If you grew up around the turn of the century or slightly before (i.e., a millennial or Gen X-er), you might remember D.A.R.E.-style propaganda campaigns designed to frighten children into never touching cannabis (along with other substances banned by the federal government).
One of the primary tools in the anti-cannabis toolbox was the (now proven false) claim that marijuana, when smoked, destroys the lungs and creates health issues related to respiration.
We now know that these claims are overblown, and we have the scientific receipts to prove it, many of which we will explore here.
Let’s get into the hard truth about the effect of cannabis on lung function. Afterward, once your anxieties regarding the possible impact of cannabis on lung function have been soothed, take a few minutes to browse Sympleaf’s selection of 100%-organic CBD and cannabis products for optimal wellness.
What Is Expiratory Airflow and Why Does It Matter?
“Expiratory airflow” refers to how the volume and speed with which the lungs expel air during the exhalation (blowing out) portion of the breath cycle.
While breathing normally offers occurs autonomically (meaning without conscious effort), a measurement called peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) measures the capability of the lungs in forced (conscious) expiration, which has important implications for long-term health:
“Peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) is the maximum flow rate generated during a forceful exhalation, starting from full lung inflation. PEFR primarily reflects large airway flow and depends on the voluntary effort and muscular strength of the patient.”
Maximum expiratory airflow, as the name suggests, measures the highest possible rate of forced exhalation using the various muscles associated with breathing.
The medical literature indicates that “maximal expiratory airflow peaks early in the third decade of life, then gradually declines with age.” This is one of many reasons that younger people tend to enjoy superior cardiovascular stamina compared to older adults.
Medical professionals now have the capacity to quickly and accurately gauge a patient’s expiratory airflow:
“In expiratory flow assessments, patients inhale as deeply as possible, seal their lips around a mouthpiece, and exhale as forcefully and completely as possible into an apparatus that records the exhaled volume (forced vital capacity [FVC]) and the volume exhaled in the first second (the forced expiratory volume in 1 second [FEV1].”
Expiratory Flow Limitation (EFL)
Given the parameters of healthy expiration, when an individual loses the ability, through injury or disease, to reach healthy maximum expiratory airflow levels, he or she is diagnosed with a condition called expiratory flow limitation (EFL):
“Expiratory (air) flow limitation (EFL) during tidal breathing is a well-defined, mechanical pathophysiological condition occurring, either during physical exercise or at rest, before in supine and later on in sitting-standing position, when expiratory flow cannot be further increased by increasing expiratory muscles effort.”
Clinically diagnosable EFL may be caused by:
- Age-related decline in end-expiratory lung volume (EELV)
- Body position (supine, or on the back, generally worsens the condition in those who experience it)
- Sleep apnea
- Chronically shallow breathing
- Chronic asthma
- Cystic fibrosis
- Constrictive bronchiolitis
- Smoking tobacco*
*Smoking cannabis, as we will delve into coming up, is likely to not contribute to EFL, as concluded across many scientific studies.
Exercise often exacerbates the noticeable effects of EFL.
Several clinical tests, most notably the negative expiratory pressure (NEP) technique, can accurately diagnose EFL.
What Does Research Say About the Potential Effect of Cannabis Consumption on Expiratory Airflow?
So, what does the clinical literature say about the connection, if any, between cannabis consumption (in the form of joints) and expiratory airflow?
In a cross-sectional study of US adults conducted from 2007 to 2010 and published in the highly respected medical journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society, the researchers designed their methodology to “determine the independent association between recent and chronic marijuana smoke exposure with spirometric parameters of lung function and symptoms of respiratory health.”
This is what they discovered, as noted in their conclusions:
“Cumulative lifetime marijuana use, up to 20 joint-years, is not associated with adverse changes in spirometric measures of lung health.”
Cannabis vs Tobacco: Differences in Effects on Lung Function
Harkening back to the earlier original reference to D.A.R.E.-style anti-cannabis propaganda campaigns, you might (if you are old enough) recall one particularly traumatic lesson imparted through these programs in the form of so-called “black lungs” displayed in glass jars – the ultimate effects of a lifetime spent smoking nicotine cigarettes (not cannabis).
As opposed to smoked cannabis, which in moderate quantities has not been shown to significantly harm lung health, cigarette smoke is, in fact, detrimental to lung function, including expiratory flow.
In fact, in direct contradiction to claims of the harms of cannabis on lung health, a landmark study from about a decade ago, released by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that “low to moderate [cannabis[ users actually showed increased lung capacity compared to nonsmokers on two tests, known as FEV1 and FVC.”
This means that, at least in moderate quantities, the occasional joint actually has the proven capacity to possibly improve lung function, not harm it.
Disentangling cannabis from tobacco in terms of the effects on lung function (which are often purposely conflated in this context as a way to paint a darker picture of cannabis consumption not supported by scientific fact) is essential if we are going to have an informed debate as a society on cannabis regulation that is grounded, as it should be, in evidence.
In Fact, a Joint a Day Might Keep the Doctor Away
Now that we’ve dispelled the myth of the pernicious dangers of cannabis to lung health, let’s survey some of the potential health benefits of a joint a day.
A high-quality, organic bud (especially a strain rich in CBD) broken down and rolled into a joint offers multiple possible benefits such as:
- Reduced chronic pain (in many instances, cannabis may be a superior alternative to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs)
- Anti-inflammatory activity
- Reduced anxiety/depression (again, in many cases, CBD may be a superior alternative to common antidepressant medications such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, while producing “fewer side effects [like] insomnia, sexual dysfunction, mood swings, and agitation.”
Again, of course, moderation is the key to all prescriptions for better health.
The Bottom Line on Joints and Lung Health
Barring pre-existing medical conditions, the evidence indicates that a vast majority of cannabis enthusiasts can likely light up a joint a day without worrying about any adverse effects in terms of lung function or long-term lung health.
To complement your daily joint, talk to your doctor about our Sympleaf Wellness Focus Hemp Extract Aromatherapy Terpene Unit as a possible added health boost in the form of potentially powerful, health-boosting terpenes sourced from 100%-organic cannabis (featuring beta-caryophyllene, limonene, and humulene).