For me, this topic is personal.
I was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) at 6 years old, and I can say without reservation or a hint of hyperbole that cannabis saved my life.
I spent my childhood in and out of the hospital constantly with upper respiratory infections, stomach issues, and a never-ending cycle of colds and viruses.
Despite breathing treatments every 4-6 hours and year-round antibiotics, I was progressively getting worse and my body started to break down. It was around this time that I conceded to the disease and assumed I wasn’t going to make it much further than the average life expectancy of someone with CF, which at the time was 27 years old.
Fast forward to today: I’m a healthy 29-year-old living in California, exercising regularly, visiting the doctor once a year for checkups, and defying all the odds, every day.
In this article, I’m going to tell my story, explain how CBD and other cannabinoids have improved my quality of life, and provide scientific evidence to back up my claims.
What Is Cystic Fibrosis?
Cystic Fibrosis affects fewer than 200,000 people worldwide, and there’s currently no cure. The disease is caused by a mutated gene and affects the body cells that produce mucus, sweat, and other digestive juices. This causes these fluids to become thick and sticky, which then plugs up various tubes, ducts, and passageways, wreaking havoc in the human body.
Symptoms vary from patient to patient, but they usually include:
- Frequent lung infections including pneumonia or bronchitis,
- Inability to gain weight or failure to thrive,
- Digestive problems causing frequent pain or nausea,
- Weakened immune system,
- Cystic fibrosis related diabetes (CFRD),
- and a host of other complications.
Tremendous advancements in specialized CF care have added years and quality of life to the lives of people suffering from Cystic Fibrosis.
In the 1950s, a child with CF rarely lived long enough to attend elementary school. Many now are living long enough to realize their dreams of attending college, pursuing careers, getting married, and having kids.
Although there has been significant progress in treating this disease, there’s currently still no cure, and the average life expectancy of someone with CF is only 37 years old.
From the day I was born I was severely underweight and constantly sick. My family desperately did everything in their power to keep me healthy, but the doctors had no answers.
Years went by with repeated lung infections, bowel blockages, and severe malnutrition, yet we still had no idea what was causing my problems. By the age of 6 the hospital had become a second home to me.
My dedicated and loving family did everything they could to keep me smiling during grueling months-long hospital stays. They brought me Disney movies, toys, and treats, and tried to help me feel like a normal little kid.
Finally, one day my mom’s childhood best friend called and said, “You need to have Josh tested for Cystic Fibrosis.” Apparently, someone she knew had just recently been diagnosed with the disease in his early 20’s. His symptoms were almost identical to mine.
I was tested and it came back positive.
It was a relief to finally have a diagnosis, but now the battle had changed. We were forced to accept that this was going to be a lifelong fight and there wasn’t much that modern medicine could do to help.
When I reached the age of 11, CF had already taken a toll on my body, and things were progressively getting worse. I was sick so often that the doctor had me on antibiotics year-round to give my immune system extra support. My body was frail, and I was not maturing at the same rate as my classmates.
At the age of 14, I was diagnosed with Osteoporosis and the doctor informed us that it was caused by the medications I was prescribed for my lungs. It was at this point that I was old enough to start thinking critically, and I began questioning whether mindlessly following the doctor’s orders was the best strategy. I started obsessively researching the disease itself, its symptoms, and other patients’ stories. I absorbed any information I could find about the disease, hoping that I could crack the code and free myself of the disease that was robbing me of my body, and my family of their peace of mind.
Then, when I was 15, I came across cannabis.
Suddenly, my life changed. Cannabis immediately alleviated my nausea and stimulated my appetite, resulting in me gaining weight. For others, gaining weight may not sound like a massive feat, but for someone who grew up malnourished, it was everything. On top of this, the cannabis somehow seemed to dry up my mucus membranes, reducing the frequency of the colds and upper respiratory infections. It felt like a miracle.
For the first time in my life I wasn’t in a constant state of illness. I started making friends. I started living a somewhat normal life. From that point forward I disregarded my doctors’ advice (against the wishes of my family, to some extent) and slowly stopped taking all prescription medications.
I was ecstatic that after so many years of suffering I was finally able to live. But I was simultaneously furious.
Out of the hundreds of doctors that had treated me, not a single one even mentioned cannabis for cystic fibrosis. And that’s why I realized that I need to spread the word.
I’m now 29 years old, living in northern California, and only have to use an inhaler as needed to open my airways, plus cannabis everyday as a natural alternative for symptom management.
To this day every doctor that I see is astounded by my overall health. When I tell doctors that I have CF, they look at me like I’m crazy.
How Cannabis May Help
Cannabis is an incredibly diverse plant species that has a seemingly endless array of natural compounds. Scientists are still learning how each compound interacts with the human body, what each compound is responsible for, and how they interact with each other. But amidst the sea of information, there are certain currents that we can draw conclusions from.
Below, I will explain how the most widely studied cannabinoids, CBD and THC, may help alleviate some of the most common symptoms of CF.
Individuals suffering from CF create abnormally thick and sticky mucus throughout their body. This causes a natural inflammatory response that results in severe discomfort — imagine your lungs constantly feeling like they’re on fire, or an endless feeling of nausea that makes eating seem like a chore.
This is where CBD comes in.
With powerful anti-inflammatory properties, it works to calm the body’s own immune response to the disease that creates the bulk of the condition’s unpleasant symptoms.
As someone who has lived through that immune response, I can describe it like being stuck in a never-ending loop. The abnormal mucus causes problems for your body, so in response your body creates discomfort to warn you that something is wrong. This is normally a completely natural process that keeps us from getting sick or injured, but when there’s no cure for the problem your body is warning you about or trying to fend off, it just stays in a constant state of inflammation and discomfort.
