Asthma is a lung disease that creates inflammation in the airways and causes difficulty breathing. Today over 1 in 12 American children suffer from this condition, as well as millions of adults throughout the world. Because it is so widespread, we’re lucky to have good treatment options for asthma. However, when people look for natural asthma remedies, they will often find that they aren’t well documented. This is a shame, since we know that plants like cannabis can have a big impact on the respiratory system. In this article, we take a closer look at the cannabis derivative CBD, and how it could help those with asthma.
What is asthma?
To understand why CBD may be able to help people with asthma, you need to understand how asthma works. When people who have asthma breathe, the lining of the airways in their lungs may swell. As a result, mucus fills the airway, which becomes much smaller. This is what brings on an asthma attack: when the airways don’t let enough air pass through, this causes the whole body to lack oxygen, which is known as an asthma attack.
If you suffer from asthma, you’ll probably know it straightaway. The symptoms can be violent and are easily recognizable. They include coughing (especially while laughing or exercising), wheezing, and being short of breath.
Generally, these symptoms also come with a feeling of pain, inflammation and tightness in the chest. However, asthma is also a complex condition that has many different subtypes. Identifying them is important when looking for the right relief.
What are the different types of asthma?
There are many different types of asthma, characterized by the intensity of attacks and by their triggers.
For example, people who suffer from allergic asthma usually have a few different recognized or unrecognized allergies, to pollen, dust, certain foods or certain pets. Their asthma attacks are triggered by these allergens, and they have to carry an inhaler at all times in case they make contact with any of them.
We characterize the vast majority of other cases of asthma in the category of non-allergic asthma. For people with this condition, asthma attacks can happen at any time and it’s hard to identify real triggers.
Occupational asthma is characterized by asthma attacks that happen at work. For example, people who work in environments full of dust, flour, or any other form of powder could develop this condition. To be diagnosed as having occupational asthma, your asthma attacks need to be present only when you are at work.
Finally, severe asthma is a rare condition that means you are more affected by asthma. People who suffer from it have regular asthma attacks, they have to use their inhalers a few times a week, and/or other forms of medicine don’t have the desired effect.
What is the main cause of asthma?
As we’ve seen, different forms of asthma have different triggers. For example, people with allergic asthma may be triggered by cat hair or pollen. People with occupational asthma may be triggered by the dust or powder they breathe in at work. And of course, many people don’t know what their triggers are.
But when it comes to the cause of asthma, things are a bit murkier.
Scientists believe that genetics play an important role. But the things you were exposed to in your early years could play an even greater role. For example, suffering from a viral infection in childhood makes you more prone to asthma. Being exposed to allergens in early childhood could also increase your chances of developing asthma. Finally, some scientists believe that people who weren’t exposed to enough bacteria in their first years of life develop a weaker immune system, which increases their chances of suffering from asthma.
Can asthma go away? Treatment options for asthma sufferers
A lot of people suffer from asthma in childhood and find that the condition goes away as they age. However, asthma doesn’t always go away on its own. Luckily, there are many treatment options available to those who suffer from asthma attacks.
For example, inhalers and bronchodilator drugs can be used during an asthma attack. They work to dilate the pathways in your lungs, helping you breathe better.
In the long term, practicing different breathing exercises can improve lung capacity, which could lower the intensity of the asthma attack. If you don’t suffer from asthma while exercising, then physical activity could also improve your lung capacity, preventing you from further asthma attacks.
Finally, people with more severe asthma sometimes have to take preventive medications every day. For example, corticosteroids have very powerful anti-inflammatory effects and can help prevent attacks in the long term.
What is CBD, and could it be another treatment option?
CBD is a molecule derived from the cannabis plant. Unlike other cannabis molecules, CBD isn’t psychoactive, so it doesn’t create a “high” when you take it. But it does have a wealth of health benefits for the whole body. For example, it reduces pain, inflammation and stress. It can prevent seizures in people with epilepsy, facilitate digestion in people with Crohn’s disease, and even help people with anxiety, depression, PTSD or bipolar disorder to feel better.
All the virtues of CBD derive from one simple fact: its action on the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This biological system is responsible for regulating many different body functions, and scientists are learning more and more about its importance in medicine all the time.
When we ingest CBD, it binds with endocannabinoid receptors in the body, which gives a boost to the ECS. As a result, it can provide relief from pain, nausea and skin irritation.
Today, we understand that the endocannabinoid system also plays an important role in the respiratory system, which could make CBD useful in dealing with asthma. But what do we know about it so far?
Cannabis and asthma
The first wave of research conducted on the potential benefits of medical cannabis for asthma didn’t focus on CBD. Instead, they examined the role of its sibling molecule, THC.
For example, in this 1978 study, scientists gave volunteers with asthma doses of THC ranging from 50 to 200 mg in the form of an aerosol device. They found that taking THC increased the flow rate in patients almost immediately. They concluded that THC had a bronchodilator effect, meaning it widens the bronchi like most asthma medications do.
Can CBD oil help respiratory problems?
Studies on the use of CBD oil or other CBD products to treat asthma are still severely limited. For now, we only have a few studies conducted on animals and we are still lacking clinical studies on asthma patients.
However, what we already know about the role of the endocannabinoid system in the regulation of asthma is promising. For example, this 2012 review highlighted that the activation of endocannabinoid receptors on the bronchi had bronchodilator effects and anti-inflammatory effects. This lets us suppose that a medicine that brings CBD to the bronchi (like an inhaler) could activate those receptors, providing relief for asthma patients.
These hypotheses have been confirmed through a few animal studies. For example, this 2019 study showed that CBD lowered inflammation and facilitate airflow in mice with asthma. Even a relatively small dose gave them relief from asthma attacks. Since mice and humans have an endocannabinoid system that functions in a largely similar way, this gives hope to asthma sufferers that a CBD-based asthma medication could be effective.
Of course, we will need human studies before we can conclude that CBD is a safe and valid treatment for asthma. But understanding the role the endocannabinoid system plays in the bronchi will be a crucial part of the puzzle.
Is CBD dangerous for people with asthma?
So far, we have too few studies on people with asthma using CBD to talk about any side effects. We know that as a molecule, CBD has a good safety profile. And none of its side effects seem to affect the lung or breathing abilities, although of course asthmatics should not smoke or vape CBD products, as smoking and vaping can have negative effects on the airways.
The real danger would be to replace tried-and-true asthma treatments with CBD, which hasn’t been tested for that use yet. Left untreated, asthma can create severe complications and even death. So, substituting any asthma medication you are currently taking could have dire consequences and should be avoided at all costs—at the very least make sure to consult with your physician before replacing medicines with CBD.
Can I legally buy CBD?
CBD is legal on a federal level in the United States, as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC. However, it is still prohibited by certain state laws and doesn’t have FDA approval. We encourage you to consult a physician before you start taking CBD.
Using CBD is one of the most promising potential natural asthma treatments out there. This is because of what we know about the role of the endocannabinoid system in asthma attacks—not because we know that it works on asthmatics. With a condition as serious as asthma, we will need a lot of clinical research before concluding that CBD can be used even as a simple complementary option. But thanks to the rapid increase in CBD studies in the past few years, these are studies we can hope to see being published soon.
Asthma facts and figures
Effects of cannabis on asthma
1978 study on the effects of THC on the lungs and its effects as a bronchodilator
2012 review of the role of cannabinoids in the lungs and bronchi
Effects of CBD on asthma
2019 study on the effects of CBD on mice with asthma
Safety profile of CBD
2017 study on the safety and side effects of CBD