The human lungs are ideal for introducing substances into the body. However, the only thing they are naturally designed for is oxygen absorption and getting rid of carbon dioxide, as part of the process of respiration. Oxygen and other gases diffuse freely across the membranes of the lungs’ small air sacs, called alveoli.
The proper aeration of lung tissue with oxygen and the proper elimination of carbon dioxide both rely on the amount of surface area available in the lungs. The anatomy is such that by the time bronchi split into bronchioles and these end up as collections of alveoli (air sacs), there ends up being a tremendous amount of surface area. There are two ways this surface area can become less, however, even to the point of decreasing the ability to breathe (our respiration):
1. Destruction of lung tissue. This happens with emphysema in smokers, where many alveoli lose their dividing walls, causing them to become fewer and larger alveoli, resulting in less surface area. An immune response, designed to protect us, can become overzealous and cause destruction of the alveolar tissue at the membrane level.
2. Interfering with the surface of the alveoli. No amount of surface area is a guarantee of adequate respiration if it is gunked up with sediment or other substances covering it. (For example, in drowning.) Particles in smoke may be too large to cross the membrane, but they can leave a residue that impairs the functional area available for oxygenation. Such materials can also act as foreign bodies, which provokes an immune response that can damage the lungs, described above, as happens with the COVID-19 virus.
Vaping is the inhalation of external substances into the lungs, such as nicotine, marijuana, and flavoring, suspended in oils and/or alcohols (“e-liquids”) for delivery into the lungs.
Vaping and the lungs
Vaping, popularized by the downturn and stigma of cigarettes, can leave a residue. The chemicals being delivered are not inert but will react with your lungs. There is evidence that these increase the risk of developing not only bronchitis (understandable from an irritant perspective), but also asthma, which is an immunological malfunction. Since vaping is a relatively new behavior, it remains to be seen what long-term consequences may emerge. After all, after a thousand years or more, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that smoking was linked with lung cancer.
Vaping and the bloodstream
There is evidence building that the damage may not stop at the alveoli, but may extend into the bloodstream. While the residue may remain on the surface area of the air sacs, the chemicals from vaping may diffuse through the lung membranes into the bloodstream. Cardiovascular disease is being studied as it relates to vaping.
Vaping and the brain
“Oxidative stress” occurs when oxygen radicals (unstable oxygen molecules) are produced, which can overwhelm the body’s natural antioxidant actions. Vaping has been shown, like cigarettes, to cause this oxidative stress, which can damage proteins and chromosomes, and even cause toxicity and cancer.
The benefits and risks of vaping marijuana are complicated subjects, because—besides the benefits and risks of marijuana—there is the overshadowing by what vaping does to the lungs, cardiovascular system, and the brain. But if one were to separate the two, in an attempt to have a rational exploration of the marijuana side of things, it would involve the following:
The benefits of vaping marijuana
THC and possibly other components from marijuana have been touted as having anti-inflammatory properties, which allows it to lessen pain and even decrease the nerve tissue hyperexcitability that causes seizures.
Marijuana, independent of how it is delivered, has been shown to be helpful in many situations, specifically, pain, insomnia, and certain mood disorders. The THC sedative properties can help persons who suffer from a psychiatric level of anxiety and panic. It is more of a natural substance than synthetic medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and other narcotics which have fueled the addiction opioid crisis currently overdosing many daily. CBD, another component, has also shown physiologic benefits, in both human and veterinarian medicine.
The risks of vaping marijuana
These mainly come from the vaping, as explained above; however, there is always the possibility of exposing a genetically predisposed individual to addiction and marijuana abuse, since any psychoactive substance (i.e., marijuana) can influence those susceptible to mental health issues.
The mixed benefits + risks of vaping marijuana
This is a balancing act, in that physical and mental harm must be considered before undertaking the more positive aspects of marijuana. Those who misjudge the risks vs benefits could be doing more harm than good.
Who shouldn’t vape
Those with lung conditions
Any lung conditions that end up moving less oxygen into the body should not add another method of decreasing oxygenation. Conditions like asthma, COPD/emphysema, cystic fibrosis, lung scarring, those with a history of lung collapse, and even those suffering respiratory illness (e.g., flu or cold) should avoid vaping or smoking.
Those with addictive predispositions or a history of dependence
If vaping creates an artificially elevated sense of well-being (euphoria), this can add a potent psychological stimulus to those with addictive tendencies. That is, those who have had problems in the past with addiction with or dependence on any substance should not invite another psychological trigger for these destructive behaviors.
Minors and the elderly
Minors, adolescents, and even young adults are still maturing their brains, which isn’t complete until one’s 20s. The developing brain is in danger from the harmful effects of both e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes . The flavoring, vapor, e-liquids, and even the metallic coil can trigger oxidative stress (see above), which is harmful to the developing brain and may contribute to psychiatric conditions like alcohol and drug abuse, mental health issues, and impulsive/compulsive behavior[9, 10].
The elderly have been shown to have rapidly declining pulmonary function tests with both smoking and vaping. This is understandable, as the wear and tear of normal tissue with aging are accepted as inevitable.
Vaping marijuana is just another way to introduce marijuana into the body. Vaping, as another vehicle to do this, also contains other chemicals that—while providing aromas and flavor—expose the delicate lung tissue to foreign substances. The human body is very flexible in tolerating such challenges, but only to a point. Where the dividing line lies will determine whether the beneficial effects of a substance (here, marijuana) end and the harmful effects from the entire process begins. Unfortunately, this line is best recognized after the fact, so the best strategy is probably to use a different way (i.e., orally) to utilize the benefits of marijuana.
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