We all know that cannabis is a very unique and special plant. As an herbalist, I certainly agree, but not for the reasons you might expect. In this article written for and published by HiVi, I’m going to give you an herbalist’s perspective on cannabis. I’ll explain how herbalism can deepen your understanding of cannabis and why you should always pair cannabis with other herbs.
Is Cannabis An Herb?
As an herbalist, I’m often asked if cannabis is an herb. It is! Herbs are any plant whose medicinal, nutritive, or ritual qualities improve health in the mind, body, and spirit. When you think of working with herbs to improve health, you may imagine applying an herb with wound-healing properties to a cut on the skin, eating nourishing herbs to address a deficiency, or drinking a cup of tea as a way to relax.
While these are all ways that herbs can improve health, there is more to herbalism than just saying, “take this herb for that ailment.” In fact, much of herbalism is concerned with balance. By understanding how herbs affect our body, we can work with them to improve and maintain health by way of restoring balance.
But what does balance mean exactly? How would you know if you’re out of balance and what would you do about it? And how does all of this apply to cannabis?
To answer these questions, we need to first explain the language of herbalism and how the effects of cannabis translate into this language.
Herbalism 101: Actions
The language of herbalism is rooted in actions and energetics. Let’s begin with actions. Herbal actions are ways that herbs act on the body. These include some fairly well known terms like sedation and stimulation, and most people incorporate sedative and stimulant herbs into their daily lives. Think about a nice cup of chamomile tea while reading in bed. Sedative herbs quiet the nervous system and slow circulation. Now think about grabbing a cup of coffee on your morning commute. Stimulant herbs increase the energy of the body and quicken circulation so you’re ready for action.
Cannabis is a unique herb in that it can be either stimulating or sedating based on the strain, the dose, the duration of use, and your individual constitution.
Different strains of cannabis have wildly different actions. Think about smoking an indica-dominant strain in the bathtub. Sedating, right? Now think about smoking a sativa-dominant strain while cleaning your entire house. Stimulating. There are hundreds of cannabis strains that have been bred to contain very diverse amounts of cannabinoids and terpene profiles, resulting in very diverse actions. Cannabis strain diversity can be an exciting but sometimes bewildering world of choice. This is why services like HiVi’s concierge service, which matches you to products specifically for your goals, as well as Leafly’s strain profiles, are so useful.
Dose and duration of use affect cannabis actions as well. Think about one puff versus a whole joint, and think about smoking for two weeks after an injury versus smoking all day, every day for years. After a certain point the actions of cannabis, even normally-stimulating strains, are going to become more and more sedating with prolonged use. This is often why people take tolerance breaks, in order to feel specific, desired actions of cannabis more strongly again.
Individual constitution is your normal or baseline state which also affects how cannabis acts in your body. We’re going to delve further into constitution in the next section, but this adds another layer into just how personal cannabis can be. Think about how two people with equal tolerance smoking together can consume the same amount of the same strain, with one person feeling nice and relaxed while the other is completely on-edge.
It’s almost impossible to say what the actions of cannabis, across the board for everyone, truly are because they are so unique to each individual, and this information may feel a bit overwhelming. If there are so many variables to consider, how will I ever find my sweet spot in working with cannabis in order to achieve my health and wellness goals?
Don’t worry, it’s not as much a shot in the dark as you may think! Energetics, the other half of the language of herbalists, can help guide our way.
Herbalism 101: Energetics
Energetics is the basic framework of herbalism which categorizes ailments, individuals, and herbs into four foundational qualities: hot, cold, damp, and dry. Once you become familiar with how it works it becomes a pretty intuitive practice. It’s based on observing and tuning into your own body, and is a practice that anyone can apply to feel more confident when selecting herbs and herbal formulas to work with, cannabis especially.
Long before we had the technology to run laboratory tests and understand exactly what’s going on inside our bodies on a cellular level, our ancestors had to figure out a system to describe and deal with ailments. All they had to go on was what they could see with their naked eye and what they could feel with their senses. Take a burn for example. Everyone knows that a burn feels hot. And what do you do when you burn yourself? You feel with your senses that the burn is hot, and you know to cool it down with water. You intuitively know what to do.
