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cannabis and cholesterol

Cannabis To Help Balance Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a necessary substance in the human body, but if it gets too high, health issues can start to arise. What potential does cannabis show for influencing cholesterol?

In recent years, the word “cholesterol” has become one of the biggest fears for millions of Westerners. Often used as a synonym for coronary heart disease, most of us are aware that high levels of cholesterol can increase the risk of developing heart disease, artery diseases, or stroke. But what the hell is cholesterol? Is there a “bad” one and a “good” one? And moreover, can cannabis help lower cholesterol?

While scientists are yet unsure whether cannabinoids can lower cholesterol directly, research suggests that cannabis can raise “good cholesterol” levels. Moreover, a 2016 study [1] by the Korean University of Daegu suggests that CBD influences fat browning—the conversion of unhealthy white fat into healthy brown fat.

WHAT IS CHOLESTEROL?

Cholesterol is an organic compound produced by the liver that naturally exists in our cells and is involved in synthesising vitamin D, hormones, and other substances during the digestion process. Our body produces most of the cholesterol it needs; the amount we introduce with food should only be a minimal percentage. Just like cannabis resin, fats and cholesterol do not dissolve in water, and they float in the bloodstream. Our body can reduce cholesterol molecules via small particles called lipoproteins, which can mix in with the blood and therefore maintain effective transportation. Otherwise, the fatty granules would deposit over the inner surface of our veins.

“Bad” cholesterol is an LDL (low-density lipoprotein) that can accumulate inside blood vessels, causing arteries to harden and get narrower to the point that blood can’t regularly flow anymore. “Good” cholesterol is an HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which helps in the degradation of LDL deposits. Patients usually treat this disease with blood thinners and statins, which may be life-saving and prevent future diseases, but are not always effective. They can also carry some significant side effects.

What really matters for our health is the proportion between LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. For example, you can have a low level of general cholesterol, yet at the same time a high percentage of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. As opposed, a high cholesterol value may just be a consequence of a large amount of HDL cholesterol.

CANNABIS AND METABOLIC SYNDROME

Metabolic syndrome is a complex condition characterised by high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high abdominal fat. No surprise, it increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Researchers from the University of Miami analysed data collated from numerous surveys to understand how cannabis use influences metabolic syndrome [2] .

The study involved over 8,000 people who were classified as having metabolic syndrome if they fit at least three of the following parameters: high glucose levels, high LDL, low HDL, hypertension, increased abdominal fat. The scientists found that 19.5% of non-smokers had metabolic syndrome, 17.5% of former smokers had the syndrome, and only 13.8% of current cannabis smokers had it. The study concludes that current cannabis use is associated with lower odds of metabolic syndrome across young and middle-aged adults in the US.

Several other studies have shown that regular cannabis users have a lower body mass index, smaller waist circumference, higher HDL levels, and reduced risk factors for diabetes. A 2013 study [3] examined the relationship between cannabis use, cholesterol levels, glucose, and insulin, studying these factors together with the aim of determining the risk of becoming diabetic. The study showed that cannabis use was associated with a lower prevalence of diabetes.

Researchers also noted an increase in HDL cholesterol in patients who used Rimonabant, which is an anorectic anti-obesity synthetic cannabinoid drug withdrawn from the market because of its really bad side effects. As bad as it might be, Rimonabant is an inverse agonist of the CB1 cannabinoid receptor. The unexpected increase in good cholesterol caused by this synthetic cannabinoid suggests that modulating the endocannabinoid system could positively impact cholesterol levels.

As mentioned above, a few studies suggest [4] that CBD could support normal insulin production and sugar metabolism, helping the body convert unhealthy white fat into brown fat. Excess insulin promotes the conversion of sugars into stored fat, and leads to weight gain and obesity.

WHAT CAN WE DO TO BALANCE OUR CHOLESTEROL?

Future studies will examine the relationship between the endocannabinoid system and cholesterol balance in greater detail, hopefully leading to innovative formulas.

A healthy amount of cholesterol in the body greatly depends on your genes and your lifestyle. The evidence outlined above is still in the preclinical stages. Alongside proven methods such as diets low in saturated fat and sodium, a healthy weight, regular exercise, and not smoking, researchers are trying to determine if cannabis or specific cannabinoids could help keep cholesterol under control. Aerobic exercise like cycling has a very positive impact on cholesterol levels as it lowers the percentage of LDL and triglycerides, but increases the percentage of HDL.

