Habitual heavy marijuana use can cause a condition nearly identical to cyclic vomiting syndrome called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome.
The condition is marked by severe nausea and vomiting that runs in cycles of about 48 hours. Hot showers or baths tend to reduce the nausea, and hot bathing is a hallmark of the condition. The cycle can be punctuated by weeks with no symptoms.
Marijuana is widely used as an anti-emetic (anti-vomiting) and anti-nausea drug, so cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome seems paradoxical. Scientists don’t understand the mechanism by which chronic heavy pot usages throws your gastrointestinal tract into a tailspin, but diagnosis rates for cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome have risen along with gains in the movement for cannabis legalization.
According to a 2012 meta analysis of health records published in the journal Pharmaceuticals, 40 to 50 percent of men diagnosed with cyclic vomiting syndrome reported marijuana use; it’s only recently that health authorities recognized cannabis-induced cyclic vomiting as a separate condition. For some reason, men are more likely to experience this syndrome than women.
Because of weed’s well-known anti-nausea properties, people with cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome tend to self medicate by ingesting more marijuana, which obviously makes the problem worse.
What causes cyclic vomiting syndrome?
Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome is often confused with cyclic vomiting syndrome because the symptoms are so similar. Researchers don’t understand the mechanism by which cyclic vomiting syndrome works, either, but it can be caused by stress and anxiety, over exertion, overeating, bacterial or viral infections and some other causes.
The dozens of cannabinoids in marijuana, especially Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) have profound effects on the appetite and digestive system, which is why one of the primary medical uses of pot is to increase appetite and reduce nausea in cancer and HIV/AIDS patients.
The ability for marijuana to cause cyclic vomiting syndrome is ironic given that one of the most prominent uses of cannabis is as an anti-emitic — a drug effective against nausea and vomiting.
This is because marijuana mimics the body’s own natural cannabinoids, which are neurotransmitters that interact with cannabinoid receptors on nerve cells to regulate all sorts of functions throughout the body, including appetite.
What are the symptoms of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome?
According to the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the following are the symptoms and signs of both cyclic vomiting syndrome and cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome:
- retching, or making an attempt to vomit,
- heaving or gagging,
- lack of appetite,
- abdominal pain,
- headache, and
- sensitivity to light
The course of the condition starts with a “prodrome” phase, during which you may feel nauseous, sweaty and pale. This leads up to the vomiting phase during which you may suffer intense nausea and abdominal pain, retching and vomiting. The recovery phase is when the symptoms subside, and that leads into the well phase, during which you experience no symptoms until the next bout with the condition.
As mentioned before, hot showers or baths seem to reduce nausea in people suffering from cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, but the first thing you should do for treatment is to stop ingesting marijuana. Symptoms should resolve within a couple days once you quit smoking.
How much weed do you need to smoke to get cannabis hyperemesis syndrome?
Casual marijuana users aren’t the ones who get cannabis hyperemesis syndrome. Most cases described in the medical literature happen to chronic heavy users.
“Most patients are daily and very heavy users of cannabis and have been doing so for years, often decades, before the vomiting episodes begin,” according to a 2010 study in the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology.
“Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome”
Jonathan A. Galli, MD, Ronald Andari Sawaya, MD, and Frank K. Friedenberg, MD
Current Drug Abuse Review
“Association of Marijuana Use and Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome”
Mithun B. Pattathan, Reza A. Hejazi, and Richard W. McCallum
Stephen Sullivan, MD
Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology
Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome
National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease