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Learn | 09.24.2022

What Happens In The Liver When You Eat Edibles?

Have you ever wondered why the effects of smoking and eating cannabis are different? Here's how the liver changes the high.

Cannabis-infused foods are some of the strongest cannabis products out there.

But what makes the edibles high so different from inhaling cannabis? Why exactly do edibles leave you with such an intense body high?

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.

The main reason why edibles are so strong is due to the liver’s reaction to THC, the primary psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis. So, in order to find out why edibles can be so strong, here’s what happens in the liver when you eat them.

Eating Cannabis Vs. Smoking Cannabis

Cannabis affects the body differently depending on how it’s consumed.

When inhaled, the smoke or vapor from the herb enters the lungs and is taken into the bloodstream. It then has quick access to the brain, where it produces the psychoactive effects we know and love.

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. It depends on factors like:

For oral cannabis, the bioavailability of THC drops to 10 to 20 percent. Sound a little confusing? See the explanation below.

What Happens In The Liver When You Eat Edibles?

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. Interestingly, 11-hydroxy-THC may actually be more bioavailable than THC.

The theory goes that once released into the bloodstream, 11-hydroxy-THC easily 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 faster. Estimates suggest that the liver transforms 100% of oral THC into its more potent metabolite.

The "First-Pass Effect"

There are some circumstances where you may not feel much of an effect from an edible.

After consuming edible cannabis, the liver performs the first-pass effect on the metabolism. This is a phenomenon where the liver doesn’t let edibles produce their effects.

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.

If you want to try making your own edibles, see this easy recipe on how to make cannabutter fast.

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