Individual constitution is your normal, baseline state and is just that, individual. Every body is different and can be any combination of hot or cold, damp or dry. Think about someone who wears shorts year round versus someone who always has multiple layers on, or why there are different skincare products for oily versus dry skin. Traditional medicine systems like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine all operate by restoring balance within their own constitutional frameworks, but these same, basic foundational qualities apply. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, the element of fire can be associated with heat, the element of earth with cold, etc.
Just as ailments and individuals can be energetically categorized, so can herbs themselves. You know that cayenne feels hot, and you know that peppermint feels cool (think about all those gum commercials with ice and snow). You know that an unripe banana dries out your mouth, and you know that chia seeds get wet and gooey when prepared.
All herbs lie somewhere on the spectrum between both hot and cold, damp and dry, and can be charted anywhere in this energetic range:
The foundational qualities of cannabis are cold and dry. In fact, cannabis is very drying and cooling. I would place the energetics of cannabis about here on the graph:
Cannabis Is Drying
Let’s talk about the drying quality first. Think about cottonmouth. Regardless of the method of consumption, cannabis causes a dry mouth which High Times calls an “inevitable” effect. When cannabis is consumed, THC sends signals to our endocannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, to limit saliva production. The salivary glands in our mouths, the submandibular glands, are especially targeted.
While the drying nature of cannabis can be most felt in the mouth where our salivary glands are located, that drying out isn’t just taking place in your mouth but throughout your entire body. This is why when you’re browsing strain reviews on a cannabis website like Leafly, the top two negative effects reported for practically every single strain are “Dry Mouth” and “Dry Eyes.”
Dry eyes as a negative effect of cannabis is so commonly reported alongside a dry mouth because these are the only two places on the surface of the body that are supposed to be moist. This means it’s very noticeable when our mouths and eyes are dry. Dry eyes also indicate that it’s cannabis as a whole plant that’s drying, independent of THC content. Our eyes don’t contain salivary glands, but they’re wet to the touch because they’re covered in living cells, and cells are where most of the water in our body is held.
Remember how ailments can be energetically categorized, as well as herbs? Excessive dryness in the body can trigger and worsen certain psychological states, like anxiety and paranoia that are already energetically dry to begin with. Anxiety is a whole topic in itself, which is why I wrote an entire zine on crafting herbal smoking blends to ease anxiety. But, this is a reason why anxiety and paranoia are the other two most commonly reported negative effects of cannabis: the extreme drying quality of cannabis is pushing people too far along the dry end of the energetic spectrum. It’s pushing you out of balance.
Cannabis Is Cooling
Cannabis is also fairly cooling. What this cooling effect can look like for long-term, chronic consumers is an overall lack of fire and vitality in the nervous system. Those who consume too much for too long can be pushed too far in the cold direction toward conditions that are energetically cold and stagnant, like depression. This is why, unfortunately, there can be some element of truth to the “lazy stoner” stereotype, someone who is slow to react almost as if their senses are dulled. This is what chronic cooling can look like, again, when you’re pushed too far out of balance.
Fortunately, there are strategies we can take in order to keep cannabis, and ourselves, in balance.
Keeping Cannabis Balanced With Herbs
Due to the drying and cooling qualities of cannabis, it should always be paired with other herbs in an herbal formula. An easy way to do this is to craft your cannabis into a smoking blend with other herbs. I’m going to focus mostly on smoking because that’s my area of expertise and that’s how most people consume their cannabis. Smoking is also the fastest-acting pathway of ingestion, meaning you’ll be able to almost immediately feel how a smoking blend feels in and affects your body. However, all of the same principles that I’m talking about here can also be applied to other consumable methods and formulas, like teas and tinctures, as well.
I founded Puff Herbals, my herbal wellness brand centered around the ritual of smoking, on the belief that working with herbs through smoke can be a vital and legitimate part of a holistic wellness practice. To craft an herbal smoking blend is to set an intention, create and practice ritual, and cultivate a more mindful and balanced relationship with cannabis. By blending other herbs in with your cannabis, you may find that you feel more comfortable both when you’re working with cannabis as well as when you’re not.
