THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is a psychoactive compound called a cannabinoid that’s present in some forms of cannabis. Cannabinoids in the cannabis plant bind to endocannabinoid receptors in the body. These receptors are found throughout the body and are part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is involved in a variety of physiological processes including appetite, pain sensation, mood, and memory. Cannabinoid receptors are part of a class of cell membrane receptors in the G protein-coupled receptor superfamily.
Cannabis flower products have varying ratios of THC from zero to around 35 percent. Patients feel the effects of THC by smoking, vaporizing, ingesting, or topically applying products. How quickly and how much THC gets absorbed into the body depends on which form of administration is used. While no standard dose for THC has been established, a typical dose is between 5 mg to 15 mg.
The range of psychoactive effects one might experience from using a THC-containing cannabis depends on several factors. These include the THC level in the particular strain of the plant that you’re using, which parts of the plant are being used, and the route through which the cannabis entered the body.
Few specific studies exist on this topic, but for many years, researchers suggested that smoking cannabis may make the heart beat faster and may make blood pressure higher immediately after use. However, emerging research from 2020 shows that the activation of certain cannabinoid receptors may be associated with decreased blood pressure and heart rate. Overall, the current evidence is still fairly inconclusive.
Most of the scientific studies linking cannabis to heart attacks and strokes only observed those who smoked it as opposed to other methods. Cannabis smoke also may deliver some of the same substances researchers have found to be harmful in tobacco smoke. Most states with medical marijuana programs do not permit smoking as a form of administration due to the adverse side effects of smoking, tobacco or cannabis
According to the CDC, much more research is needed to determine the full impact of cannabis on the cardiovascular system.
Dr. Larry Allen, MD, Medical Director of the Advanced Heart Failure program at the University of Colorado says routine use of cannabis probably has more cardiovascular downsides than upsides, but that there is some benefit from cannabis where it may be appropriate. Some of the proven benefits for other health conditions may also appeal to people with certain symptoms of heart failure, Allen says. “I encounter patients who use cannabis medically to help with pain control and anxiety.” But he noted that some patients report it also helps with discomfort related to chronic swelling in the belly or legs, a common heart failure symptom.
“Patients with severe heart failure can also develop a poor appetite and cardiac cachexia, or severe weight loss and muscle wasting,” Allen says. “I’ve had some of these patients say marijuana helps them with nausea and appetite.”
A cardiologist at the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, Dr. Chip Lavie, noted it’s already known that cannabis can have adverse effects on coagulation and increase acute cardiovascular events. However, he noted that when cannabis is used on a short-term basis in some patients, the benefits may outweigh the risks. Additional dangers with impure products and vaping still exist though, he noted.
“We still do not have a feel on the impact on occasional users, high dose users, and very chronic users,” Lavie told Healthline.
THC can be therapeutic to many patients who use cannabis, but choosing strains and forms of cannabis with high concentrations of other non-psychoactive compounds of the plant like cannabidiol (CBD) may be worth considering for your cardiovascular health. One study found that CBD has a direct effect on the arteries, helping reduce inflammation and improving blood flow. CBD may reduce inflammation in arteries and blood vessels, easing the strain on the heart, potentially preventing heart failure.
Several cardiovascular experts suggested that ingesting or applying cannabis topically might be more heart-healthy than smoking and vaporizing concentrates. Because vaping delivers the chemicals in cannabis smoke more potently, it may result in increased doses to the heart and potentially adverse effects that are more pronounced.
If you would like to learn more about how medical cannabis could be a part of your overall health strategy, reach out to Duber Medical to make an appointment.
Author: Gabrielle Dion Visca
Gabrielle has been writing and editing professionally for the medical and wellness industries for more than 20 years. She’s held positions with The Journal of Pediatrics, Livestrong, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and Patient Pop. She currently writes articles about medical marijuana for Duber Medical, and is the founder of the Ohio cannabis journalism non-profit, MedicateOH.