In just a few years, the therapeutic use of cannabidiol (CBD)—one of the active ingredients in marijuana (cannabis)—has attracted a lot of attention from the scientific community and general public. This elusive compound has been the subject of debate across the country. Drug classification in the U.S. is not always straightforward and often depends on each substance’s acceptable medical uses and its potential for dependency or abuse. However, research on CBD is growing (pun intended).
Scientists and consumers alike want to know more about CBD and if using it will cause the mind-altering effects that have been linked to the shape of this plant for so long. Researchers are also learning more about the potential effects of CBD on the body’s blood vessels (vascular system).
CBD is a cannabinoid, a compound that binds to special cells called cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoid receptors can be found throughout the body and are involved in many physiological functions, including appetite, mood and the ability to feel pain. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient responsible for the mind-altering (psychoactive) effects of cannabis, CBD has no psychoactive properties. It recently became the focus of more research after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) loosened research restrictions in 2015.
Oral forms of CBD have already been approved by the FDA to treat seizures in children with a type of epilepsy that doesn’t respond well to other treatment. Another drug containing CBD has been approved to treat muscle tightness in people with multiple sclerosis. Budding research suggests that CBD could be beneficial for cardiovascular problems, specifically lowering high blood pressure.
In one study, healthy men took one dose of either CBD (600 mg) or a placebo (a sugar pill without active ingredients) on two separate visits. The researchers then looked at the men’s heart rates and blood pressure while they rested along with their responses to physical and mental stress. High blood pressure related to stress can be a risk factor for future heart disease. When the men consumed CBD, the researchers found that their resting blood pressure was lower and their blood pressure did not rise following the stress tests. Researchers have also found that applying CBD to one of the main arteries in the abdomen during colorectal surgery caused the artery to widen, which could help promote greater blood flow.
Despite the research, it’s still not clear whether CBD is helping the vascular system. There are many unknowns about CBD, such as what a correct dose is, its potential to interact with other drugs and how to make medications using it. Testing CBD-containing drugs in women and larger groups of people is also important—it has mainly been tested in small groups of men—before recommendations can be put in place. However, with the growing popularity among consumers to treat everything from anxiety to chronic pain with CBD, there is a new urgency to answer these questions.
Yasina Somani, MS, is a PhD student in the Cardiovascular Aging and Exercise Lab at Penn State. She is interested in studying the effects of novel exercise and nutritional therapies on cardiovascular outcomes in both healthy and clinical populations.