When You Toke Up, You Might Throw Up -- If You Have This Mysterious Illness

by Lisa Sadikman

A friend told me recently how anxious she is at the end of each day. After coming home from work, making dinner and getting her two young kids to bed, she starts worrying about what she didn’t manage to tackle earlier in the day. Seeing how we live in California where recreational weed is now legal, I suggested she try chilling out with a toke or two after the kids were asleep.

“I can’t,” she said. “That stuff makes me want to vomit.”

She said that whenever she’s tried marijuana, it’s made her feel queasy, which isn’t exactly relaxing. Like anything you put in your body, marijuana can interact with your chemistry in a way that’s unpleasant. In the same way people can be dairy intolerant or gluten intolerant, it’s totally possible to be the equivalent of weed intolerant.

In fact, a new study by doctors at New York University Langone Medical Center shows that some heavy marijuana users suffer from a severe condition called Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS). CHS is a nasty side effect that causes queasiness, stomach pain, and severe vomiting.

What a buzz kill (literally), especially because cannabis has so many upsides, including, ironically, treating nausea.

With recreational use legal in nine states plus the District of Columbia, more and more people are using cannabis for stress relief, relaxation and just plain fun. For those battling chronic illness, medical marijuana is available in 29 states to dull pain, keep nausea in check, increase appetite and alleviate anxiety, among other benefits.

Sounds like a miracle, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, for people who suffer from CHS, it’s more like a nightmare. According to an article in Business Insider, one patient who participated in a 2004 study had been experiencing sudden nausea, violent vomiting and stomach pain for nine years. The one treatment that soothed her symptoms was taking a hot bath – the hotter the better. So desperate to feel better, the woman burned herself three times before ending up in the hospital.

She was eventually diagnosed with CHS. For years, it was thought to be a rare condition, but now researchers believe it affects more people than previously thought. The most recent study, published in the journal Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, surveyed thousands of adults admitted to a New York City emergency room. After filtering for those who use marijuana 20 days or more per month, they focused on 155 people who smoked almost daily for five years or more. The results showed 32.9 percent of them exhibited symptoms of CHS.

Joseph Habboushe, an assistant professor at NYU Langone and the lead author on the paper, told Business Insider that number was much higher than he and his colleagues expected. Extrapolating the percentage to the U.S. population, Habboushe estimates 2.75 million adults could have CHS.

Woah. That’s a sizable pool of people who (a) qualify as heavy marijuana users, and (b) don’t know it’s the weed causing their extreme gastro-intestinal discomfort. If that’s the case, why hasn’t Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome been recognized before now? Without question, folks have been toking up for decades, despite it being illegal. The medical community, however, is way behind in terms of studying both the drawbacks and benefits of cannabis use.

This isn’t surprising given the federal government’s continued classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, along with LSD and heroin. Recommending its use or dabbling with test subjects could be considered a federal offense. No wonder researchers and doctors have been reluctant to study the ways cannabis interacts with the body and mind.

While we wait for marijuana research to catch up, CHS sufferers have only one sure treatment option available to them: stop using cannabis. Hot baths seem to temporarily alleviate discomfort, but like the woman who burned herself in the bath, you can end up in worse shape than you started.

“As far as we know there are no good treatments for this. Most anti-nausea medications don’t work,” Habboushe told Business Insider. “The only thing that helps is stopping. And many patients will stop for a few days, and it goes away, but then they start smoking again and it comes back.”

Clearly more research needs to be done to understand CHS and why it strikes some people and not others. It’s also unclear which cannabis compound might cause CHS or if different strains and strengths of a particular compound have more or less influence over the disease.

For those of us who believe in the magical qualities of cannabis to soothe everything from frayed nerves to cancer-induced pain, don’t lose faith. Like any drug, it’s expected that marijuana will have negative side affects for some people. The key is to figure out what those are and find treatments so users can still experience the upside of cannabis. Until then, if you’re feeling nauseated from too much weed, stop smoking and please do not lounge around in a boiling hot bath no matter how good it feels.