It’s no secret that the United States has a serious problem with Diabetes. According to the CDC, 29 million Americans are currently living with the disease, and a further 86 million are at risk. Most current treatment options include changes to diet and increased exercise, but there may soon be another treatment option: medical cannabis.
A group of researchers from Central Queensland University in Australia have recently shown that THC may help protect diabetics from certain types of heart disease. Increased blood sugar levels caused by diabetes can put cells in a state of redox stress, which can cause the muscles of the heart to thicken and grow stiff. If the muscle walls are too thick, they are unable to relax properly, and therefore can’t draw in as much blood. It also makes it more difficult for the heart to push blood back out; essentially, the heart is working harder to do less, leading to a whole host of negative effects on a person’s health. In this study, it was shown that activation of cannabinoid receptors by THC led to protection against redox stress and increased cardiovascular health in diabetic rats.
The researchers used rats as their model of choice because their physiology closely replicates that of humans. First, they separated their rats into two groups, and injected one group with a chemical known to induce diabetes. Next, they treated half of the animals in each group with daily doses of THC, delivered by an injection in the body cavity. Data was collected from each of these four groups over the course of the nine-week study.
Blood was drawn from each animal once a week and tested for various markers of disease progression and basic metabolic function. The researchers found that the diabetic rats had increased blood glucose levels and higher levels of redox stress markers, as was expected. The diabetic rats also consumed more water and had reduced body mass, both of which are common symptoms of diabetes. Daily doses of THC were able to reduce blood glucose and redox stress marker levels, reduce water consumption, and increase weight gain for the diabetic rats. It should be noted that while the THC improved their overall condition, it did not bring them in line with their normal littermates. Still, this data suggests that THC can lead to an overall improvement of the diabetic state.
At the end of the nine-week period, measurements were taken of the cardiovascular system to assess overall condition and function. The group studied three different tissues: the blood vessels leading into the heart, the vessels leading out of the heart, and the heart itself. As expected, the hearts of the diabetic rats were larger than those found in their counterparts, and had thicker muscle walls as a result of the increased redox stress. Diabetic rats receiving daily THC treatments had slightly increased heart size and muscle thickness, but showed a significant improvement compared to rats that didn’t receive THC. This suggests that daily doses of THC can have a protective effect against the progressive heart failure that often affects diabetics.
It’s currently unknown how THC is able to have this protective effect, but the authors offer two potential answers. One is the release of a naturally occurring vasodilator, nitric oxide. Diabetics are known to produce less nitric oxide, a result replicated in this study. The THC treatments increased nitric oxide production in the diabetic rats, possibly by stimulation of the cannabinoid receptors. The other possibility is that the reduced blood glucose levels reflect an improvement of the diabetic state, although the authors point out that similar studies have not reported this same result. More work must be done in order to answer this question.
While these results are promising, they must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, a rat is not a human; therefore, well-designed clinical trials will be necessary in order to determine if THC or other activators of the cannabinoid receptors will have the same protective effects. Still, this research adds one more potential therapeutic use of cannabis to the ever-growing list.