Marijuana may be legal in 18 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam, but that doesn’t mean frequent use is healthy. New research led by Stanford Medicine scientists found smoking pot more than once a month can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack in middle age.
What’s more, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the component of the drug that gets you high, can cause inflammation in the cells that line blood vessels. It’s also blamed for atherosclerosis, or the buildup of fats in the artery walls of lab mice. The good news for people using marijuana to stimulate appetite, control nausea or dull pain: Researchers discovered genistein, a molecule that occurs naturally in soy and fava beans, can prevent the inflammation and atherosclerosis from occurring without taking away the feelings of being high.
“As more states legalize the recreational use of marijuana, users need to be aware that it could have cardiovascular side effects,” Joseph Wu, M.D., professor of cardiovascular medicine and radiology and director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, says in a press release describing the research. “But genistein works quite well to mitigate marijuana-induced damage of the endothelial vessels without blocking the effects marijuana has on the central nervous system, and it could be a way for medical marijuana users to protect themselves from a cardiovascular standpoint.”
Frequent pot use can cause damage
To determine the impact marijuana has on the heart, researchers analyzed the medical and genetic data of about 500,000 people between the ages of 40 and 69 in the UK Biobank study. Of those people, close to 35,000 reported smoking cannabis, with 11,000 reporting they smoked pot more than once a month. Researchers controlled for age, gender and body mass, which can have an impact on the heart, and found that those who said they smoked more than once a month were more likely than others in the study to have a heart attack. What’s more, the frequent marijuana users were more likely than those who abstained to have their first heart attack before the age of 50, known in the medical community as a “premature heart attack.” Having one before 50 increases the chances of subsequent heart attacks, heart failure and life-threatening arrhythmias later in life.