Many people are drawn to cannabis for the feeling it imbues, but cannabis has side effects and problems with overuse. Most users choose to ignore these problems due to its psychedelic effects.
One of the best ways to understand how cannabis affects our health is through the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. While these concepts may seem unfamiliar, regular users of cannabis may find they offer a clear explanation of their experience.
The 3 Treasures
Chinese medicine focuses on what are known as the Three Treasures that constitute our life. These are known as Jing (essence), Qi (vitality), and Shen (spirit). The goal of Chinese medicine practitioners is to harmonize the Three Treasures.
Jing, or, essence, is a non-renewable substance that is the basis of growth, development, and reproduction. Concepts from western science that may be useful to understand Jing are DNA and neural crest cells. Neural crest cells are almost like the seed cells that our body grows from when we are just beginning to form as an embryo. DNA is also a useful idea, since DNA accumulates damage over time and can no longer perform its function properly, leading to aging, according to the DNA damage theory of aging. In a sense, DNA runs out, and can no longer help us reproduce healthy cells and stay young.
Qi is a concept many people are familiar with. It is the energy that drives the body, the difference between living tissue and dead. Qi is obtained by the energy we get from food and breathing and is what drives the various circulations and movements of our body.
Shen, or spirit, is responsible for consciousness. It drives cognition, our emotional life, and who we are as a being.
Understanding the three treasures will help you understand how marijuana affects the users according to Chinese medicine.
Using cannabis takes Jing and rapidly turns it into Qi and Shen, thus, you lose a lot of essence over time, but gain a temporary boost in vitality and spirit. Since your body is releasing Jing faster than the body can assimilate it, it runs out more quickly. It’s inefficient, like a car that has more power but less fuel economy. This would be similar to going to college with a large trust fund only to overspend it and find yourself penniless after a mere two years into your four-year degree. Overspending your allotted Jing makes one understand why people who consume a lot of drugs might look like they are aging faster than is normal.
Of course, like the student who blows through their trust fund, there are certain experiences that the user may pursue.
That rapid transfusion of Jing can fuel inspiration and activity. It may explain why cannabis users are often artists or creative. They want to be in deep alignment with their spirit and shine brightly into the world. There is an expanded creative process. But, longer-term, there is a weakened visionary process and inability to take action. This is why many marijuana users are full of grand ideas but are unable to complete what they’ve begun. They lose the ability to execute.
The continuous depletion of the Jing can create further issues such as depression, insomnia, lack of motivation, and a diminished sex drive.
If you find yourself attracting a lot of friends who regularly use cannabis, you might have a gift for attracting people who are seeking enlightenment and transformation. Cannabis use, especially when used recreationally, can lead to new insights and open channels of creativity, though these discoveries can seem less powerful in the sober light of day.
Cannabis users may feel they have gained a deeper spiritual connection. True spiritual cultivation requires the practitioner to still the mind and open the heart to gain a truer sense of reality. Marijuana users may gain a semblance of this experience, though it can also be contaminated by their personal issues. Nevertheless, this feeling can be deeply stirring.
Many are addicted to this feeling, and therefore continue to use cannabis despite the fact that the enlightenment that they felt was only fleetingly attainable and not sustainable. In order to attain the enlightenment that we seek, we must integrate and assimilate the information more than once to be able to transform, not just access it once or twice quickly and artificially.
When at the peak of health, many have experienced “highs” practicing yoga, tai qi, and meditation, leading to longer-lasting positive insights and energy. Transcendental Meditation, Buddhism and Daoist practices also aim for enlightenment. While the wording is different, this is the same goal of other religious practitioners. Christians describe a feeling of being closer to God. The difference between these natural ways to seek enlightenment and recreational drug use is that the latter is the lazy way to find enlightenment because no work was involved.
It’s artificial. Cannabis can give the feeling of elevating, but without actually changing the person. There are also negative side effects from the body trying to re-balance due to the impact of the drug.
Recreation Versus Addiction
There is a fine line between recreational use of any drug and addiction.
I was told by a patient, “If I don’t smoke weed, then I can’t shut off my brain. I do calculus problems as I’m trying to sleep, and I never get any rest!”
This reminded me of all the genius peers I saw from middle school to college who smoked cannabis in order to get some peace of mind. But in many cases, their grades started dropping after continuous cannabis use. The woman above is a chemical engineering student and mother of three. She was forced to stop smoking when she became pregnant with her third child, and came to me for help.
She was a patient even before getting pregnant. I would watch with interest as she would tell me a story, but as the ending got near, her temper would flare: she would raise her voice (volume, tempo, and pitch), and revealed that she couldn’t control her emotions. This is a side effect of marijuana, leading to an imbalance of what Chinese medicine describes as liver fire.
Sometimes, she would end her story shaking and crying, only to move on to another subject almost immediately. I knew she was a regular cannabis user even before she told me.
This liver fire is related to the mood swings cannabis users can display.
Recovering From Cannabis
For all the creative vision cannabis can provide (though this typically diminishes over time), it uses a tremendous amount of resources. We must guard our Jing like the treasure that it is. If you use cannabis, it’s critical to keep an awareness about usage in order to know how many resources it consumes. It seems innocuous at first, but it takes a toll, and it’s a heavy price to pay. The loss of motivation and complacent attitude of many long-term cannabis users reflects this price.
Depending on frequency of consumption, reducing or eliminating cannabis will yield similar results to any type of detox, such as cravings and irritability. Therefore, it is best to find a ritual during the transition process. For patients who refuse to quit smoking, herbal remedies such as Sha Shen Mai Men Dong will help to protect their yin and kidney organs.
Cannabis as an Escape
Understanding why the cannabis user is trying to self-medicate and what they are trying to escape might be difficult in the midst of drug-use.
If someone has a long-standing relationship with drugs or alcohol, it is good to ask at what age they started using recreational drugs, as this is the time that their psychological growth was stunted.
For instance, if someone started using at age 15, then there may have been something at that age that they couldn’t handle and drugs were an easy escape. If the same person decides to get sober at age 25, there is a whole new set of rules and responsibilities that the world will impose on them and that they may struggle with.
Being sober may be hard without help from therapists or mentors.
The new “sober world” might prove to be too much for them and they may relapse. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a free program and is translatable to any drug. The program is free, meets worldwide, and has weekly lessons along with mentors to help people “grow up” and stay clean.
J.R. Zalk holds a master’s degree in Chinese medicine from Middlesex University in London and is a licensed acupuncturist living in Boulder, Colo.