nausea cannabis hyperemesis syndrome

Is This Obscure Syndrome Really a Side Effect of Marijuana?

Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a recently discovered and still poorly understood disease that may be associated with years of daily marijuana use, has garnered the attention of the news media recently.

A San Diego woman was in the news recently after she was diagnosed with a newly discovered obscure syndrome that’s been theoretically linked to heavy, long-term cannabis use. For nearly two decades, this rare and poorly understood condition may be responsible for why Chalfonte Lenee Queen, 48, experienced periodic episodes of extreme pain and vomiting.

Queen was eventually diagnosed with cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), a condition only recently acknowledged by the medical community. While there is still no hard data on the prevalence of CHS, the disease affects only a small population of people, specifically a subset of cannabis users who consume marijuana multiple times a day over a long period of time.

What is Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS)?

First documented in Australia more than a decade ago, cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS) is an illness that causes acute bouts of nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain that can last up to 48 hours. The disease is thought by some to be connected to long-term chronic marijuana use, with one study from researchers at Temple University finding the average duration of cannabis use prior to the onset of the syndrome to be about 16 years with daily use exceeding three to five times per day.

While the exact cause of CHS remains a mystery, medical experts theorize that in a small population of people marijuana’s chemical compounds disrupt the normal function of their body’s cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoid receptors are part of the endocannabinoid system, a regulatory network responsible for maintaining balance in a variety of physiological processes.

As there’s no test to distinguish CHS from cyclic vomiting syndrome, which is much more common and causes the same symptoms, those with the syndrome often remain misdiagnosed for a considerable time period. The disease does seem to be more prevalent in young adults with a long history of cannabis use.

As of now, there’s no cure for CHS or its debilitating symptoms. All that those who develop the syndrome can do is wait it out until the episode is over and avoid marijuana in the future. Doctors often suggest hot showers or baths, which can distract pain receptors and provide some relief.

nausea from cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome

Why Would Marijuana Cause Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS)?

Significantly more research is needed before scientists will be able to explain why chronic, long-term cannabis would eventually cause nausea and vomiting. Some medical professionals even remain skeptical that marijuana is related to CHS.

“Cannabis has been consumed for many centuries and is currently used by millions of people in many countries,” Australian scientists wrote in 2006. “It is hard to believe that a distinctive syndrome caused by cannabis has never been noted before by users or clinicians.”

In the Temple University study, researchers did present a few leads on what may cause the disease. One theory is that long-term activation of cannabinoid 1 receptors (CB1), primarily by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), could cause nausea by impacting the gastrointestinal system.

The scientists reported that the action of CB1 receptors lead to:

  • An alteration in intestinal motility
  • The inhibition of gastric acid secretion
  • The relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter
  • A delay in gastric emptying
  • A reduction in gastric motility

Over time, these effects on the gastrointestinal system may lead to nausea and vomiting, the researchers claim.

In Review? Scientists Aren’t Sure Yet

There’s not enough research to make a determination as to whether marijuana is the cause of CHS and its symptoms. There is clearly evidence of a link between the syndrome and long-term, multiple-times-a-day cannabis use, and an indication that those that develop the symptoms often improve by ceasing their marijuana intake.

Besides a lack of research, part of the complexity of an understanding of the connection is that research has also found medical marijuana to be effective for managing pain and nausea through its compounds interacting with cannabinoid receptors.

There have been thousands of studies done on cannabis and its cannabinoids. You can learn more about marijuana and the research findings related to its use by visiting our education page.