In recent years, the word "cholesterol" has become one of the biggest fears for millions of Westerners. Often used as a synonym for coronary heart disease, most of us are aware that high levels of cholesterol can increase the risk of developing heart disease, artery diseases, or stroke. But what the hell is cholesterol? Is there a “bad” one and a “good” one? And moreover, can cannabis help lower cholesterol?

While scientists are yet unsure whether cannabinoids can lower cholesterol directly, research suggests that cannabis can raise “good cholesterol” levels. Moreover, a 2016 study by the Korean University of Daegu suggests that CBD influences fat browning—the conversion of unhealthy white fat into healthy brown fat.

WHAT IS CHOLESTEROL?

Cholesterol is an organic compound produced by the liver that naturally exists in our cells and is involved in synthesising vitamin D, hormones, and other substances during the digestion process. Our body produces most of the cholesterol it needs; the amount we introduce with food should only be a minimal percentage. Just like cannabis resin, fats and cholesterol do not dissolve in water, and they float in the bloodstream. Our body can reduce cholesterol molecules via small particles called lipoproteins, which can mix in with the blood and therefore maintain effective transportation. Otherwise, the fatty granules would deposit over the inner surface of our veins.

“Bad” cholesterol is an LDL (low-density lipoprotein) that can accumulate inside blood vessels, causing arteries to harden and get narrower to the point that blood can’t regularly flow anymore. “Good” cholesterol is an HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which helps in the degradation of LDL deposits. Patients usually treat this disease with blood thinners and statins, which may be life-saving and prevent future diseases, but are not always effective. They can also carry some significant side effects.

What really matters for our health is the proportion between LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. For example, you can have a low level of general cholesterol, yet at the same time a high percentage of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. As opposed, a high cholesterol value may just be a consequence of a large amount of HDL cholesterol.

Cholesterol And Cannabis

CANNABIS AND METABOLIC SYNDROME

Metabolic syndrome is a complex condition characterised by high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high abdominal fat. No surprise, it increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Researchers from the University of Miami analysed data collated from numerous surveys to understand how cannabis use influences metabolic syndrome.

The study involved over 8,000 people who were classified as having metabolic syndrome if they fit at least three of the following parameters: high glucose levels, high LDL, low HDL, hypertension, increased abdominal fat. The scientists found that 19.5% of non-smokers had metabolic syndrome, 17.5% of former smokers had the syndrome, and only 13.8% of current cannabis smokers had it. The study concludes that current cannabis use is associated with lower odds of metabolic syndrome across young and middle-aged adults in the US.

Several other studies have shown that regular cannabis users have a lower body mass index, smaller waist circumference, higher HDL levels, and reduced risk factors for diabetes. A 2013 study examined the relationship between cannabis use, cholesterol levels, glucose, and insulin, studying these factors together with the aim of determining the risk of becoming diabetic. The study showed that cannabis use was associated with a lower prevalence of diabetes.

Researchers also noted an increase in HDL cholesterol in patients who used Rimonabant, which is an anorectic anti-obesity synthetic cannabinoid drug withdrawn from the market because of its really bad side effects. As bad as it might be, Rimonabant is an inverse agonist of the CB1 cannabinoid receptor. The unexpected increase in good cholesterol caused by this synthetic cannabinoid suggests that modulating the endocannabinoid system could positively impact cholesterol levels.

As mentioned above, a few studies suggest that CBD could support normal insulin production and sugar metabolism, helping the body convert unhealthy white fat into brown fat. Excess insulin promotes the conversion of sugars into stored fat, and leads to weight gain and obesity. 

WHAT CAN WE DO TO BALANCE OUR CHOLESTEROL?

Future studies will examine the relationship between the endocannabinoid system and cholesterol balance in greater detail, hopefully leading to innovative formulas.

A healthy amount of cholesterol in the body greatly depends on your genes and your lifestyle. The evidence outlined above is still in the preclinical stages. Alongside proven methods such as diets low in saturated fat and sodium, a healthy weight, regular exercise, and not smoking, researchers are trying to determine if cannabis or specific cannabinoids could help keep cholesterol under control. Aerobic exercise like cycling has a very positive impact on cholesterol levels as it lowers the percentage of LDL and triglycerides, but increases the percentage of HDL.

It’s good to remember that smoking is probably the most unhealthy way to consume cannabis. Moreover, when it comes to diet, we can assume higher cholesterol levels with the excessive intake of animal products such as meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, and other dairy products. As such, it's important to consider cholesterol from all sides, and how it's influenced by various factors.

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