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Alcohol, Cannabis and the cardiovascular system

Recently Canada and some states in the US legalized the use of cannabis for recreational and medical purposes. Some of us have wondered why, would it not make addiction to the product worse?

However in order to understand the reasoning, let’s go back to the United States of America in the 1920’s, when alcohol was prohibited. It gave birth to the bootleggers, alcohol smugglers; people drank underground, including law enforcers and government officers. However the worst part of it was life was lost on both sides (the smugglers and the law enforcers) in the process of smuggling alcohol. Many people were sent to jail for drinking alcohol. Prohibition was supposed to save lives, but instead it claimed more lives, and people still drank alcohol anyway. So prohibition was not the solution. America learnt the hard way and in 1933 legalized alcohol, 13 years after it was banned.

With the legalization of alcohol, research on the product could be carried out. Now the dangers of alcohol abuse are well documented. Concentrating on the cardiovascular system, drinking too much alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, abnormal heart beats, obesity, higher risk of developing diabetes mellitus, stroke and sudden cardiac death.

Research has also shown some health benefit of alcohol. Alcohol in moderation seems to be safe, and is good for the heart. The mechanism is that it increases the good cholesterol in the body. Also red wine contains antioxidants (flavonoids) that protect the heart and blood vessels from the toxic effects of free radicals produced by the body. The policy on alcohol is now, health education, so that people can make an informed choice.

The recommendation on alcohol, is to drink with moderation, but if you don’t drink, don’t start. Moderation is an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. (A drink is one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits, or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits). Illustrated in the diagram below.

Back to Marijuana, that is the Mexican name for cannabis, the World Health Organisation describes it as the most widely cultivated, trafficked and abused illicit drug worldwide. However, because of its prohibition in most countries, there is little research on it. The reported adverse effects are mostly in the central nervous system and the lungs, but in the cardiovascular system, it can cause an increased heart rate, high blood pressure, abnormal heart beats and coronary artery disease (heart attack).

The known benefits of cannabis include its use for chronic pain control, control of nausea and vomiting associated with cancer and for treatment of depression. In the cardiovascular system, the main benefit may be in the control of risk factors like obesity and diabetes mellitus, exact mechanism is not well known.

Recommendation is to abstain from the use of cannabis, it’s illegal. If you are in Canada, thread with caution or wait for more research to be carried out, so that you know the safety level and profile.

About Dr Emeka Okocha

Consultant Cardiologist with interest in preventive cardiology

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