Many of the criteria for identifying a vampire, from sensitivity to sunlight to an aversion to garlic, are symptoms of the blood disorder porphyria – inevitably nicknamed “vampire disease.”
Porphyria is even regarded as the source of vampire folklore in Eastern Europe, where the disorder was prevalent among royalty and nobility when tales of vampire encounters emerged. Thus, in “Dracula” (1931), when Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) said, “I may be able to bring you proof that the superstition of yesterday can become the scientific reality of today,” he wasn’t wrong.
In fact, the “scientific reality of today,” porphyria, is still very present. And guess what one of the ways to treat it is … medical marijuana! How could a blunt or some funny brownies help these poor porphyric creatures of the night? Read on; we bid you welcome.
What is porphyria?
Porphyria, ironically pronounced “por-FEAR-ee-uh” (emphasis on “fear”), refers to an excess of porphyrins in the body that affects red blood cells. There are eight types, but all occur in one of two forms: acute or cutaneous. The form and its severity determine the symptoms, which, according to a study published in The Lancet, are as follows:
“Acute porphyrias present with acute attacks, typically consisting of severe abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, confusion, and seizure, and can be life-threatening. Cutaneous porphyrias present with either acute painful photosensitivity or skin fragility and blisters.”
There is no cure for porphyria, and its onset – although rare (approximately 200,000 people in the United States) – is hard or impossible to prevent. Most often, it is passed down from a parent as a genetic mutation, but it can also result from such acquired diseases as hepatitis C and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is diagnosed initially through urinalysis and hematologic testing. Once someone has a confirmed diagnosis, they can only manage it with medicines – prescription or natural – and lifestyle rules.
For the complete history of the disease’s name and medical documentation, read this article from Scientific American. For an explanation of when and how the connection was made between porphyria and its association with inspiring the myth of vampirism, read this article from JAMA Dermatology and this article from History.com. For a side-by-side comparison of porphyria with vampire lore, read this article from Queen’s Gazette.
What are the lifestyle rules for someone with porphyria?
Avoiding sunlight is crucial to anyone afflicted with porphyria, and dietary changes include consuming more carbs and calories. Other things to avoid because they can trigger symptoms are smoking (tobacco), drinking alcohol, using estrogen, fasting (from food) and taking barbiturates, tranquilizers, birth control pills or sedatives.
How is porphyria treated?
Very serious cases of porphyria can require blood or heme transfusions, or bleeding the patient with a phlebotomy. When symptoms are at their most severe, however, drastic measures must be taken. Among these are spleen removals, bone-marrow transplants and liver transplants. Less severe symptoms don’t require things like organ transplants though, and one treatment is as simple as an all-natural medicine: pot.
The symptoms that can be relieved by medical cannabis are seizures, anxiety, depression, pain, nausea and vomiting. The latter two result from not only porphyria but also the prescription medications used to treat the disease. And the alternative for pain relief is typically opiates, to which a person is at risk of becoming addicted after only three days of taking them. Plus, the body rapidly develops a tolerance to opiates, requiring ever greater amounts to achieve the same effect. Worse still, opiates can be incompatible with other treatments, further complicating the patient’s symptom management.
None of those risks (unless your physician says otherwise) are introduced by managing symptoms with marijuana edibles, topicals or cannabidiol (CBD) oil. And one porphyria patient said that a very low dose (0.25 mg) of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) mixed with CBD eases the anxiety-producing cognitive shifts she gets surrounding an acute attack.
A Medical Marijuana Blog article provides a thorough but succinct summary of how cannabis is a perfect fit for treating porphyria:
“Essentially, the treatment of porphyria aims at supplementing and substituting the heme enzyme, which is deficient in the blood. A number of medications produced to make this effect in chronic cases, they are to be taken continuously, regardless of the side effects risk.
“While attempting to treat the underlying cause, these meds leave the most discomforting symptoms, nausea and vomiting, untreated, and additional medications have to be prescribed for their management. Traditional opiate-based pain medication can become addictive as well as less effective over time. Medical marijuana may be able to cope with this problem. Being a natural anti-anxiety medicine, with low side effects risk, it is known for compatibility with drugs that are otherwise incompatible.
“Medical marijuana is also an excellent option for a porphyria sufferer who struggles with nausea and vomiting as a result of the disorder. Medical marijuana has been used for pain relief throughout history by a wide variety of cultures.”
For a visual representation of the benefits of medical cannabis (specifically, CBD oil) for someone suffering from porphyria, see the before-and-after photo comparisons in one woman’s success story here.
As might be expected, however, the recommendation for medical marijuana is not unanimous. For instance, the Royal College of Physicians (London) concluded that cannabis – among other things – actually triggers attacks of porphyria. However, online research turned up no studies (as of July 2023) in which a controlled study identified only cannabis consumption as a cause; rather, those affected are also consumers of alcohol and other substances proven to generate grave comorbidities.
Thus, one might speculate that any fault ascribed to cannabis as it relates to porphyria is a spurious correlation. Further research is needed in both the pro- and anti-medical-cannabis scientific communities for anything conclusive. And above all, each person’s physician must be the one to determine whether medical cannabis is advisable, on a case-by-case basis.
So, let’s give weed another round of applause!
Isn’t it cool that the herb wolfbane that fought off the titular vampire in “Dracula” (1931) has a semi-equivalent herb (i.e., marijuana) for fighting off “vampire disease” symptoms? It seems that science will never tire of finding ever more evidence of how helpful this plant is! How appropriate, then, that Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) complimented Van Helsing on his observations of the supernatural when he said, “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man.”
Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.
Sources and Suggested Reading
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Amador, Agustín Pijierro, Alba Suárez Cordero and Pedro Sánchez Risco. “Acute intermittent porphyria: is oseltamivir safe in these patients?.” Clinical Medicine (Royal College of Physicians), Vol. 22, Iss. 3 (2022): 280-281. doi:10.7861/clinmed.2022-0100. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9135073/#:~:text=Acute%20intermittent%20porphyria%20is%20a,for%20improving%20the%20patients’%20condition.
Bal, Alyssha. “The Power of CBD over Porphyria – Lina’s Success Story.” Medium. May 14, 2019. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://medium.com/nordicoil/the-power-of-cbd-over-porphyria-linas-success-story-9ed2b2ede5e0.
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