CBD, unlike prescription medications, doesn’t cause adverse side effects. It gives you the ability to take more on days where the discomfort is more severe.
In part because I can increase the dosage on bad days without having to worry about side effects, I can recommend CBD without reservation. Truthfully, it’s the only thing I’ve found that works.
THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, can be a taboo or even illegal subject depending on where you live. But there is a reason that THC has grown in popularity over the years, and there’s a reason that it is slowly becoming legal all over the country and world. That reason is that it can really help people with certain ailments.
Along with mucus throughout the body, Cystic Fibrosis also affects your pancreas and other parts of the digestive tract. In short, it alters your ability to digest food efficiently, resulting in severe malnutrition that can be detrimental to your overall health.
The doctors usually prescribe enzymes to aid digestion, but unfortunately even with added enzymes you need to take in additional calories to make up for the poor nutrient absorption. Most treatment plans for CF require 3500+ calories per day!
This is where THC comes in.
THC is an excellent appetite stimulant and allows you to easily add those extra calories to your diet, which in my opinion is the most important aspect of the treatment plan. Without the correct amount of fuel your body gets run down and malnourished, leaving you more susceptible to illness and infection.
To put things into perspective, I’m about 5’10, and when I don’t use cannabis regularly my weight stays between 128 -132 lbs. With cannabis, I clock in at 145 -150 lbs. This extra weight allows my body to sustain a healthy immune system and provides energy reserves in case I have to fight off a nasty bug like the flu.
What Does The Research Say?
Because of the, what some would call, “outdated” drug laws currently in place in the United States, most forms of cannabis are still federally classified as a schedule I drug, listed in the same drug category as heroin, meth, MDMA and LSD.
This has made studying it and any of its natural compounds extremely difficult — and even though industrial hemp production has been federally permissible since 2018, the studies we do have on CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids are usually animal or lab studies.
Although we don’t have placebo controlled double blind studies to provide, below we’ll go over the existing scientific data on this topic.
CBD for Inflammation
Inflammation occurs as a natural protective response when the body is harmed. There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation occurs following an injury, infection, or illness.
The immune system unleashes immune cells to the affected area to protect it, causing redness and swelling.
Chronic inflammation refers to a prolonged inflammatory response in the body.
When inflammation lingers, it can detrimentally impact tissues and organs due to the increased production of free radicals, which results in oxidative stress, an imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals.
CBD shows potential as a powerful plant-derived anti-inflammatory without the side effects of prescription medications.
- According to the US national library of medicine, Clinical studies have confirmed that CBD reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, inhibits T cell proliferation, induces T cell apoptosis, and reduces migration and adhesion of immune cells.
- A 2015 review published in Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry discussed the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD. The reviewers found that CBD reduces inflammation through several pathways in the body and represents an effective potential treatment for a range of conditions characterized by inflammation.
- A 2016 study published in Clinical Hemorheology and Microcirculation investigated CBD as a treatment for early pancreatic inflammation in diabetic mice. Pancreatic inflammation can lead to diabetes due to an invasion of immune cells that destroy insulin-producing cells. The mice who received 10 weeks of treatment with CBD developed diabetes later than the mice that didn’t receive the treatment. CBD-treated mice also showed a significant reduction in immune-cell activity.
THC for Stimulating Appetite
The cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is also the reason why cannabis can cause “the munchies.” By partially binding to and thus activating cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1), THC increases your appetite.
According to the National Library Of Medicine, CB1 acts in slightly different ways depending on the different body tissues it occupies, several of which can increase appetite:
- The basal ganglia, where it may enhance eating pleasure.
- The limbic forebrain, where it may enhance food palatability.
- The stomach and small intestine, which both regulate ghrelin (an appetite-stimulating hormone that speeds digestion).
- The hypothalamus and rhombencephalon, two sections of the brain that help regulate food intake.
By activating CB1, THC increases appetite through the following known mechanisms:
- A 2012 study claims THC may decrease your levels of peptide tyrosine tyrosine (PYY), thus increasing your levels of ghrelin, thus increasing your appetite.
- A 2016 study claims THC activates the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) pathway, thus increasing your levels of ghrelin, thus increasing your appetite.
- A 2015 study points out that THC activates a subset of neurons called proopiomelanocortin neurons (POMCs). These neurons can suppress hunger (primary pathway) and/or increase appetite (secondary pathway), to various degrees. Recent research on CB1 has revealed that dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC, can stimulate the secondary pathway without stimulating the primary one.
I’m not going to pretend that cannabis is in any way, shape, or form, a cure for Cystic Fibrosis. It’s not. There is something out of whack with my immune responses that cannot be treated with hemp or marijuana.
But cannabis can be a powerful tool to combat some of the symptoms, and to bring some relief to my body—Relief that I looked for and couldn’t find for a very long time.
There is a cultural and systemic problem with the way we treat illness. Pharmaceutical companies may try to sell you a magic pill that supposedly takes all the problems away with no side effects. Doctors may feel extremely limited in their options to help people, and sometimes they’re playing a guessing game marred by personal and societal bias.
But this bias fails to recognize that taking prescription medication does not come without risk. It might solve some of your immediate issues, but it may also create a different, potentially more serious issue months or even years down the road. All kinds of roadblocks can arise from shunting your medical issues aside with the prescribed course of medications, from addiction to acquired disorders on account of a pill.
I do not share this opinion to cast judgement on doctors and people who follow their advice, nor am I trying to force a treatment plan on you that you would not be personally comfortable with. By sharing my CBD journey, all I’m saying is this: I was a sick kid who was out of options, and maybe even out of time. I found something that worked. Maybe it will work for you, too.
If you have CF and are feeling hopeless, I suggest you spend a few hours researching cannabinoids. They’ve given me a second lease on life.