It’s good to remember that smoking is probably the most unhealthy way to consume cannabis. Moreover, when it comes to diet, we can assume higher cholesterol levels with the excessive intake of animal products such as meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, and other dairy products. As such, it’s important to consider cholesterol from all sides, and how it’s influenced by various factors.

Cholesterol is the worst enemy for millions of people. Why can it be dangerous? And above all, does cannabis help control cholesterol levels?

Marijuana and heart health: What you need to know

Access to marijuana is growing, but marijuana benefits and its risks have not been carefully studied.

Image: © UrosPoteko/Thinkstock

In many states in this country, you can legally use marijuana for a range of health benefits, including the treatment of chronic pain, anxiety, and nausea. Smoking is the fastest way to feel the effects of marijuana, which is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. Yet marijuana smoke contains many of the same toxins, irritants, and carcinogens found in cigarette smoke — a known contributor to heart disease as well as cancer.

Marijuana cultivation and use dates back some 6,000 years. However, the cardiovascular and other health effects of cannabis aren’t well studied. That’s partly because under federal law, cannabis is a Schedule I substance, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” That designation places numerous restrictions on researchers, making it difficult to carry out rigorous research on marijuana.

“As a result, everything we’re told about what marijuana does or doesn’t do should be viewed with a certain amount of caution. This holds equally true for the risks as well as the benefits,” says Dr. Kenneth Mukamal, associate professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Pot and pain

Some of the strongest evidence supporting the medical use of marijuana is marijuana’s benefits for managing chronic pain. Cannabinoid compounds (see “Cannabis 101”) interact with receptors in nerve cells to slow down pain impulses and ease discomfort. Cannabinoids also have been shown to be effective in quelling nausea and vomiting. In addition, marijuana is a powerful appetite inducer. The combination of these attributes makes marijuana a therapeutic option for people coping with the side effects of chemotherapy and others who are in danger of unintended weight loss. However, in conditions where gaining extra weight might exacerbate existing health problems, such as diabetes, appetite stimulation would be counterproductive.

Cardiovascular effects

One of the few things scientists know for sure about marijuana and cardiovascular health is that people with established heart disease who are under stress develop chest pain more quickly if they have been smoking marijuana than they would have otherwise. This is because of complex effects cannabinoids have on the cardiovascular system, including raising resting heart rate, dilating blood vessels, and making the heart pump harder. Research suggests that the risk of heart attack is several times higher in the hour after smoking marijuana than it would be normally. While this does not pose a significant threat to people who have minimal cardiovascular risk, it should be a red flag for anyone with a history of heart disease. Although the evidence is weaker, there are also links to a higher risk of atrial fibrillation or ischemic stroke immediately following marijuana use. Consistent with these links, studies by Dr. Mukamal and colleagues also suggest that marijuana smoking may increase the long-term death rate among heart attack survivors.

Questions remain on marijuana’s benefits and risks

Most of the evidence linking marijuana to heart attack and stroke is based on reports from people who smoked it. So it’s hard to separate the effects of cannabinoid compounds on the cardiovascular system from the hazards posed by the irritants and carcinogens contained in the smoke. Because cannabis smoke is known to cause airway inflammation, wheezing, and chest tightness, people with lung diseases should not smoke it. Other people who should just say no to marijuana include those who may be vulnerable to developing schizophrenia or addiction.

Cannabis 101

The cannabis plant contains more than 100 unique chemical components classified as cannabinoids. These are the active ingredients that bind to specific receptors in the brain and other parts of the body. The two most prevalent types are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is primarily responsible for the mind-altering properties sought out by recreational users, and cannabidiol (CBD), which has no psychoactive effect. Cannabidiol may actually work to offset the psychoactive properties of THC.

The magnitude of marijuana’s psychoactive effect depends on the THC level in the particular strain of plant, which parts of the plant are used, and the route through which the drug enters the body. Legalization in some states has led to the breeding of strains that are three to seven times more potent than those available three decades ago.

The impact of smoked or inhaled marijuana is generally felt within a few minutes and lasts two to four hours. Marijuana ingested in food or beverages kicks in more slowly and lasts longer.

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As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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