Chinese medicine is one of the most ancient healing systems in the world and has been used for over 2500 years. It is unique in that it is still practiced today in a relatively unchanged form, by practitioners both in China and across the world.
Since Chinese medicine developed before the time of microscopes and x-rays, it grew based on observations of the natural world and their interactions with the human body. Similarly, physicians in those days did not have access to the pharmaceuticals that are available today such as antibiotics and powerful painkillers.
Therefore, ancient doctors developed their own toolkit for treating patients, including acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, and herbal medicine. One herb which has played an essential role in Chinese medicine throughout its history, and one which is now creating a huge buzz in the modern medical world, is cannabis.
Cannabis in Chinese Medicine
In modern Chinese medicine, hemp seeds are a popular remedy used for their gentle laxative effects. These are the only part of the plant in regular medicinal use today, but historically, all parts of the cannabis plant were used including the flowers, leaves, and roots.
In ancient medical texts, aside from cannabis seeds, its flowers are by far the most commonly mentioned part. This is probably due to their higher concentrations of cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) when compared to the leaves and roots.
Cannabis flowers have been used to treat a wide range of different medical conditions over the centuries, and these uses have been recorded in various texts. By looking back at publications from as long as 2000 ago, we can study the historical uses of cannabis in Chinese medicine and also learn more about its applications in the modern world.
A Brief History of Cannabis Use in Chinese Medicine
The first mention of cannabis in Chinese medical literature is in The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, published in the first to second century AD. This book is attributed to the legendary emperor, farmer and herbalist Shennong, and despite being written more than two millennia ago, it is still in clinical use today.
According to this text, cannabis has acrid and balanced properties. It is said to govern the five taxations (excessive use of the eyes, excessive lying, sitting, standing, and exercise) and the seven damages (over-eating, cold food and drink, climatic extremes, rage, fatigue, grief, and fear). It is said to benefit the five viscera (the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and spleen), and to descend blood and cold qi.
To say that cannabis governs the five taxations and seven damages and benefits the five viscera suggests that it was seen as something of a panacea, with far-reaching benefits. Yang Huating later interpreted the statement about descending blood and cold qi in his 1935 book Illustrated Analysis of Medicinal Substances as meaning “quickening the blood.” On this basis, he recommended it for a wide range of conditions including headaches, menstrual issues, itching, convulsions, and dry cough.
The original text also states that excessive use of cannabis causes one to “see ghosts and run about frantically.” It seems likely that this is a reference to the plant’s psychoactive properties.
Cannabis as an Anesthetic in Chinese Medicine
In around the third century AD, a famous Chinese physician named Hua Tuo was pioneering new surgical techniques and anesthesia. He created a formula called Ma Fei San which was used as an anesthetic during his cutting-edge procedures. The name Ma Fei San shares one of its characters with the Chinese name for cannabis, Ma. This fact has led many scholars of Chinese medicine to speculate that cannabis was a primary ingredient in this preparation. However, following Hua Tuo’s death, the original formula was lost, meaning that there is no real evidence to support this.
Cannabis was first definitively listed as an anesthetic in Bian Que’s Heart Text of Bian Que (1127-1270).
Cannabis, mixed with other herbs, was said to send the patient into a “stupor-slumber in which the person experiences no pain and is not harmed,” a testimony to the herb’s numbing properties.
Cannabis for Pain Relief in Chinese Medicine
Around the sixth century AD, the Additional Records of Famous Physicians was added to the original Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica. In this text, the author Tao Hongjing adds to the original description of cannabis, stating that it can be used to “break accumulations, relieve impediment and disperse pus.”
In Chinese medicine, impediment syndrome is also known as bi syndrome. This name is given to conditions characterized by chronic pain and stiffness, for example, arthritis. The idea of using cannabis as a treatment for bi syndrome is supported by modern research on the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabinoids.
At around the same time, another famous Chinese physician, Sun Simiao (581–683 AD) also noted cannabis as an effective treatment for pain. He recommended crushing the leaves to extract their juice as a treatment for severe pain due to bone fractures.
Another record of cannabis in the treatment of pain comes from Su Song’s Illustrated Classic of Materia Medica, printed in 1070 AD. This text recommends cannabis seed wine for the treatment of pain, stating that “by ten servings the suffering will be alleviated; its effect cannot be surpassed.”
Cannabis for Mental Illness in Chinese Medicine
The psychoactive properties of marijuana were recognized as early as the first century, and throughout history, there have been several mentions of it being used to treat mental illness. The earliest of these is in Sun Simiao’s Formulas worth a Thousand Gold, written during the seventh century. Here he recommends cannabis for “wind-withdrawal” a category of mental illness in Chinese medicine with symptoms such as depression and the desire to be alone.
Later texts from the 20th century which mention cannabis for mental illness include Li Chenghu’s Pharmacognosy and Yang Huating’s Illustrated Analysis of Medicines. These books list a wide range of conditions for which cannabis may be helpful, including agitation, hysteria, mania-withdrawal, and insomnia. There is some overlap here with the modern uses of CBD for mental health issues which include CBD for anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Cannabis for Seizures in Chinese Medicine
Li Shizhen’s 16th-century Compendium of Materia Medica and Lu Zhang’s 17th-century Reaching the Source of Materia Medica both report that cannabis can be used to treat “wind” diseases.
In Chinese medicine, wind covers a broad category of conditions including itching, muscle spasms, tics, tremors, and seizures. This particular application is interesting as researchers are now studying cannabinoids for the treatment of epilepsy.
Cannabis in Modern Day Chinese Medicine
Although hemp grows wild across many parts of the country and is farmed for its fibers, other strains of marijuana are now illegal in China. The only part of the plant currently used as a traditional medicine is the seeds, known as Huo Ma Ren. These are crushed and boiled, with the resulting liquid being drunk as a treatment for constipation.
Although many of the traditional uses of cannabis in Chinese medicine have now been put aside, the rest of the world is slowly beginning to catch up. More and more people are starting to accept the medicinal use of cannabis and its derivatives, and there is now an ever-growing body of evidence for its use in the treatment of a wide range of conditions.
Chinese Medicine and the Endocannabinoid System
We now know that cannabinoids such as CBD and THC work by way of a system known as the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system consists of two different types of receptors, CB1 and CB2 receptors, which are found in cells throughout our bodies.
We actually make our own endogenous cannabinoids which bind to these receptors and help us to maintain a state of homeostasis, keeping our internal environment stable in an ever-changing world.
The action of these molecules appears to be enhanced by small doses of cannabinoids from external sources, for example, cannabis and CBD products. This is one theory as to why cannabis has such a broad spectrum of benefits. Through the endocannabinoid system, it may help us to maintain our own state of internal balance and therefore health.
In ancient China, physicians were completely unaware of the endocannabinoid system. However, the idea of maintaining harmony within the body and mind is central to Chinese medicine. The delicate balance between yin and yang, cold and warmth, rest and activity and so on, is considered crucial for good health.
The ultimate aim of any Chinese medicine is to promote self-healing by restoring homeostasis, and this idea is not too different from the function of the endocannabinoid system. In fact, studies now suggest that one of the ways acupuncture works is through none other than the endocannabinoid system itself!
Final Thoughts on How Cannabis is Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Cannabis is a plant which has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. Its indications are wide and varied, including CBD for pain relief, anesthesia, and treatment of mental illness, seizures and spasms.
In modern-day China, its use as a traditional medicine is currently limited to the seeds which have a laxative effect. However, medical marijuana and CBD products are now becoming popular across the globe, with a wealth of research emerging which supports their beneficial effects.