POST CATEGORY: Health & Science

Traditional Chinese Medicine: How Marijuana has been used for centuries


Westerners have been led astray by a medical profession that requires us to wait for illness and then get treated for it.

dr-rose-chinesemedicine3.jpgBut awareness is changing – more Westerners are taking responsibility for their health and are looking for treatment options. 

Traditional Chinese medicine offers a range of practices that use concepts based on a tradition that’s 5,000 years old. This medicine includes forms of herbal medicine, massage (tui na), exercise (tai chi), dietary therapy and acupuncture. Many people are familiar with acupuncture and its uses, but most are not familiar with its connections to Cannabis. Research is confirming that acupuncture works with the endocannabinoid system, as does Cannabis. It is not a stretch to think that if you are treating pain/inflammation with Cannabis, adding acupuncture might ease your pain.

Cannabis has a long history in TCM. Cannabis is one of the 50 “fundamental” herbs of TCM, and is prescribed to treat diverse symptoms. Cannabis, called má, means “hemp; Cannabis; numbness” in Chinese, and was used by the Emperor Shen Nung, who was a pharmacologist.

dr-rose-chinesemedicine2.jpgHe wrote a book on treatment methods in 2737 B.C., the first to include the medical benefits of Cannabis. Shen Nung was concerned with the failings of shamanism and studied the properties of Chinese plants, often testing them on himself. He reportedly turned green and died one day from a self-administered poison. He recommended a hemp elixir that was likely a tea of leaves and flowers, and he often accepted hemp as payment. The “Pen Ts’ao Ching” was compiled in 1 A.D., based on traditions from the time of Shen Nung and is known as the oldest pharmacopoeia, or herbal reference book. In it, Cannabis is recommended for more than 100 ailments, including gout, rheumatism, malaria and absentmindedness. Centuries later, a Chinese medical text described the use of marijuana to treat vomiting, parasitic infections and hemorrhages.

Hua Tuo lived much later (140-208 A.D.), yet he is credited with being the first person to use Cannabis as an anesthetic. The Chinese term for anesthesia is also composed of the Chinese character that means hemp, followed by the means of intoxication. He dried and powdered the plant, mixing it with wine for internal and external administrations. Hua Tuo performed surgeries to remove diseased tissues with local and systemic administration of his Cannabis wine anesthetic and acupuncture to control the pain. Hua Tuo was likely using the stronger Indian hemp or strains higher in CBD. 

It’s an interesting combination -- cannabinoid therapy and acupuncture to control pain. Let’s look closer.

dr-rose-chinesemedicine1.jpgAcupuncture is widely used for acute and chronic pain, but the mechanisms underlying its effect are not fully understood. Acupuncture is the insertion of needles into superficial structures of the body, including the skin, subcutaneous tissue and muscles, usually at acupuncture points, and subsequent manipulations of the needles. This aims at influencing the flow of qi – the body’s vital energy. Chinese medical practitioners believe the stagnation and lack of movement of this energy brings about pain and dysfunction. According to TCM, acupuncture is aimed at facilitating the movement of qi through the body’s energy pathways. 

Acupuncture is often accompanied by moxibustion – the herb mugwort is burned close to the skin or in a rolled cigar as a concentrated heat source. 

The Chinese characters for acupuncture mean “acupuncture-moxibustion.” Moxabustion therapy is taught in TCM degree programs but many practitioners find it impractical for office use. 
Many scholars who read and interpret ancient texts contend the herb used was not mugwort inside the cigar but Cannabis, and that mugwort was used only as the wrap for the cigar. Today, the wrap and the floss herb material in the center of the cigar is exclusively mugwort. Chinese doctors were perhaps smoking out their patients, and some believe the smoke has healing properties and that it stimulates the skin with heat. This was being done before the use of needles to facilitate the movement of the qi. 

The use of acupuncture and moxabustion were common in China and were part of a systematic approach. In the West, it was first thought to be dependent on imaginary acupuncture points and on hypothetical meridians. President Nixon’s trip to China in early 1972 spurred a science-based approach to explaining the pain-relieving properties of acupuncture. During the 1970’s, research revealed that the analgesic effects of acupuncture are mediated by endogenous opioids. The opioid system alone contains around 30 opioid compounds. These quickly released compounds are biologically relevant answers to inflammation and pain. Moreover, inflammation and pain increase the synthesis of opioid receptors over time, decreasing effectiveness. 

Studies have shown that acupuncture used in combination with a micro-current of electricity can influence the release of one or more of the various endorphins with some specificity. 

Research has focused on endocannabinoid physiology. Endocannabinoids are compounds made within the body that are analogous to cannabinoids, or the plant compounds THC and CBD. At least five endocannabinoids, including anandamide, palmitoylethanolamide and 2-arachidonglycerol, have been found. Sixty-plus cannabinoids in the Cannabis plant also have potential action here. The most researched cannabinoid receptors are the cannabinoid CB1 and CB2 receptors. Significant crosstalk occurs between edogenous opiates and the endocannabinoids. These chemical signals and receptor bindings, and the TRPV1, might be how cannabinoid binding increases opiate output and vice versa.

Acupuncture influences the opioid and cannabinoid system by releasing endogenous receptor ligands. Again, the studies from the 1970’s showed increased opiate production. A 2009 study that used electro-acupuncture for pain relief of inflamed skin tissue found a statistically relevant increase in anandamide (endocannabinoid) levels in the treated skin. 

European researchers concluded in 2011 that “Our results suggest that electro-acupuncture reduces inflammatory pain and pro-inflammatory cytokines in inflamed skin tissues through activation of CB2 receptors.” Cytokines are known as intacellular messengers, or the way cells communicate with one another. With electro-acupuncture, we get the release of endogenous opiods, increased endocannabinoids and increased activation of the cannabinoid receptors.

The ancient Chinese were an agricultural civilization watching patterns in nature, trying to figure how they fit in with the earth. The philosophies and therapeutics the Chinese created were eclectic, tested by time and people like Shen Nung. What the Chinese discovered about anatomy and physiology before modern science is astounding.

Dr. Scott D. Rose is a naturopath with a private practice in Kirkland, Washington — learn more at

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