing happens naturally, usually without any awareness from our conscious mind. To put into perspective just how important breathing is, think about the following fact. A human being can go for three weeks without food and a few days without water. When it comes to breathing, however, ten minutes without oxygen results in death.
The air we breathe is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and the remaining 1% is small amounts of various gases. When you breathe, air first enters the body from either your nose or mouth. Our nose is the primary way air should enter the body because nose hairs act as a filter to help clean the incoming air. As the air travels up the nose, it gets passed into the sinuses, which help to regulate the temperature and humidity of the air. Some people breathe through their mouths for a variety of reasons, completely bypassing this filtration system. Regardless of where the air came in, it eventually passes through the throat and into the trachea (windpipe). From there, the windpipe splits into two bronchial tubes, one for each lung, which then segments into smaller tubes that fill different areas of the lung.
"If you can't breathe, it doesn't matter how much you exercise, what you eat, or the amount of sleep you get."
Your lungs contain several different parts, all of which are vital to your health. When air travels down the bronchial tubes, it comes into contact with cilia. These are hair-like structures that move in a wave motion to carry mucus up and out of the throat by coughing or swallowing. Mucus often gets a bad wrap, and we usually take various medications to thin or block its production. However, this process is essential for removing unwanted particles from the lungs, such as dust and germs. Your lungs also contain what are called alveoli, small air sacs that bring oxygen into the blood. This exchange fuels the cells in your body and removes the waste product carbon dioxide, which results from breathing and energy production.
Your lungs ultimately fuel your entire body with the energy it needs to function. If you can't breathe, it doesn't matter how much you exercise, what you eat, or the amount of sleep you get. The ability to breathe is the foundation of life for all animals on this planet.
Now that you have an understanding of why your lungs are so crucial to life, we can begin to look at how cannabis can impact your lungs. With the vaping scare that swept across the country this past year, which resulted in approximately 2,506 cases of lung damage and 54 deaths, this issue couldn't be more critical.
The Endocannabinoid System and Your Lungs:
"Like everything else in life, there is a delicate balance that must be maintained for a system to function optimally."
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is responsible for maintaining balance or homeostasis within the body. This system helps to regulate sleep, mood, appetite, and pain, to name a few, and even plays a role in the way our lungs function. The two primary cannabinoid receptors are commonly referred to as CB1 and CB2 receptors. Typically, CB1 receptors are found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). CB2 receptors are located in the peripheral nervous system (Nerves outside the brain and spinal cord) and the immune system.
CB1 and CB2 receptors have been found in both human lungs and bronchial tissue, with CB1 being significantly more abundant than CB2 receptors. Current research into the ECS and lungs seems to suggest that these receptors are responsible for helping to regulate the recruitment and function of different types of immune cells. These various immune cells are responsible for protecting the body from infections and allergens, playing a significant role in the amount of inflammation that takes place in the lungs themselves.
The importance of the ECS in regulating the lung's ability to protect and eliminate pathogens cannot be overstated. Like everything else in life, there is a delicate balance that must be maintained for a system to function optimally. Adding exogenous cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, alters this balance in both positive and negative ways.
Cannabis and Your Lungs:
Consuming cannabis by any method of consumption will have some impact on your lungs because of the CB1 and CB2 receptors located in our respiratory tissue. By activating these receptors with cannabinoids like THC and CBD, we change the natural signaling and alter the functioning of the respiratory system.
"THC can reduce the inflammatory process by dampening the immune system, it can also leave users vulnerable to infections."
In research with animal models, THC demonstrated the ability to reduce acute lung inflammation typically associated with things like pneumonia. This process makes cannabinoids like THC an exciting option for helping to reduce inflammation and lung damage after an acute lung injury or when inflammation has occurred. The problem, however, is that because THC can reduce the inflammatory process by dampening the immune system, it can also leave users vulnerable to infections. Examples are that of the flu and other respiratory infections that result in conditions like bronchitis.
We are often told smoking cannabis is safe, but is there research to support this idea? Based on the above animal data combined with extensive epidemiological studies, the answer seems to be no. Cannabis smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as tobacco smoke. As much as four times the amount of tar can be deposited into the lungs from cannabis smoking when compared to cigarette smoking because of differences in filtration and smoking technique. Heavy cannabis use is associated with an increased incidence of chronic bronchitis, which is characterized by coughing, sputum, and wheezing. Heavy use is also associated with a marked decline in lung function.
One way in which cannabis consumers try to reduce the negative impacts of smoking cannabis is to vaporize it instead. While there is still very little data on the subject, a few studies provide some crucial insight. Vaporizing dry flower cannabis led to significant improvements in respiratory function for regular smokers who were experiencing at least two respiratory symptoms. The purported benefit of a dry flower vaporizer is that it can release cannabis compounds in a mist rather than smoke avoiding the release of many respiratory irritants.
"The most alarming finding of the study was that users combining e-cigarette use with combustible tobacco consumption...had the highest rates of respiratory disease."
Electronic vaping is a different story because instead of vaporizing dry flower, you are vaporizing concentrated cannabis in an oil form. This method of vaping was responsible for the significant vaping headlines mentioned at the beginning of this article, where several people lost their lives, and many others were injured. This horrific outbreak was primarily due to vape cartridges contaminated with Vitamin E acetate. It seems that cannabis oil itself is not to blame based on the CDC's findings, but more research is needed.
A recent study looking at the long term effects of e-cigarettes (comparable to cannabis vape cartridges) found that while e-cigarettes led to fewer incidences of respiratory disease compared to combustible tobacco, they still were not harm-free. E-cigarette users had higher rates of respiratory disease when compared to non-users. The most alarming finding of the study was that users combining e-cigarette use with combustible tobacco consumption, which is increasingly common, had the highest rates of respiratory disease.
When it comes to cannabis and your lungs, there is still much we don't know. There is no hard data to tell us how much safer vaporizing dry flower is compared to smoking. We do not know if vape cartridges are as safe as dry flower, or vice versa. At the end of the day, it seems that inhaling anything into the lungs is less than optimal.
Humans have been smoking for thousands of years, and that is not likely to change. There is something about the act of smoking cannabis that is deeply gratifying. Edibles or even vaping don't always provide the same unique experience. Below are a few tips to help minimize the risks of inhaling cannabis into your lungs.
Know Your Dose
- Take smaller inhalations. Heat and reduced oxygen flow are some of the ways our lungs are damaged by smoke and vapor. By taking smaller hits, we breathe in more natural air, which increases oxygen flow and helps to reduce the heat.
- Don't hold your inhalations. One of the reasons cannabis deposits more tar into the lungs is due to the way cannabis consumers retain their inhalations for as long as possible. Your lungs absorb THC and other cannabis compounds rapidly. Holding your hit only allows more harmful compounds such as tar to absorb into your lungs.
- Avoid dual use of smoking and vape cartridges. Both methods of consumption negatively affect the lungs in different ways, and combining the two increases the risk of lung disease. Find your preferred method and stick with it.
- Use alternatives when possible, and take breaks. Try incorporating edibles to reduce your need to smoke. Look into using a dry flower vaporizer for regular use, saving smoking for special occasions. Lastly, take breaks from inhaling cannabis all together to give your lungs a chance to heal themselves.