Cannabis has become a popular fix for people seeking to self-treat conditions such as anxiety and pain, but it’s not exactly a go-to choice among those looking to offset the effects of a poor diet, such as high cholesterol, which may be good considering there’s not a lot of high-quality research at the moment connecting cannabis to cholesterol. If you’re looking to improve your cardio health, you’d be better off improving your diet and exercising.

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Research on cannabis is a bit of a patchwork right now because it’s a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning there are special licensing and registration hoops researchers have to jump through. In the case of cholesterol and cannabis, much of the available research focuses on another subject, such as diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease, meaning cannabis’ effect on cholesterol levels wasn’t the main thing investigators were studying. Still, there is some research showing cannabis may help protect against the effects of a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet with some mixed research linking marijuana to both lower and higher HDL (the good cholesterol) levels and lower total cholesterol.

Blood cells and glucose in the vein. 3D illustration iStock / iLexx

Cholesterol And The Body 

Your body needs cholesterol, a waxy substance found in blood, to build healthy cells, but too much of a good thing can lead to problems downstream — cholesterol can lead to fatty deposits in blood vessels; those deposits can grow and make it difficult for blood to pass through arteries. Deposits can also break free and form clots that cause a heart attack or stroke, according to the Mayo Clinic. Cholesterol doesn’t move through your blood alone; it uses a protein sherpa if you will, and the combination of the two is called a lipoprotein. There are two types of cholesterol (based on what the lipoprotein carries) and they’re known as HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, and LDL, or low-density lipoprotein. HDL is considered good because it picks up cholesterol and takes it back to the liver while LDL transports cholesterol throughout the body and builds up in arteries.

It’s like the difference between someone who picks up the trash and puts it in the bin and someone who scatters the trash all over the house. High cholesterol is also connected to a variety of other diseases, including diabetes, according to the American Heart Association. Diabetes tends to raise bad LDL levels and lower HDL levels, which increases the risk for heart disease. It’s clear that high cholesterol in the blood is an unhealthy condition; what’s less clear is cannabis’ effect on that cholesterol.

Cholesterol, hdl and ldl. Medical form on a desk. iStock / designer491

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Cannabis And Metabolic Factors

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Cellular Physiology found that cannabidiol (CBD) protected against a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet in mice by alleviating liver inflammation. A high-fat diet can eventually cause serious liver problems, so while the CBD didn’t directly lower blood cholesterol, it’s still significant that it protected against liver inflammation. Cannabis is also connected to positive metabolic factors, including lower waist circumference, which measures abdominal fat.

A high amount of fat around the abdomen is associated with several serious health problems, including Type 2 diabetes. A 2015 study looking at the health effects of marijuana on black people found that current users had the lowest waist circumference compared to former or never users. It also found that current users showed a tendency (not statistically significant) toward lower total cholesterol, triglycerides, HDL, LDL, body mass index and systolic blood pressure compared to former or never users. The associations here could be explained by other reasons, however, such as a different diet or hereditary factors.

Cannabis' Effect On Cholesterol In Patients With Diabetes

girl teenager measures blood sugar level iStock / Maya23K
A study that looked at the effects of two cannabinoids, CBD and tetrahydrocannabivarin, THCV, in patients with Type 2 diabetes found that, compared with placebo, THCV significantly decreased fasting plasma glucose, (a test that looks at the amount of sugar in the blood after a patient fasts for at least 8 hours), although plasma HDL, the good blood-scouring cholesterol, was unaffected. In the double-blind study, 62 patients were randomized into several different treatment groups and given different combinations of CBD or THCV for 13 weeks. The authors concluded that THCV could be good therapy for people struggling to get control of their blood sugar, but they didn’t connect either of the cannabinoids to improved cholesterol levels.

A 2012 study investigating the link between diabetes and marijuana use found that all marijuana users had a higher prevalence of serum HDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and triglycerides compared to non-users. The study looked at four groups, non-marijuana users, past users, light current users (defined as one to four times a month) and heavy current users (defined as more than five times a month). The cross-sectional study depended on self-reported data from participants, which can be subject to recall bias, and it couldn’t rule out whether the people who use marijuana had different cholesterol levels than non-users because they’re younger, or other factors that could explain the association. Its definition of “heavy” use is also pretty low, at more than five times a month.

While cannabis could protect against a high-cholesterol diet and has been associated with some positive metabolic factors, including lower waist circumference, the research doesn’t point to any conclusive data that would support a connection between the substance and healthier cholesterol levels. If you’re serious about getting cholesterol under control, there’s plenty of data connecting fatty diets to increased levels of LDL in your blood. The Mayo Clinic recommends eating a diet with omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, getting plenty of fiber, and eating foods with good fats, including walnuts, almonds and avocados. The clinic also recommends exercising for 30 minutes, five times a week.