When most people think of cannabis, they think of the plant’s psychoactive effects. Marijuana strains of the plant can be consumed to produce feelings of euphoria and a sense of relaxation.
In April 2017, Yahoo News and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion released a report looking at marijuana use in the United States. An estimated 55 million people in the U.S. use marijuana. Half of all Americans have tried the drug. And close to 35 million people self-identify as regular marijuana users.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, is the compound responsible for the cannabis plant’s mind-altering effects. In addition to these effects, the health benefits of THC are being increasingly recognized. Though still largely controversial, medical marijuana has been legalized in 33 states and other states are in the process of making it more widely available.
Here’s what you need to know about THC and how it relates to cannabidiol, another prominent member of the cannabis compound family.
So what is THC?
THC is one of at least 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis. It is the most common compound in the cannabis plant and the most powerful. It was first isolated in 1964 by organic chemist Raphael Mechoulam at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
The compound is only present in female cannabis plants known as marijuana plants. They are made up of a stem with deep roots, fan-shaped leaves and flowers. The flowers are the part of the plant attributed to its psychoactive effects. These flowers are high in THC containing resin. Specifically, the buds contain sugar leaves, coated with trichomes that contain the compound.
THC can also be synthesized. In 1985, the Federal Drug Administration approved a synthetic form of the compound called marinol. In 2015, biochemists in Germany announced they had synthesized the chemical from a genetically engineered strain of yeast. Additionally, since the early 2000s, synthetic cannabinoids have been created for recreational use.
How THC affects the body
The chemical structure of THC closely resembles that of anandamide, a naturally occuring cannabinoid found in the brain. For this reason, the compound is able to interact with the endocannabinoid system in much of the same ways anandamide does. The endocannabinoid system is involved in regulating a variety of physiological and cognitive processes including appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory.
Anandamide works as a neurotransmitter sending chemical messages between nerve cells in the central nervous system. Neurotransmitters are responsible for feelings, senses, memory, concentration, movement, coordination, and other brain functions. Anandamide is associated with happiness and pleasure. Suboptimal levels of anandamide can increase fear and anxiety.
Since THC is similar to this cannabinoid, it is able to interact with neurons and cannabinoid receptors in the body in similar ways. For example, by interacting with cannabinoid receptors, THC can stimulate neurons in the brain to produce higher than usual levels of dopamine. This creates the feeling of euphoria produced by smoking or ingesting THC.
However, THC can also produce a number of side effects in the body. The compound is able to alter functions in the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex of the brain and can hinder a person’s ability to perform complicated tasks. Similarly, THC can alter how the cerebellum and basal ganglia of the brain function. This can slow a person’s reaction time, which is why people are prohibited from driving under the influence of marijuana. Other side effects include lethargy, paranoia, anxiety, dry mouth, red eyes, and increased appetite.
THC and CBD
CBD ranks second to THC in terms of abundance in the cannabis plant. It is usually produced from hemp plant varieties of cannabis which, unlike marijuana plants, contain very low amounts of THC. For example, at Genius Labs we work only with plants containing zero or less than three percent THC.
Like THC, CBD interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system to produce a number of health benefits. It has been found to reduce anxiety, inflammation and pain, without the psychoactive effects of THC.
Additionally, CBD is actually believed to be capable of blocking the mind-altering effects of THC. CBD has been found to enhance the pain killing properties inherent in THC while also reducing the paranoia that can come from the compound. Cannabis strains that have been bred to contain nearly equal amounts of THC and CBD have been shown to be highly effective at reducing pain.
All of the 400 plus compounds in the cannabis plant, including CBD and THC, work together to create a particular effect on the body that has been called the entourage effect. This is because scientific evidence suggests medicinal substances are more effective when taken in their whole and natural state. For this reason, many argue that consuming the cannabis plant in whole is the only way to facilitate full absorption.
There remains disagreement over which combinations of THC and CBD are most effective. For this reason, cannabis and hemp product manufacturers offer an array of products with varying levels of these compounds. For example, Genius Labs offers full spectrum hemp oil that harnesses the benefits of the entourage effect while containing minimal amounts of THC. Conversely, distillate CBD contains greatly reduced amounts of other cannabinoids and CBD isolate is the purest form of of CBD, containing none of the other cannabinoids found in the plant.
Individuals should consult their doctor to determine which combination is best for them.