A racing heart is a scary but common side effect of consuming cannabis. This is due to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the cannabis compound responsible for the plant’s euphoric high. But people who consume cannabidiol (CBD) products such as tinctures have also reported heart palpitations, even though these products contain very little or no THC.
Can CBD cause the heart to pound like THC does? Research reveals that this cannabis compound doesn’t negatively affect your heart rate or blood pressure, but scientists are still working to unravel the complex relationship between cannabis and the heart.
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The heart is the most visible member of the cardiovascular system—a sprawling network of veins and arteries that carry nutrient-rich blood to all parts of the body.
The cardiovascular system is also intertwined with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a rich network of cell receptors that natural cannabinoids produced by the body, called endocannabinoids, and cannabinoids from outside sources, mainly the cannabis plant, can activate. The ECS works with many other subsystems and processes to support homeostasis, or balance, which is necessary for good health.
Some research suggests that the cardiovascular system is the source of the body’s endocannabinoids:
Lipid molecules in the cell membranes of the heart and other cardiovascular tissues create these endocannabinoids.
Endocannabinoids bind to ECS receptors, called CB1 and CB2, throughout the body and brain to support the immune system and regulate many other essential functions—and so do cannabinoids from the cannabis plant. This is why cannabis can have such a wide range of effects.
But the action of the CB1 and CB2 receptors isn’t always positive. And these receptors can behave in different ways in the presence of various cannabis compounds and terpenes. This can make it difficult to determine whether compounds like CBD and THC are actually helpful or harmful in certain situations.
For example, some studies suggest that people who consume whole-plant cannabis have a higher risk of heart disease than the rest of the population. And for all consumers, the risk of a heart attack increases fivefold within an hour of taking cannabis; the risk of a stroke quadruples in that same time period.
On the other hand, taking cannabis can increase the survival rate after a stroke or heart attack and reduce the risk of a potentially serious condition called atrial fibrillation in people who already have heart failure.
When cannabis causes negative effects on the heart and cardiovascular system, THC is the reason.
After consuming a cannabis product that contains THC, some people experience a sudden, rapid heartbeat—an increase of up to 50 beats per minute. This is because THC causes blood vessels to relax and open, which can make blood pressure drop. This forces the heart to beat faster just to keep the usual amount of blood flowing.
A speeding heartbeat after taking marijuana isn’t generally a cause for concern in healthy people, but it can be risky for people who already have some kind of heart or cardiovascular condition.
CBD doesn’t affect the heart and cardiovascular system in the same way, though. It’s a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent that works not only with ECS receptors, but also with other systems and processes to support healing and relieve pain.
CBD can also soften the effects of THC by blocking its action on the CB1 receptor. And this provides some protection from THC’s negative effects such as:
A number of studies over the past decade or so have investigated the effects of CBD on various physiological processes. Researchers have concluded that although individual responses to CBD can vary, CBD-only products don’t cause changes in the cardiovascular system, including blood pressure and heart rate.
So, why would someone have heart flutters after taking CBD? One widely disputed study hypothesized that the reason people taking CBD can have THC-like symptoms is that gastric fluids found in the stomach could actually convert CBD into THC. When this happens, researchers said, THC could enter the bloodstream and affect the body in the same way as THC from cannabis could.
But the 2016 study didn’t use real gastric juices, only an analog—a substance that resembles gastric juices—that scientists use in labs to determine how fast medications could dissolve in the stomach. And the study’s researchers found that under those circumstances, the molecules in CBD did in fact break down into THC.
But later research contradicts their claim that CBD can convert to THC in the stomach. Numerous studies have shown that in natural digestive juices—such as when a person consumes a CBD-infused edible—CBD remains CBD and no traces of THC can be found.
These studies conclude that there’s no evidence that CBD can change into THC in either humans or animals, so there’s no need to worry that taking CBD may cause THC-like effects.
But solving the mystery of having heart palpitations after taking CBD products may take some detective work. Consuming other products that affect heart rate, such as caffeine, at the same time may play a role—so could certain medications.
It’s also important to remember that CBD can affect people in different ways, and different products can have their own distinct effects. For example, tinctures enter the body quickly through the mucus membranes in the mouth, while edibles take much longer to work their way through the digestive system and into the bloodstream.
The relationship between CBD and the cardiovascular system is complicated, and scientists are still working to understand it. But the expanding body of research we have tells us that CBD in all its forms has powers to help, not harm, the heart.
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