What is THC, anyway? You might have heard that THC is the primary psychoactive found in cannabis. But what does it do? And how does it work? Does it really have medical benefits, or is it all just hype? Whether you’re a long-time consumer or just interested, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about this fascinating plant product.
THC is one of many chemical compounds known as cannabinoids found inside the dried resin glands of the female cannabis flower. In the plant’s raw form, THC exists as an acid rather than the psychoactive we have come to know and love. Male cannabis plants also produce mild amounts of THC, but typically not enough to interest most people.
In organic chemistry, these cannabinoids act as secondary metabolites, supplementary chemicals produced by the plant that don’t have a direct impact on plant development or reproduction. Plants like marijuana produce these secondary metabolites in place of an internal immune system.
The potent chemicals help the plant fend off parasites, viruses, bacteria, and other natural predators. THC even seems to have anti-bacterial properties in humans. Other cannabinoids like cannabigerol (CBG), do as well. A handful of unique compounds that do kill or slow the growth of bacteria in people and plants alike.
When Chemist Rafael Mechoulam first began his research on cannabis in the early 1960s, he found himself facing one major problem: where do you legally obtain cannabis for scientific study?
The answer? The police.
Though hardly an appropriate supplier in today’s legal and political climate, the five kilos of hashish given to Mechoulam by Israeli police helped pave the way for some of the most groundbreaking findings in marijuana and biochemical research to date. Mechoulam was the first man to isolate delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Out of the 113+ individual cannabinoids found in marijuana, only one of them produces powerful, intoxicating, psychoactive effects: our good pal THC. But why?
It’s simple: shape.
THC just happens to have the right molecular structure to fit into particular landing sites on cells throughout the body, called cannabinoid receptors.
THC works by taking over cannabinoid receptor landing sites that sit on the surface of cells, especially nerve cells in the brain. From there, THC alters the chemical activity of the cell and produces a cascade of physiological changes, including the famous psychoactive “high.”
These specific receptors are part of a larger system called the endocannabinoid system.
THC was first isolated in 1964, but it wasn’t until 1988 that Dr. Allyn Howlett of Wake Forest University uncovered the binding sites for THC in the human brain. What she discovered was nothing short of revolutionary: THC was attaching itself to specific cell sites in the hippocampus (responsible for memory), the frontal cortex (where we think), and the cerebellum (responsible for movement).
These cell sites are called cannabinoid receptors, and each acts as a part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a cell receptor network that regulates a variety of bodily functions. It helps maintain homeostasis, which is a long word for optimal balance or harmony.
This receptor network sends and receives signals that facilitate more substantial and complicated chemical reactions. Certain cannabinoid receptors are highly concentrated in the central nervous system. However, these cell sites can actually be found all through the body. There are plenty in our digestive tract, our skin, and even in our reproductive organs.
As smoothly as keys fit into a lock, THC binds to the cannabinoid receptor and ignites a series of chemical reactions that causes changes in your brain and body.
When THC engages the brain, you’ll experience altered behavioural and cognitive ability. These changes aren’t necessarily negative unless you find them uncomfortable. Mostly, THC will just make you feel different than you usually do. Once you get used to how it feels to consume THC, you’ll find that you can perform all of your normal daily activities just fine.
In a way, THC is similar to trying on a new pair of glasses. It causes you to see and experience things differently.
Cognitive and behavioral changes are not the only effects of THC, however. The cannabinoid engages the immune system, quelling inflammation. It spurs appetite, triggering the release of hunger hormones, and jump-starting your metabolism. It can also have a sedative effect, making you feel blissful and sleepy.
But, how does THC actually work? It essentially takes the place of chemicals our bodies make themselves. There are a few chemicals it replaces, but the most well-known is a little molecule called anandamide.
Some may ask: If THC fits so well into these receptors, then humans must be made to consume cannabis, right?
The short answer? No. THC just happens to tap into a system already present in the body.
Once scientists managed to figure out how the body uses THC via the endocannabinoid system, it took them another five years to isolate the THC-like substance that our bodies create naturally. That compound, what can loosely be described as the human version of THC, is anandamide. Modern scientists are still struggling to figure out precisely what complicated role anandamide plays in the human body, but one critical function sets this compound apart from all others.
It didn’t seem adaptive to me to have a drug for forgetting. Memory, we understand, has great survival utility […] But why would forgetting be adaptive? I asked Mechoulam this question, and he said: ‘Well, tell me, do you really want to remember all the faces you saw on the subway in the morning?’
Anandamide helps get rid of all of the clutter, allowing you to remember only the essential things.
Understanding some of the essential functions of anandamide is immensely helpful in understanding the ways THC affects our bodies. It also sheds some light on the role of THC in treating certain psychological disorders, such as PTSD, where patients struggle to overcome the negative memories surrounding a traumatic event.
There are a few key differences between THC and anandamide. Namely, THC lasts a lot longer than our natural endocannabinoids do. Anandamide actually begins to break down in a matter of minutes after binding to a cell, which means that its effects are relatively short-lived. It seems to live long enough to tag a cell and “you’re it!” and then quickly disappears. THC’s half-life can last several days in frequent users. There’s a huge difference.
As previously explained, THC is the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana. So what’s with all the talk about cannabidiol (CBD)? CBD is the second most discussed cannabinoid in marijuana, but unlike THC, it is non-psychoactive. Surprisingly, it can also reduce the psychoactive effects of THC.
