Cannabis Risks and Side Effects [A Perspective from Chinese Medicine]

How this ancient medicine sees the side effects of weed
Nicole Richter Nicole Richter / Updated on April 2, 2019

Marijuana Risks and Chinese Medicine

We explore how the side effects of cannabis are viewed by traditional Chinese medicine.

Before we get started, we just want to make one thing clear: We would never condemn marijuana use, but we do feel it is important for people to know the risks associated with the herb as well as the potential benefits.

While there is no doubt that cannabis provides relief for many people with debilitating medical conditions, it is not necessarily as safe as some would like to believe. While it is arguably nowhere near as damaging as drugs like opioids, marijuana does carry risks of its own, especially when used long-term.

Today we will look at the potential side effects and long-term risks of cannabis use from the unique perspective of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

The History of Cannabis in Chinese Medicine

Cannabis was used as an herbal remedy in China as long as 2000 years ago. It was first mentioned in the Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, a landmark TCM text published around the 2nd century BC.

Since then, the herb has been used to treat a wide variety of conditions including pain, mental illness, seizures, and as an anesthetic. It appears that cannabis was also used recreationally in ancient China, with Taoist monks reportedly using it to attain a state of enlightenment.

Although marijuana flower is now illegal across China, hemp seeds are still used medicinally and are thought to have powerful laxative properties.

Despite marijuana having been used both medicinally and recreationally by the ancient Chinese, it was not considered a harmless substance. The text mentioned above states that excessive cannabis use causes one to “run around frantically” and that the user may also “see ghosts.” A later addition to the text also described the toxic nature of the herb.

So, how exactly does weed affect the body and mind from a Chinese medicine point of view? Let’s take a look.

Cannabis and the Organs in Chinese Medicine

In TCM, the organs of the body are viewed in a very different way from what we are used to in the west. Although many of the organs’ functions are similar, some are very different, which can be confusing at times.

Not only are the organs seen as having a physical function, but each one is also responsible for a different aspect of the mind.

Because of this, TCM practitioners rarely view physical and emotional symptoms as being separate entities, but rather different aspects of one whole. This is critical, especially regarding cannabis, an herb which dramatically influences both body and mind.

So, without further ado, let’s look at how marijuana affects each one of the organs from a TCM perspective.

The Liver

The organ most significantly affected by marijuana in TCM is the liver. On an emotional level, the liver is responsible for creativity, vision, and forward planning. The liver is also associated with the emotions of anger and frustration, and this organ really suffers under long-term psychological stress.

Many people who use marijuana recreationally do so to spark inspiration for creative projects. It is not unusual to come up with ingenious ideas while high, and this is no doubt a part of the appeal for many. However, it is often the case that these ideas are far too ambitious and cannot be carried out in reality.

This can lead to disappointment and frustration, both of which have an adverse effect on the liver. In this situation, Feelings of hope and inspiration can quickly turn to depression, irritability, or mood swings.

So, while in the short term cannabis gives the liver an enjoyable creative boost, over time its effects can become detrimental.

The Kidneys

One of the essential functions of the kidneys is storing a substance called essence. Essence is responsible for a person’s constitution and general health. It controls growth and development in children and the aging process in adults. Everyone has a finite amount of essence, and it declines naturally with age, one of the reasons why older people tend to suffer from more health issues.

Although the quality and quantity of your essence are determined by genetics, you can either preserve or deplete it by the lifestyle choices you make. Living a moderate life in harmony with nature is said to benefit essence, while overstimulation with alcohol, sex, or drugs cause it harm.

In this way, your body can be likened to a car which uses essence as fuel. The faster you drive, the more quickly you use up your fuel. Likewise, the more you stimulate your body and mind with narcotics like marijuana, the quicker you burn through your precious essence.

If you are low on essence, you may experience symptoms such as loss of motivation and fatigue. While these symptoms do not affect every marijuana user, they can occur when it is taken to excess.

The Heart

In TCM, the heart is the most important organ when it comes to emotional regulation. It is said to house the spirit, and is responsible for inner-peace as well as forming happy, healthy relationships with others.

When the heart is imbalanced, it can lead to symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia. While these are all problems which cannabis may actually help in low doses, higher doses can have the opposite effect.

Many people experience anxiety or paranoia as a result of overindulging in their favorite weed, and for an unfortunate few, this can lead to long-term mental health problems such as psychosis or schizophrenia.

The Spleen

In TCM, the spleen is responsible for appetite and digestion. The ‘munchies’ are another typical side effect of weed, and they occur because the spleen becomes confused as to whether it is really hungry or not.

If you are trying to gain weight, this is a bonus, but if not then it can become an issue. The munchies are especially dangerous if you continuously reach for unhealthy snacks which can lead to weight gain and all of its associated problems over time.

The Lungs

The final organ affected by weed in TCM is the lungs. Most people smoke marijuana, and this has a heating and drying effect on these delicate organs. Common marijuana side effects such as dry mouth and eyes can be attributed to the lungs in TCM, as can more obvious symptoms such as coughing or recurrent chest infections.

How to Reduce Marijuana Risks and Side Effects According to TCM

Chinese medicine advocates that to maintain health, all things should be done in moderation. Unsurprisingly, this is especially applicable to marijuana use. While in appropriate doses this herb can be used as an effective remedy for a wide range of issues, in excess it does carry certain risks.

If you use weed recreationally, the best way to reduce your risk of unwanted side effects is to use the minimum amount possible, and take regular breaks to allow your body to rebalance itself (as a bonus this may also help to reduce your tolerance).

If you are a medicinal user and have no choice but to consume cannabis daily, there are other ways to keep the risks to a minimum.

In TCM, it is rare for any herb to be used in isolation. They are more often combined in complex formulae which not only improves their efficacy but also reduces the risk of toxicity and side effects.

We can also apply this idea to cannabis by looking at what is known as the ‘entourage effect.’ This theory states that the various compounds in cannabis work more effectively in combination than isolation.

These days, marijuana breeders seem intent to produce strains with a higher THC content than ever before, and this means sacrificing other beneficial cannabinoids such as CBD. CBD is reported to counteract some of the adverse effects of THC, and various studies have found that it reduces symptoms such as anxiety and psychosis.

Therefore, it could be possible to reduce your risk of side effects by choosing cannabis strains with a higher CBD content or using CBD oil alongside your weed.

It may also be possible to counteract at least some of the negative effects of long-term marijuana use with Chinese medicine itself. From a TCM perspective, acupuncture and herbs can be used to restore a state of balance to the organs and repair some of the damage caused by excessive marijuana use.

For a more scientific view on this, there are plenty of studies that suggest acupuncture may help to reduce anxiety or depression, and could even help if you decide to kick the habit.

Marijuana Risks and Side Effects in Chinese Medicine: Final Thoughts

Cannabis is a potent medicine, and like all medicines, it can cause unwanted side effects. From a Chinese medicine viewpoint, it affects each of the organs in a unique way and can be damaging in the long run.

Fortunately, there are ways to keep the risks to a minimum, with moderation being of utmost importance. You could also try combining weed with CBD or choosing high CBD strains to balance the adverse effects of THC.

Finally, if you are concerned about the health implications of your marijuana use, talk to a healthcare professional for further advice.

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