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Cannabis has all sorts of effects in your body. But, did you know that how your body uses the herb differently depending on how you ingest it? For those who want the nitty-gritty details about different consumption methods, here’s a written explanation on how the post popular cannabis ingestion styles affect the body differently. 

Methods of cannabis ingestion

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First and foremost, it’s important to know that cannabis engages the body via the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a large regulatory network that maintains optimum balance in the body.

The endocannabinoid system plays a role in many things, including mood, motor skills, pain, pleasure, appetite, reproduction, immune function, and sleep. Cannabis engages the endocannabinoid system by connecting with special cell receptors, acting like a key that fits into a lock.

For more information on the endocannabinoid system, check out the full article here. Otherwise, here is a brief summary on how different consumption methods engage the body.

1. Smoking

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When you smoke cannabis, you use heat to alter the chemical structure of cannabinoids. Through heat, you create psychoactive THC. As is obvious to anyone who has ever smoked cannabis, the smoke you inhale is what contains the compound that gives you a “high”.

Smoking, however, has a few setbacks. Though THC will make it into your bloodstream and thereby travel into the brain and around your body, a good portion of the psychoactive connects with cannabinoid receptors in your mouth and in the tissues that are directly exposed to the smoke itself.

If you need really high doses of cannabis for therapeutic purposes (say, for those with cancer), it is very challenging to reach a full therapeutic dose of the herb.

Though smoking cannabis has yet to be associated with increased lung cancer risk, smoke does do microscopic damage to the lungs over time. This can cause inflammation, cough, mucus production, and bronchitis-like symptoms.

All in all, smoking is not the healthiest decision a person can make. Though, the symptoms will clear up if you stop smoking.

2. Vaporization

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For those who like the fast relief from smoking but want to avoid the potential risks, vaporization is a nice option.

Vaporization heats cannabis to the point that the cannabis resin is released, but does not heat the herb enough to burn the plant material.

This eliminates potentially carcinogenic ash and reduces the smoke-derived free radicals that cause damage to cells and spur aging. THC and other cannabinoids engage the central nervous system and enter the bloodstream quite readily with vaporization, but you may still struggle to reach a therapeutic dose of cannabis for certain conditions.

With vaporization, you’re still limited to inhalation as the primary method of getting cannabis into your system. When you inhale cannabis, the bioavailability of THC averages about 30%. That means that you can use about 30% of the THC you consume.

Further, inhaled cannabis goes directly from the lungs to the bloodstream to the brain. Other methods like edible cannabis force the THC to be metabolized in a different way, causing different effects in your body.

3. Edibles

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Edible cannabis is one of the strongest delivery methods out there. Unlike inhaled cannabis, edible cannabis is metabolized by the liver. This means that more THC is converted into usable forms by the body. When you eat an edible, the body produces more of a certain metabolite called 11-hydroxy-THC.

This THC metabolite is four to five times more psychoactive than THC. It also can cross the blood-brain barrier more easily. This means that you’ll get one powerful high from an edible.

However, the bioavailability of THC is edibles is lacking. In fact, the bioavailability of oral THC is only about 4% to 12%. That means the majority of the THC you’re consuming is null. When you eat an edible, instead of getting high or feeling relief from the THC itself, the majority of what you consume is transformed into the more powerful metabolite.

One study found that up to 100% of THC can be converted into a stronger metabolite when consumed orally. Other studies put this number at 50%. This is why edibles are so much more potent and longer lasting than inhaled cannabis.

Of course, to make edibles work, you need to decarboxylate (heat) your cannabis before consuming. Heating cannabis improves the bioavailability of the psychoactive.

4. Ingestible cannabis oils and tinctures

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If baked goods aren’t your thing, cannabis oils are another great option. Medical cannabis oil is a highly concentrated cannabis extraction.

Basically, a solvent is used to separate the essential oils of the cannabis plant from the plant material itself. The end product is a highly concentrated, cannabinoid-filled product.

Medical cannabis oil and most tinctures are typically made by using alcohol as a solvent. Plant material is heated with the solvent, activating the cannabinoids and sluffing off the medicinal resin.

Tinctures and alcohol-based methods can provide an ultra high dose of cannabis to those in need. If you’re hoping to microdose, tinctures and oils are great for that as well.

However, the ideal way to consume cannabis is with a little bit of fat. Cannabis resin itself is made of lipids (fats) and cannabinoids are fat-soluble, meaning that they are broken down by fat and not water.

Infusing cannabis extract with a carrier oil like coconut or MCT (medium-chain triglyceride) oil can improve the bioavailability of the product.

Some states and suppliers now offer liposomal cannabis oils, though they can be difficult to find. Liposomal oils ensure that that the medicinal cannabinoids are encased in fat, which produces a faster delivery and enables your cells to absorb more cannabinoids and put them to use.

5. Raw cannabis

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Unlike all of the other methods of consumption, consuming cannabis raw is the only way to preserve cannabinoid acids.

Prior to heating, THC is actually found as delta9-tetrahydrocannabinoilic acid (THCA). Other cannabinoids are also found in their acid form as well.

There are two things that convert cannabinoid acids into their “active” forms: heat and age. The longer your dried bud sits around and the longer the flower matures on the cannabis plant, the more cannabinoid acids change molecular structure. These changes affect the way the compounds interact with the body.

Similarly, applying any sort of heat transforms these acids into a slightly different molecule. For example, nonpsychoactive THCA becomes psychoactive THC.

When you consume raw cannabis, you can consume hundreds of times more cannabinoids than you can when you heat the herb. This is because the raw, cannabinoid acids are used differently in the body and do not directly engage the cannabinoid receptors in the same way that the psychoactive substance does.

In fact, a rodent study examining oral THCA consumption have failed to detect any psychoactive THC. Rather, metabolites of the acid seemed to stay in acid from throughout the process. More studies on the benefits of THCA and how it works in the body are sorely needed.

The most common way of consuming raw cannabis is through juices and smoothies.

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Delilah Butterfield

Delilah Butterfield is a Pacific Northwest native with a passion for cannabis and natural health. Contact her on Twitter @delilahbfield.
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