Is pot bad for your heart? While some advocates claim cannabis is harmless, others say it’s damaging one of the most important parts of our body; the cardiovascular system. As cannabis use increases in popularity, both recreationally and medicinally, it is becoming increasingly important to understand these potential effects.
Scientists agree on a few notable effects cannabis has on the heart. For example, the research is consistent that THC can increase heart rate, affect blood pressure, and decrease the amount of exercise it takes to induce angina (chest pains). For those already at risk for cardiac complications, there is concern these effects could trigger dangerous cardiac events. While there isn’t much research on this, there is limited evidence of an association between cannabis use and strokes or the triggering of heart attacks.
Researchers from St. Luke’s University did connect cannabis use to an increased risk of a rare condition called takotsubo, where the heart’s muscles are suddenly (usually temporarily) weakened, reducing the heart’s ability to pump blood. While takotsubo usually affects older women, cannabis using takotsubo sufferers were more likely to be young men. Still, lead researcher Amitoj Singh explains that despite the young, healthy profiles of cannabis using takotsubo patients, they had “higher rates of cardiac arrest, acute stroke and need for implantation of defibrillators in comparison to their older, sicker (with more medical comorbidities) non-marijuana counterparts.” Singh was careful to note that this study only showed an association, not causation, saying “to confirm what we find, we need randomized studies.”
What does cannabis do to your heart?
Almost immediately after consuming cannabis, the herb has an effect on your blood pressure. Though some research suggests that blood pressure fluctuates shortly after consumption, the herb is generally considered a potent vasodilator.
This is excellent news for those with high blood pressure or conditions like glaucoma. In fact, the ability of cannabis compounds to open blood vessels is why the herb causes red eye and dilates pupils.
Cannabis can also increase your heart rate by two times for up to three hours after consumption. However, this effect will vary significantly from person to person. In some, heart rate may only increase by 20%. This pounding heart can make some people feel anxious, and it puts you at greater risk of having a heart attack.
However, the chances of this outcome are quite slim. Elderly folk and those with pre-existing conditions such as obesity, tobacco consumption, and preexisting heart conditions may have trouble with the racing effects of cannabis. Early rodent models suggest that this heart-racing effect is more pronounced in new consumers, but decreases with tolerance.
Is cannabis helpful or harmful? It may be both
There have also been a few reports of healthy, young patients having fatal cardiac events with THC in their system but no other medications or drugs. While unnerving, these reports are extremely rare, and tell us very little. In the large scale, longitudinal studies researchers have not been able to show any statistical tie between cannabis use and increased cardiovascular mortality.
Despite these potential risks, research also shows cannabis can benefit our heart. Cannabis is associated with a lowered risk of obesity; and since obesity has been shown to contribute to heart disease, experts suggest this may lower the risk of heart disease as well. THC has been shown to reduce damage from heart attacks, while CBD has an antiarrhythmic effect. And there is limited evidence that cannabis use decreases the risk of diabetes.
Cannabis can also help the heart as an anti-inflammatory agent. In a recent 2017 study, researchers from the American Heart Association concluded that cannabis is protective against peripheral vascular disease, preventing the narrowing and spasming of blood vessels with its anti-inflammatory properties.
Is cannabis helpful or harmful? It may be both. While more rigorous controlled studies are needed to fully understand the risks and benefits, it’s clear that cannabis is a powerful substance with the power to affect our cardiovascular system. Like most medications, it might be helpful for some conditions and harmful for others. Patients considering using cannabis should talk to a doctor about whether it is a safe option for them.
Should I smoke cannabis if I have a heart condition?
The active ingredient in marijuana is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), and many tissues in your body have THC receptors. That means marijuana can have some effect on virtually every organ, and that effect is also virtually unknown. Unlike FDA-approved medications, marijuana has no established dosage, safety or efficacy studies.
What little evidence is available suggests that smoking high-THC cannabis is probably not the best thing you can do if you have a heart condition. However, high-quality studies on cannabis and heart disease are few and far between.
What is known for sure is that the herb does increase heart rate, which could be worrisome for those who are at risk of heart failure.