THC engages directly with cannabinoid receptors in the body. CBD doesn’t bind to the same receptors all that well. Instead, CBD works its magic by inhibiting the fatty acid amide hydroxyls (FAAH). This enzyme destroys anandamide in the body and increases the number of natural endocannabinoids present in your system.
The enzyme FAAH can no longer destroy them, so your own endocannabinoids become more abundant. There are a few other ways CBD interacts with the body, but scientists are still working out the nitty-gritty on what actually happens
As cannabis continues to gain acceptance in mainstream culture, more and more studies are coming out that bring THC’s medical value to light. Most remarkable are the findings on THC as a potential treatment for cancer. Researchers at the Complutense University of Madrid have found that THC causes tumor cells to auto-digest themselves in animal models, meaning that THC may play a vital role in drastically reducing the tumor size and prevalence.
THC synthetics are already on pharmacy shelves. Large-scale pharmaceutical companies have put out drugs like Marinol, a prescription medication that increases appetite and reduces nausea in cancer patients. Multiple Sclerosis drug Sativex is made of THC extracted from cannabis plants.
THC’s ability to fight tumors in animal models is incredible. Yet, the cannabinoid has another superpower. THC is a potent anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is an underlying factor that contributes to a whole host of modern diseases. Autoimmune diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and depression are three major health problems triggered by inflammation. THC’s potent inflammation-fighting nature is one primary reason the herb helps with such a wide variety of conditions.
Here is a brief list of conditions helped by THC. For more information on any of these specific ailments, please read the associated articles.
Additional information on how cannabis affects your health can be found here. General benefits of THC include:
As mentioned earlier, consuming THC will make you feel a bit different from your usual self. There a handful of side effects that might accompany THC. It’s important to note that not everyone has these side effects, and you may not experience all of them at once. Many of the side effects listed are strain-dependent.
You can use a tool like Leafly to find strains without side effects that you want to avoid. For many, the pleasant effects of cannabis outweigh any negatives.
You may experience the following for up to 3 hours after inhaling. These do not continue once the THC has worn off.
If ingesting cannabis via an edible, it may take anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours to fully feel the effects of THC. When the psychoactive effects begin to kick in, they will be much more potent than they are when consuming cannabis in a different form.
The immediate effects of THC will vary slightly depending on the individual cannabis strain due to factors like the total percentage of THC, and the percentage of other dominant cannabinoids present in that particular strain.
Your own body chemistry (such as your body’s ability to produce and process anandamide) will also significantly impact how you process and experience THC. For some, THC will help reduce anxiety and help create a sense of inner peace. For others, THC might have the opposite effect.
Scientists are still debating the long-term effects of THC. It’s been a grueling argument thus far, as very little research has reached firm, reliable conclusions. Below is a brief summary of the top contenders. Though, it’s important to mention that this list is just a simple summary of a complex topic. More long-term effects may appear in the future. Further, some of those listed here may be ruled out eventually as well. Here it goes:
There are a few commonly held beliefs about cannabis that science debunked in recent research. If you’re concerned about any of these supposed effects, be sure to check out the associated articles. The topics listed below are also highly controversial. Research has been going back and forth on these subjects for decades. Contrary to popular belief, cannabis:
Okay, so we’ve learned that THC is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, and we’ve learned that it acts on cannabinoid receptors to cause all kinds of effects in the body. What else do we need to know about this miracle compound?
One word: decarboxylation.
Decarboxylation happens when you apply heat to your cannabis. You can’t just eat cannabis and expect to have a psychoactive experience. In its raw plant form, THC doesn’t actually exist in a shape that will trigger a psychoactive effect in humans.
Inside marijuana resin glands, called trichomes, THC is actually found as tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa). In its acid form, it’s impossible for THCa to bind to cell receptors in our body because it’s the wrong shape. THCa has an additional carbon atom attached, and in order to fit into the proper cell receptors in our brain, you need to remove the acid group.
It may sound complicated, but really all you need is a little heat. When you smoke a joint, take a lighter to flower in a pipe, or cook cannabis on a stovetop, you are acting the part of a chemist converting raw THCa into psychoactive THC. Isn’t science fun?
Typically, when employers or other institutions test for THC in your system, they rely on urine tests that look for THC metabolite THC-COOH. How long this metabolite stays in your system depends entirely on how often you consume THC and your body’s metabolism. The more you consume, the longer it will take before it’s completely eliminated.
Generally, for occasional to light consumers, THC-COOH will be out of your system in 3-14 days. For extremely heavy consumers, it’s not uncommon to test positive 30 to 60+ days after the fact.
The best way to flush THC-COOH from your system before a urine test is simply to drink water. Drinking water dilutes your urine, lowering the total number of nanograms per milliliter. Drinking too much water, however, may spoil the sample.
Unfortunately, your body stores excess THC in fat cells, meaning that for regular consumers, it’s nearly impossible to eliminate all of the THC in your system in one sweep. For details on how to flush your system, click here.
A piece of advice? Avoid hitting the gym before taking a urine test.
In case all of this talk about THC has given you a healthy appetite for cannabis, take a look at some of these delicious THC-infused recipes:
When it comes to THC, the research summarized in this article is only the tip of the iceberg. Thus far, scientists like Rafael Mechoulam and Allyn Howlett opened our eyes to a complex biochemical system that we are only just beginning to understand.
Already, THC has shown tremendous potential as natural medicine. Research on THC opened the floodgates to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, a finding with enormous therapeutic potential. The value that THC provides to public health seems boundless. It’s time we eliminate restrictions and give people safe access to this herb.
How has THC helped you? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!