Our bodies are designed to interact with the compounds that come from cannabis. Cannabidiol (CBD) has over 60 molecular pathways in the human body which contributes to its ever-growing therapeutic lore. However, the science behind CBD’s connection to our circulatory system is backed with decades of research suggesting this cannabinoid has promising potential when it comes to cardiovascular health.
To understand the connection between CBD and our hearts, we must visit the basics of both heart health and the endocannabinoid system (ECS). In its simplest form, blood pressure can be packaged into two sets of data: the force and rate at which our heart pumps and the diameter and elasticity of our arterial walls. The easiest analogy would be a garden hose; turning on the spigot has an obvious impact on water pressure, but the integrity of the hose itself is just as important. If the hose is too narrow or has a blockage, the water pressure increases (and flow is restricted). But if the wall of the hose is too relaxed, that can also be problematic. So, like the garden hose, our circulatory system can operate in states of hyper and hypotension. And striking a healthy equilibrium between the two is the perfect job for the ECS.
While its discovery is still fresh, we’ve learned that the ECS exists to establish balance within a multitude of bodily functions. If we make too much or too little of something (cytokines, for example) the ECS modulates signals and responses so things can return to normal. And the ECS’s relationship with our circulatory system is no exception to this principle.
In the 1970’s—well before we even know about the ECS—scientists believed cannabinoids had use as novel antihypertensive agents. By the 1990s, the connection between our ECS and heart was so strong that some in the medical field theorized our cardiovascular system had its own specific cannabinoid receptor. What we know for certain is that CB1 receptors can be found in the heart, specifically the myocardium as well as within the endothelium; the smooth muscle that lines our arterial walls. When this muscle wall is constricted, blood pressure rises. Our bodies do this naturally depending on circumstance, (think Fight or Flight) but a perpetual state of high blood pressure is concerning at best and deadly at worst.
Over 1/3 of Americans suffer from high blood pressure, each of them predisposed to heart attack and stroke. Lowering one’s blood pressure isn’t a simple fix and most Americans opt for prescription drugs. According to the American Heart Organization, there are 11 different categories for blood pressure medication. Six of them (ACE inhibitors, angiotensin II blockers, alpha-blockers, central agonists, peripheral adrenergic inhibitors, and blood vessel dialogs) are designed to promote vasodilation — a widening of blood vessels. However, when activated, our cannabinoid receptors will signal for the smooth muscle in our arteries to relax, or, more scientifically: vasodilate.
Thanks to Anandamide and 2-AG, our bodies can vasodilate on their own. These compounds are our endogenous cannabinoids and the primary agents of the ECS. However, sometimes these cannabinoids aren’t synthesized properly, which can lead to a sputtering ECS. When this happens, it’s the equivalent of a scale needing to be recalibrated. And one of the best was to jump-start that process is through the consumption of cannabis.
When we consume cannabis our body gets flushed with compounds like CBD and THC. Our ECS will recognize them as natural reinforcements and will send them to contribute to its long list of duties — which we now know includes communication within the cardiovascular system. In 2015 a study published in Cardiovascular Research concluded:
“CBD causes vasorelaxation of human mesenteric arteries via activation of CB1 and TRP channels, and is endothelium- and nitric oxide-dependent."
While the activation CB1 is more directly tied to vasorelaxation, the ECS’s second major cannabinoid receptor, CB2, also plays a role in our cardiovascular system. But it’s essential to understand CB2’s role in the immune system before elaborating on its cardiovascular connection. A properly firing CB2 makes sure of two things: an inflammatory response doesn’t last too long, and the immune system cleans up after itself. When the immune systems launches a prolonged and messy front in the heart and arteries, it can advance the progression of atherosclerotic plaque; better known as clogged arteries. A 2005 study concluded that oral administration of CBD in mice significantly reduced plaque size in atherosclerosis and inhibits the action of oxidized LDL.
There is also an increasing amount of evidence suggesting CBD has a role in cardioprotection. A 2013 study from the British Journal of Pharmacology concluded CBD has a protective role in reducing the effects of cardiac ischemia and reperfusion, or in reducing cardiac dysfunction associated with diabetes. Similarly, the study found CBD has a protective role in reducing the ischaemic damage in models of stroke, partly due to maintaining cerebral blood flow.
Promising science aside, CBD, by no means, is a replacement for any heart medication. However, its profound connection to the ECS and its duties suggests it could support a healthier cardiovascular system. In that sense, CBD should be considered more of a preventative measure, than a problem solver when it comes to heart health. Before consuming CBD, please consult a doctor or licensed health professional