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Scientists believe a particular supplement could help decrease heart disease risks linked to cannabis use. Cappi Thompson/Getty Images
  • Cannabis is a plant with many compounds that have both recreational and medicinal uses.
  • There are many unknowns about the health risks and benefits associated with cannabis use, particularly its impact on the heart and blood vessels.
  • A new study has found that using cannabis may increase the risk of heart disease and heart attacks but that a supplement called genistein could help to mitigate these risks.

Researchers are still learning about the health impacts of cannabis. Derivatives of cannabis may have many health benefits. However, researchers are still learning how to balance these positives with potential health risks.

A recent study published in the journal Cell examined the adverse cardiovascular effects of cannabis and found a particular impact on cardiovascular health.

However, the researchers also found that the compound genistein may help decrease these harmful effects.

Cannabis use is becoming increasingly popular, especially for recreational purposes. But researchers are still seeking to discover the full medicinal benefits of cannabis.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the compound in cannabis that produces mind alterations and impaired mental functioning. Specifically, the main compound that causes these effects is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9-THC). In contrast, the cannabidiol (CBD) compound of cannabis doesn’t cause this sort of impairment.

Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of Epidiolex, which contains CBD. People can use this drug as a seizure treatment. The FDA has also approved the use of two medications with synthetic THC: Marinol and Syndros. Both of these medications can control nausea and stimulate appetite.

However, in addition to the benefits, cannabis has also been linked to health risks. One particular area of interest is the potential association between cannabis and cardiovascular problems.

When asked to comment, Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), noted that many studies have yielded inconsistent results regarding the impact of cannabis on cardiovascular health. He explained to Medical News Today:

“Population-based studies evaluating the potential link between cannabis exposure and cardiovascular risks have, historically, yielded notoriously inconsistent results…Nonetheless, because of the lack of consistent data, NORML has long urged caution with respect to cannabis exposure among those with a history of heart disease or other cardiovascular issues, among other potentially higher-risk populations.”

Therefore, more research is needed in this area.

The study in question sought to explore this link. Researchers first examined the association between cannabis use and heart attacks using the U.K. Biobank, “the largest prospective cohort study to date, containing genetic and phenotypic data on 500,000 individuals ages 40-69.”

Based on the evaluation of this data, cannabis use was associated with a higher risk for heart attack.

The researchers also recruited participants who smoked cannabis recreationally. They found that these participants had higher levels of inflammatory cytokines after smoking a cannabis cigarette, indicating a greater risk for atherosclerosis.

Next, the study authors examined the impact of delta-9-THC on endothelial cells, which are the cells that make up the cardiovascular system. They found that delta-9-THC caused oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which cause harm to the cardiovascular system.

In mice models, they also discovered that delta-9-THC caused vascular dysfunction. Their research indicates that delta-9-THC could damage the cardiovascular system.

A supplement that may help

To counteract these effects, the researchers tested the compound genistein derived from soybeans. They found that it helped reduce the impact of inflammation and oxidative stress on the cardiovascular system.

They further discovered that genistein helped lessen the severity of atherosclerosis in mouse models.

Dr. Joseph Wu, professor of cardiovascular medicine and of radiology, and the director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, gave the study’s highlights to MNT:

“Our study shows that marijuana (cannabis) is linked to cardiovascular disease based on the U.K. biobank, stem cell-derived vascular cells, and mouse models. Using machine learning, we also discover a naturally occurring soybean derivative, genistein, that we can be used to block the bad effects of marijuana on the cardiovascular system.”
— Dr. Joseph Wu

The study had several limitations. Firstly, the researchers could not show a causal relationship between cannabis use and heart attacks. They acknowledge the potential for flaws in the data from the U.K. Biobank cohort.

The study also used mice models, so caution must be exercised when applying any results to people.

Armentano also said that the study may fall short in terms of consistency of research in the area.

“This latest paper is simply the latest in a long line of inconsistent results — results that likely vary based on how well investigators do or do not control for potential confounding variables and behaviors among subjects.”

However, he pointed out that the researchers’ theory, based on results from their mice studies, was that it could be “due to cannabinoids triggering inflammation of the blood vessels and thus atherosclerosis is inconsistent with human observational studies.”

Nevertheless, the results indicated that genistein could help mitigate the potentially harmful effects of cannabis while maintaining some of its beneficial effects.

Study authors wrote that “[g]enistein, a soybean isoflavone, blocks harmful cardiovascular effects of [delta-9-THC] while reserving clinically useful effects such as sedation and analgesia.”

Study author Joseph Wu further elaborated to MNT about the direction of further research in this area:

“While we have shown that genistein can block the adverse effects of marijuana on the cardiovascular system using preclinical models, we need to do a randomized clinical trial to test its safety and effectiveness in humans.”

“Genistein might also be a new lead compound that will lead to the development of new drugs that can treat cardiovascular disease,” Wu added.