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.
What is delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)?
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 is found 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 human. Other cannabinoids like cannabigerol (CBG), do as well. A handful of the unique compounds are found to kill or slow the growth of bacteria in people and plants alike.
The discovery of THC
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.
The science behind THC
Out of the 85+ 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 special binding sites on cells throughout the body. These specific sections are now known to be parts of a larger, endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system and THC
Though THC was first isolated in 1964, 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 special 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 larger, more complicated chemical reactions. Certain cannabinoid receptors are most 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 cannabinoid receptor and ignites a series of chemical reactions. This 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 changes unless you find them uncomfortable. Mostly, THC will just make you feel different than you normally 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 in a different way.
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.
Anandamide: Our natural THC
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 THC is used by the body 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 exactly 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 important things.
Understanding some of the essential functions of anandamide is immensely helpful to understanding the ways THC affects our bodies and 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. This means that its effects are fairly 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. This is a huge difference.
THC vs. CBD
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. Rather, CBD works its magic by inhibiting the enzyme fatty acid amide hydroxyls (FAAH), which is the enzyme that destroys anandamide in the body. This increases the amount 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
Medicinal value of THC
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 actually 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 major 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.
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Cancer: Including brain, breast, pediatric cancers, skin cancers, and more.
- Crohn’s, IBS, IBD
- Chronic and neuropathic pain
- Multiple sclerosis and other muscular disorders
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Sleep apnea
- Tourette syndrome
Additional information on how cannabis affects your health can be found here. General benefits of THC include:
- Stress relief
- Improved mood
- General pain relief
- Social bonding
Short-term effects of THC
As mentioned earlier, consuming THC will make you feel a bit different from your normal 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.
- A sense of uplift and energy
- Pain relief
- Heavy-bodied sensation
- Red, dry eyes
- Dry mouth
- Increased heart rate
- Skewed sense of time – typically time seems to slow down.
- Poor spatial memory
- Decreased body temperature
- Anxiety, paranoia
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 an opposite effect.
Long-term effects of THC
Scientists are still debating the long-term effects of THC. It’s been a gruelling 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 be confirmed in the future. Further, some of those listed here may be eventually ruled out as well. Here it goes:
- Alterations in memory: One study has shown that heavy cannabis users have decreased verbal memory over time. Herb-lovers lost an average of 1 word for every 5 years they consumed THC.
- Bronchitis-like symptoms: This is not from THC, but from smoking. If you smoke a lot for a long period of time, you may experience some lung irritation. These symptoms go away if you stop smoking or switch to a different consumption method. Vaporizers and edibles are great options for lung health.
- Tolerance: When you consume a lot of THC regularly for long periods of time, your body develops a tolerance to the compound. This makes the herb less effective, and you’ll have to consume more and more of it to see results. When this happens, take a tolerance break.
- Apathy: This is related to tolerance. If you use cannabis excessively over long periods of time, your body stops being completely responsive to the herb. This can cause you to feel a little blank or emotionally numb. Taking tolerance break fixes and prevents this problem.
- Trouble for those with psychotic disorders: If you are predisposed to a psychotic disorder, you might want to reconsider THC. Research has found that folks with a genetic vulnerability for schizophrenia and psychosis can develop symptom onset earlier when they regularly consume THC.
There are a few commonly held beliefs about cannabis that have been mitigated 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:
- Has not been linked to increases in lung cancer
- Is not attributed to death
- Has not been shown to cause brain damage in adults
Why do you heat THC?
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, cook cannabis on a stovetop, you are acting the part of a chemist converting raw THCa into psychoactive THC. Isn’t science fun?
How to get rid of THC in the body
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 individual 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 completely 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 a natural medicine. Research on THC opened the floodgates to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, a finding with tremendous 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!