Americans, especially the baby boomer generation, are infamous for being hard driving workaholics who eat too much, exercise too little, and consume plenty of alcohol. Physical neglect, anxiety, stress, depression, and muscle atrophy often commingle to result in a variety of ailments. One of the most common is heart disease, a condition that kills more than 600,000 people every year in the United States alone — constituting about 25 percent of all deaths.
In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. The most common variety of heart condition is coronary heart disease (CHD), which kills more than 370,000 Americans annually.
Heart disease is often labeled “cardiovascular disease,” although cardiovascular conditions are technically separate from heart diseases and involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that, in turn, can negatively affect the heart or trigger a heart attack, stroke, or angina (chest pain). Together, heart and cardiovascular disease form a collection of conditions that can result in damage or harm to the heart and often death.
Poor Lifestyle and Legal Cannabis
Middle aged and older adults are experiencing higher levels of heart disease. Poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, and a slew of factors are pushing heart problems — including heart attacks, cardiovascular disorders, and coronary artery disease — to all-time highs. Coinciding with this rate of increase, which medical researchers Paul Szmitko and Subodh Verma labeled a “worldwide pandemic,” is the relatively rapid legalization of cannabis throughout the U.S. for both medical use and lifestyle enhancement.
Although the minority of the country, tens of millions of Americans now have options for safe access to cannabis medicine via dispensaries and retail shops. How can those in legal states where cannabis is available to legitimate patients or lifestyle users, who are at risk of heart disease, use the herb to prevent these conditions or regain health after suffering a heart attack or stroke?
Cannabis has both direct and indirect benefits for those who are susceptible to heart disease. Sativa varieties, which energize and promote creativity (and have proven very effective for fighting debilitating depression and conditions such as PTSD), help users gain a positive focus and engage in healthy activities such as exercise. An improved attitude and outlook also helps those at risk to gain the confidence to do things like join a yoga class, cycling club, or running group, all of which are major contributors to preventing heart disease.
Indica varieties are effective analgesics (pain killers) and are very therapeutic in terms of stress management and relaxation — essential to good health and prevention of the onset of heart disease or the occurrence of a heart attack.
The simple benefit of uplifted spirits helps those who have a heart condition or who have suffered a heart attack or stroke to engage in physical therapy, exercise, and socialize. Because the fatality rate is so high for these diseases and conditions, proper physical and psychological therapy is critical to an efficient and speedy recuperation and prevention of future suffering or episodes.
Cannabis for Prevention
Cannabis is known to be an effective preventative therapy for dozens of diseases and conditions. Should seniors and the middle aged in states where cannabis is legal consider its use to prevent and combat heart disease and stave off a heart attack?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices.” Because cannabis is so effective in reducing anxiety and helping people manage stress, it can naturally be concluded that it helps prevent conditions arising from such stress. However, it should be emphasized that cannabis is only part of the equation. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and good sleep are also necessary to prevent the onset of heart and cardiovascular disease.
With respect to the cardiovascular system, cannabis consumption (typically via smoking, vaporizing, or the ingestion of edibles), is know to initially and briefly raise one’s heart rate. However, after heart rate levels off, most consumers experience a relaxing, mellowing wave of stress relief and the alleviation of hypertension, one of the leading causes of heart problems. For those suffering conditions like angina, cannabis is helpful for pain management (especially indica varieties). Those in legal states should consult their physician and dispensary budtender to learn the best strains of cannabis for their particular condition and symptoms.
As with all applications of medical cannabis, research is scant for how effectively major cannabinoids like THC and CBD may help prevent or treat heart and cardiovascular diseases. What research has been conducted has pointed toward a strong efficacy from multiple components of cannabis, including the non-psychoactive cannabinoid THCV.
A 2013 study conducted at the Felsenstein Medical Research Center in Israel and published in the Journal of Biochemical Pharmacology revealed that the administration of small amounts of cannabis to mice (about 25 percent of what would be necessary to result in intoxication) produced a five percent improvement in the efficiency of their heart ventricles.
Researchers also found that micro-doses of THC reduced the amount of Troponin T, a protein that leaks from cardiac muscle into the bloodstream in cases of cardiovascular damage (high volumes of this molecule are a red flag to medical professionals that a heart has occurred). This study also indicated that THC decreased the size of infarctions, which are areas where blood can’t reach tissue and, as a result, the tissue dies. Researchers found that infraction sizes decreased by six percent following consumption of small quantities of THC.
“A single ultra low dose of THC before ischemia is a safe and effective treatment that reduces myocardial ischemic damage.”
A 2014 study conducted by Dr. Saoirse O’Sullivan at the University of Nottingham School of Medicine and published in the journal Pharmacological Research noted that “cannabinoids affect blood vessels by causing them to relax and widen” (very similar to how cannabis, even smoked, acts as a bronchodilator for asthma patients) This study was the first research to reveal this response in human tissue samples. This is significant because relaxation of blood vessels results in lower blood pressure and better circulation, both of which prevent heart disease and heart attacks.
A paper published in the journal Nature Clinical Practice Cardiovascular Medicine in December 2015 found that THC and related cannabinoids may be effective in treating obesity, one of the leading causes of heart disease.
The researchers behind this study concluded:
“It is paradoxical that studying the effects of cannabis, an illicit drug that provides society with numerous social problems, could serve as the basis for novel therapeutic strategies to reduce cardiometabolic risk.”
More Research is Necessary
It’s impossible to read an article regarding cannabis and its efficacy for any condition without observing the fact that sparse research has been conducted. Because cannabis is categorized by the federal government as Schedule I (along with heroin and bath salts), it is legally considered highly addictive and lacking any medical benefit whatsoever. Methamphetamines and cocaine, which are classified as Schedule II, are considered less harmful than cannabis and can even be prescribed by a physician.
Luckily, all mammals have an endocannabinoid system. Thus, research conducted on primates like monkeys and rodents can produce results that can be accurately extrapolated to humans. However, until more studies are conducted — specifically human trials — medical researchers, caretakers, and patients of heart disease or candidates for a heart attack will be left in the dark regarding the details of how THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids and terpenes may help prevent or treat heart disease, including heart attacks and angina.
This post was originally published on December 12, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.