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Cannabis-infused foods are some of the strongest cannabis product out there. But, what makes the edibles high so different from inhaling cannabis? Interestingly, the answer to this question lies in how cannabis edibles are broken down in the body. For an edible to work, it has to first pass through the body’s primary detox organ, the liver. Here’s what happens in the liver when you eat edibles.

Eating cannabis vs. smoking cannabis

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Cannabis affects the body differently depending on how it is consumed. When inhaled, the smoke or vapor from the herb enters the lungs and is taken into the blood stream. It then has quick access to the brain, where it produces psychoactive effects.

Something different happens when you eat cannabis-infused goods. Before the psychoactive effects kick in, an edible treat has to pass through the entire digestive system. As a result, the psychoactive “high” from an edible takes significantly longer to kick in.

With inhalation, the experience peaks within 10 to 30 minutes. With edibles, the psychoactive effects may take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to present. The overall high from edibles lasts significantly longer as well, with effects lasting as long as four to six hours.

THC and other cannabinoids are more bioavailable with inhaled cannabis. Bioavailability measures the capacity of the body to put THC to use. With inhalation, the bioavailability of THC is between 2 and 56 percent.

The variation comes from differences in the depth of the inhale, breath holding, and the duration of the puff. For oral cannabis, the bioavailability of THC drops to 10 to 20 percent.

What happens in the liver when you eat edibles?

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You may be wondering: if oral THC is less bioavailable, why are edibles so strong? Unlike inhaled cannabis, oral cannabis is processed by the liver before it produces psychoactive effects. In the liver, THC is broken down into a smaller metabolite called 11-hydroxy-THC.

Incidentally, 11-hydroxy-THC may actually be more bioavailable than THC. The theory goes that once released into the blood stream, 11-hydroxy-THC more readily crosses what is known as the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is a membrane of cells that makes up an extra selective filter for blood that passes into the brain.

Back in the 1970s, researchers treated 20 male volunteers with either THC or 11-hydroxy-THC. The researchers observed that while both compounds produced similar psychoactive effects, the 11-hydroxy-THC kicked in more quickly. Estimates suggest that the liver transforms 100% of oral THC into it’s more potent metabolite.

The “first pass effect”

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There are some circumstances where you may not feel much of an effect from an edible. After consuming edible cannabis, the liver performs a first pass metabolism. Here, sometimes many cannabis patients and enthusiasts experience some problems.

The liver can be so good at breaking down foreign compounds that it breaks down the THC in the edible too much to produce an effect.

Often referred to as the “first pass effect”, the liver’s initial metabolism can mean that the effects of the edible won’t work. To resolve this, eating a meal prior to the edible may help. Though, this will slow down the activation time of the edible.

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