Balancing Cannabis Drying
To balance the extreme drying nature of cannabis, you’ll want to work with herbs called demulcents. Demulcents are damp herbs that bring moisture to the body. Three demulcent herbs that we can work with to balance the dryness of cannabis are mullein, marshmallow and cinnamon. I would place the energetics of these herbs about here on the graph:
Looking at where these herbs fall energetically, you can see that all three are on the damp end of the spectrum, opposite the dry end where cannabis is. By working with these herbs in partnership with cannabis, you’re adding moisture in where it would have otherwise been taken away. You’re balancing the overall energetic effect by shifting it more toward the center of the chart. This is what we mean by maintaining balance by blending cannabis with other herbs.
Mullein and marshmallow leaf are smokable herbs, which means we can formulate them both into an herbal smoking blend with cannabis every time we smoke. Their demulcent nature will help to soothe the respiratory system. At Puff Herbals, all of our herbal smoking blends contain mullein leaf and marshmallow leaf specifically for this reason. What’s nice about both of these herbs is that they’ll make your smoke more smooth but they won’t really add any flavor, which means the flavor of your cannabis (or smoking blend) will come through clearly.
Mullein, in particular, should always be added to anything that you smoke. Mullein drives moisture to the lungs, can help to stimulate coughing up of crud, relaxes bronchial tissue and nervous tension, and has a gentle relaxing action to help you feel calm and centered.
Cinnamon isn’t that easy to smoke so it’s better to prepare it in water. Personally, I like to keep a cassia cinnamon stick in the water bottle that I drink from throughout the day, and then at the end of the day I’ll add it to whatever tea I’m making. I tend to smoke at night on days that I’m working, so the tea becomes a nice pairing and balancer to my smoke sessions. Plus, my body will be better able to handle the drying and cooling effects of cannabis after drinking a moistening and warming cinnamon infusion.
Balancing Cannabis Cooling
You may have noticed that while both mullein and marshmallow balance the drying quality of cannabis, they’re also both on the cold end of the spectrum. In order to balance the cooling nature of cannabis, you’ll want to work with warming herbs. Cinnamon is warming, which helps, but let’s look at some others:
Damiana, lavender, sage, peppermint, and ginger are all warming and drying herbs, and chamomile is warming and neutral. All of these herbs can be smoked as well, making them a nice addition to cannabis smoking blends.
Damiana, for example, stimulates blood flow to the periphery and surface of the skin. This gives it a warming effect, which you’ll appreciate if you tend to run cold. Damiana is also considered an aphrodisiac because it gets blood moving in the pelvis, warming the area and making things feel more sensitive down there.
Smoking ginger requires a bit more preparation than the other herbs. It’s doable, but I prefer to work with ginger mainly as a culinary herb and by adding fresh slices of root to tea.
When crafting any herbal formula, make sure to try to balance your blend so that it’s not containing herbs all from the same quadrant in the chart. Working with herbs that all have the same energetic qualities can push you out of balance.
At Puff Herbals, I’ve formulated our herbal smoking blends to be energetically-balanced formulas, both when enjoyed on their own as well as when combined with cannabis. Our Signature collection has a base of damiana for warming euphoria, our Stimulating collection has peppermint and sage for crisp focus, and our Sleepy collection has lavender and chamomile for floral peace and quiet.
But remember, it’s all about balance, so here are a few more cooling smokable herbs featured in our blends that help to balance out the warming herbs we added above:
You may be surprised to learn that cannabis was barely mentioned during my three years in herbalism school. I’ve spoken to herbalists who attended different schools and they all say the same thing: cannabis wasn’t really part of the curriculum. It was almost seen as this “other,” a plant that didn’t belong on the apothecary shelf but in a separate, removed location.
I can understand why, legality and intoxicating actions being the main reasons. But times are changing, and herbalists more and more will need to learn how to approach and work with cannabis.
Personally, I see cannabis as the gateway to herbalism. Because it should always be paired with other herbs, we need to call upon the language of herbal actions and energetics in order to keep cannabis a balanced medicine.
Cannabis is, in fact, unique and special, but not just because it gets you high. It’s because cannabis is personal. You only truly know cannabis when you feel it in your own body, but I hope that when you do, you’ll feel other herbs too.
This article was written for and published by HiVi, a stigma-free & personalized cannabis concierge redefining what it means to get high.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.