Marijuana is somehow making millions violently sick

A recent Colorado study of ER visits is alarming medical professionals.

  • Millions of long-time marijuana users are developing intense stomach pain, nausea and bouts of vomiting.
  • The condition is called "cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome," or "CHS."
  • What makes it happen is unclear, but the only way to stop it is to cease consumption of cannabis.

It's no longer illegal to smoke marijuana in 10 U.S. states and its medical use is allowed in 33. In Colorado, it's been fully legal since 2014, with a variety of THC — the active agent in grass — products available for sale. A new study, however, looks to harsh the buzz: There's been a dramatic rise in emergency-room visits for cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, or CHS.

It's a condition characterized by stomach pain, extreme nausea, and repeat vomiting. Researchers' concern is exacerbated by the assumption that if this many people are showing up at ERs, many more are likely to be dealing with it on their own. Part of the appeal of marijuana has always been how unlikely it is that you'll overdose on it. Doctors don't yet know exactly what's going on.

What’s causing CHS?

Image source: Inked Pixels / Shutterstock

Clinicians in Colorado are convinced that the syndrome is connected to marijiuana consumption, though they're not sure how. About 25.7 percent of the CHS ER cases — that's 2,567 patients — occurred after smoking weed, and 9.3 percent were from edible cannabis. The data tracks visits between January 2012 and January 2016.

Interestingly, patients who'd eaten grass were more likely to arrive at the ER with acute psychiatric symptoms, intoxication, and cardiovascular issues. Edible cannabis, in general, sent a disproportionately high number of high people to the hospital: While only 0.32 percent of Colorado cannabis sales are for edible varieties, it resulted in 10.7 percent of hospital visits.

CHS was first identified in 19 South Australian patients in 2004, chronic chronic users who'd been lighting up for decades. A second 2018 study of ER patients in New York City found CHS most likely to appear in patients who used pot at least 20 days each month for five or more years, and multiple times each day. Extrapolating from the local data, the study's authors concluded that it may — in these days of expanded legalization — affect somewhere from 2.13 to 3.38 million Americans annually.

In the South Australian study, doctors suggested a possible immediate cause for CHS: A hypothalamic-pituitary reaction to cannabis. They found that among long-time cannabis users, "One logical explanation for this might lie with marijuana's effect on the limbic system of the brain, particularly at the hippocampal-hypothalamic-pituitary level. A hypothalamic action is further supported by evidence that chronic cannabis use affects the secretion of pituitary hormones, suppressing growth hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, and luteinising hormone, with documented pubertal arrest."

What to do if symptoms arise

Image source: dreadek / Shutterstock

If you've consumed cannabis and begin experiencing severe stomach pains, nausea, or start vomiting, there is a home "cure" many victims have found at least temporarily helpful: A hot bath or shower can alleviate the symptoms. The relief lasts only until one leaves the water, though, and also tends to diminish in effectiveness over repeat episodes.

This fits the hypothalamic hypothesis, since, says the 2004 study, "Cannabis toxicity may disrupt the balanced equilibrium of satiety, thirst, digestive, and thermoregulatory systems of the hypothalamus and this disruption might settle with hot bathing or showering."

Even if the mechanism of CHS isn't yet clear, there's just one agreed-upon cure for CHS: If you start experiencing its symptoms, stop using marijuana altogether.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.