A new study suggests that people with heart conditions may be at risk of developing cardiovascular issues through prolonged use of marijuana. But this paper is at odds with preexisting research that claims cannabis can benefit the cardiovascular system. So which side is correct? Is cannabis bad for your heart or not? Before analyzing the competing bodies of research, it helps to understand cardiovascular diseases and their various risk factors.
What Are Cardiovascular Diseases?
Cardiovascular diseases are a classification of disorders involving the heart and blood vessels. Coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and peripheral arterial disease are common examples of disorders that affect the blood vessels, while conditions such as rheumatic heart disease and congenital heart disease cause damage to the heart itself.
Cardiovascular diseases regularly precede more severe cardiac events, such as heart attacks and strokes, usually caused by fatty deposits accumulating along the inner walls of blood vessels and obstructing blood flow to the brain.
They rarely present symptoms prior to inducing a heart attack or stroke. A potentially fatal medical event is often their first warning sign. In the event that someone suffers a heart attack or stroke, it’s crucial to recognize their symptoms quickly and seek urgent medical attention. Symptoms of a heart attack can include:
- Pain or discomfort in the arms, left shoulder, chest, back, elbows, or jaw.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Feeling faint or light-headed.
- Feeling sick.
- A cold sweat.
- Becoming pale.
Strokes are frequently accompanied by weakness down one side of the body, usually experienced in the face, arm, or leg. Additional symptoms include:
- Slurred speech.
- Compromised vision.
- Dizziness and/or loss of coordination.
- Difficulty walking.
- A severe headache.
- Fainting or loss of consciousness.
Given their chances of being fatal, it’s important to take preventative measures before heart attacks or strokes occur. From a behavioral perspective, the most significant risk factors are poor diet, tobacco and alcohol consumption, and a lack of physical activity, which in turn produce warning signs such as increased blood pressure, raised blood glucose or lipid levels, and obesity.
However, these aren’t definitive indicators that someone is at risk of suffering a significant cardiovascular event. Researchers are continually trying to identify new risk factors for cardiovascular diseases so that physicians can better inform patients and encourage treatments or lifestyle changes as early as possible. It’s this field of research that recently produced a study claiming that people with existing heart conditions may increase their risk of a cardiovascular incident if they consume cannabis.
What Does the Research Think?
Research that claims to identify any new behavioral risk factor for cardiovascular disease warrants thorough analysis. Over 2 million Americans with heart conditions say they use or have previously used marijuana, so a demonstrable link between cannabis and cardiovascular issues would have widespread health implications.
The research in question was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology this January. After reviewing previous studies, the researchers concluded that marijuana use might cause some of the cardiovascular issues linked to smoking cigarettes and cross-react with certain cardiovascular medications.
However, lead author Dr. Muthiah Vaduganathan has conceded that, while he believes there is sufficient data to advise caution amongst the highest-risk cardiovascular patients, “the level of evidence is modest.”
More research into cannabis and its effect on the heart is required, particularly in light of multiple studies which state, to the contrary, that specific components of cannabis can, in fact, improve cardiovascular health.
Pre-existing Research: The Cardiovascular Benefits of Cannabis
More studies into the causes of cardiovascular problems are welcome, and the aforementioned paper should certainly encourage further research into the links between cannabis and the heart. But while that research is still forthcoming, it’s important to contextualize the study’s findings alongside the existing research into cannabis and cardiovascular health.
It’s been well documented that the body’s endocannabinoid system helps to regulate certain cardiovascular functions and that the way it operates significantly impacts conditions associated with both hypertension and excessive hypotension. Given the ability to manipulate this system with exogenous cannabinoids, there’s reasonable cause to believe that administering specific components of the cannabis plant could produce positive cardiovascular effects.
Studies have cited multiple ways that cannabinoids could alleviate the causes of cardiovascular conditions, ranging from improving tissue oxygenation to reducing inflammation.
Using Cannabis to Improve Cardiovascular Health
In addition to forming the basis of potential therapies, cannabis could theoretically be used to hinder the development of cardiovascular issues. People wanting to ascertain their chances of developing heart problems could first test for the genetic variants linked to some of the most common cardiovascular conditions to see if they’re at risk. Multiple genetic variants are linked to common cardiovascular diseases:
- Coronary Heart Disease: CDKN2B-AS1, DMRTA1, LPA
- Atrial Fibrillation: LOC729065, MIR297, PITX2
- Hypertension: ADD1, AGTR1, BCAT1
If an individual has one of these variants, they could then seek products containing the cannabinoids and terpenes that have been shown to produce positive cardiovascular effects:
CBD possesses antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties, which alleviate risk factors associated with heart disease and strokes. Its anxiolytic qualities mean it can also relieve stress. Long-term stress is one of the primary causes of high blood pressure, which is the leading known cause of hypertensive heart disease.
Studies on animals have also demonstrated CBD’s potential to prevent patients who had a stroke from suffering brain damage and increase brain function during the recovery process.
Ocimene is known to inhibit the proliferation of key enzymes linked to hypertension and type 2 diabetes. This terpene also possesses antioxidative properties that are useful in combatting high blood pressures.
THC is another cannabinoid shown to positively regulate blood pressure. Studies on hypertensive patients that are designed to determine the relationship between heart rate, blood pressure, and intraocular pressure, have found that THC can reduce blood pressure and lead to improvements in heart rate.
Is Cannabis Bad For Your Heart? The Research Shouldn’t Stop
As things stand, there’s a need for more research into the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in many areas of medicine — not just those concerning the heart. Scientific study is naturally contentious, but the overall body of evidence points to cannabis’s potential to produce positive cardiovascular effects.
Nonetheless, papers suggesting otherwise should be welcomed to challenge this notion before it’s fully-formed. The result will likely be greater scientific reassurance.