As the legality of marijuana is steadily changing from year to year, the overall use of marijuana is increasing. The recreational use of marijuana is currently legal in 19 states, whereas medical marijuana in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
From what we know so far, marijuana can be beneficial for different medical conditions which leads a lot of individuals to use marijuana to treat their symptoms. But what about its effects on cardiovascular health? Unfortunately, this topic has not been studied enough, but some research suggests that it may lead to an increased risk of heart attack and other acute cardiovascular events.
Therefore, in today’s article, we’ll talk about what we know so far about marijuana use and heart health, so let’s get started.
The Four Types of Common Heart Disease
Heart disease refers to a collection of heart conditions that cause cardiovascular issues, some being more common than others. Generally, they can be divided into four types depending on how they affect the heart:
- Coronary heart disease is the most common form of heart disease. It happens when the blood flow to the heart is restricted due to plaque that’s formed on the walls of the coronary arteries. This condition can lead to a heart attack (myocardial infarction) and angina;
- Arrhythmia refers to a change in the normal heart rhythm. Your heart can go too slow or too fast, or you may experience an irregular heartbeat;
- Heart valve disease occurs when one of your heart valves becomes damaged and doesn’t work correctly which results in a variety of symptoms;
- Heart failure refers to the heart’s reduced ability to meet the required demands for blood and oxygen that’s most commonly a result of a heart condition that has weakened the heart muscle.
All forms of heart disease have different risk factors, but lifestyle changes can make a world of difference, as well as the appropriate medical treatment, when necessary.
How Does Marijuana Affect the Cardiovascular System?
Marijuana influences the body through its endocannabinoid receptors that are distributed on different sites of the body, including the heart, which means that the heart will be impacted when you consume marijuana.
According to a report from the American Heart Association (AHA), despite the health benefits it provides, marijuana can have negative effects on the heart and blood vessels. According to their report, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive cannabinoid that causes feelings of euphoria, is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, atrial fibrillation, as well as heart failure.
Similarly, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology published a study on the effects of marijuana on users with cardiovascular disease. They discovered that there were millions of people with cardiovascular disease who are marijuana users.
They state that marijuana can cause an increased heart rate and elevate blood pressure which can increase the need for oxygen in the heart. In people with cardiovascular disease who already have arterial plaque buildup, the combination of a blocked artery and reduced oxygen increases the risk of a heart attack.
The Thin Line Between the Positive and Negative Effects of Cannabis
Marijuana is a plant with a complex chemical structure that requires detailed research. From what we know so far, it should be clear that not all compounds in marijuana can cause adverse cardiovascular effects.
While high concentrations of THC have been associated with side effects, the other major cannabinoid, CBD (cannabidiol), has a better reputation. CBD is already known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and calming benefits, to name a few.
In fact, the AHA report mentions that CBD products can reduce inflammation and emotional stress that can have a positive impact on cardiovascular health. It’s considered potentially good for cardiovascular health by lowering the heart rate and relaxing the arteries, all of which lessens the load on the heart.
The Method of Consumption Plays a Part
How you consume marijuana seems to also play a part. Just like smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana is generally regarded as much more harmful than any other form of consumption. The toxic chemicals and carbon monoxide that get released when smoking a joint can be very harmful to individuals with cardiovascular disease.
If inhalation is the preferred method, then vaping seems like a much better idea, but you need to be careful with vaping too because there are many counterfeit vape pens on the market filled with additives (and that can make matters worse). Therefore, vaping dry herbs or concentrates is a much better choice than vape pens.
Finally, edibles seem to be the safest form of marijuana, though this is mostly in theory and anecdotal evidence.
Which Aspects of Marijuana Use and Cardiovascular Risk Need More Research
The information we have so far about the effects of marijuana on cardiovascular health is from studies that have examined the effects of smoking marijuana as the most common method of consumption. Additionally, most studies have not taken into account that a large percentage of the users who smoke marijuana also smoke tobacco, which can alter the result significantly.
Vaping hasn’t been studied enough, especially since its popularity has risen in the past few years (most notably among young adults). It’s considered a healthier alternative to smoking, but we still know very little about it with regard to heart health.
Therefore, there is an obvious gap in the research, and other forms of marijuana also need to be assessed – such as edibles, tinctures, capsules, and even topicals. That way we will know if THC can really have negative effects in the absence of toxic and irritating chemicals.
Apart from that, there is little research regarding the long-term vs short-term effects of marijuana use. We don’t know if long-term use leads to a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases or not.
Finally, there is the issue of potential interactions with certain medications.
CBD, in particular, is known to interact with some classes of medications that include blood thinners, statins (cholesterol medications), antidepressants, and others.
Does Marijuana Use Lead to an Increased Risk of Heart Attack?
The biggest concern so far has been about smoking marijuana over any other method of consumption because it’s the preferred method for most users. Smoking marijuana seems to increase the stress on the heart. It releases large concentrations of carbon monoxide in the blood that have been associated with all sorts of cardiovascular issues, such as heart attacks, chest pain, and irregular heart rhythm.
We also know that THC interacts with the receptors found in the sympathetic nervous system which activates the “fight or flight” response. When you smoke marijuana, THC activates these receptors which may, in turn, cause an increased heartbeat and blood pressure, as well as constriction of the blood vessels, all of which can increase the risk of a heart attack (especially for people who already have cardiovascular issues).
Conclusion – More Research on Cannabis Use and Heart Health Is Needed
Medical and recreational marijuana are slowly changing their legal status across the states, which brings in many new marijuana users who are exploring its recreational and health effects.
However, even though a lot more people have access to it, the research on how it affects certain processes in the body is yet to catch up. Given the information we have so far, we can say that marijuana use could lead to an increased risk of a heart attack. Still, it seems that this risk is the most elevated when it comes to smoking marijuana versus other methods of consumption that haven’t been extensively studied yet.
Goyal, H., Awad, H. H., & Ghali, J. K. (2017). Role of cannabis in cardiovascular disorders. Journal of thoracic disease, 9(7), 2079–2092. https://doi.org/10.21037/jtd.2017.06.104
Subramaniam, V. N., Menezes, A. R., DeSchutter, A., & Lavie, C. J. (2019). The Cardiovascular Effects of Marijuana: Are the Potential Adverse Effects Worth the High?. Missouri medicine, 116(2), 146–153.