What is THC?

December 2020 – By Sandy Yanez

THC, or delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol is just one chemical compound, out of hundreds, found in the cannabis plant. Users experience heightened sensory perceptions, improvements in mood, appetite stimulation, reduced pain sensitivity and inflammation, and many more therapeutic effects.

Studies have shown that chemical compounds called cannabinoids in marijuana interact positively with each other in what is known as “the entourage effect.” The two most popular cannabinoids are THC and cannabidiol (CBD) which has similar effects to THC without the “high.” Even on its own, THC has been able to help many people de-stress, relax, and improve their quality of life.

How THC Can Affect the Body

Our brains are made up of neurons and neural circuits. To communicate with each other, neurons use neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters deliver messages by passing from one neuron to another, where it attaches itself to a special kind of molecule called a receptor. Our brains contain a special kind of receptor called an endocannabinoid receptor.

There are two primary endocannabinoid receptors that have been identified by scientists:

  • CB1 Receptors – (CB1) are primarily located in the brain and nervous system, but there are some located in other organs as well as connective tissues. CB1 is the receptor that THC likes to bond to because THC mimics an endocannabinoid we make called Anandamide (AEA). When THC activates your CB1 receptors, you feel “high” or euphoric.
  • CB2 Receptors – (CB2) are associated with anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects and has no psychoactive (high) effects. CB2 is expressed in body cells controlling immune function and, potentially, the central nervous system (CNS).

When we experience pain, stress, inflammation, fear, and other sensations, our bodies release cannabinoids that attach to the receptors to help rid us of these sensations. One endocannabinoid our bodies produce called Anandamide (AEA), affects areas in the brain that control pleasure, focus, movement, memory, time, and sensory perception. Because THC has a similar chemical composition to anandamide, THC can attach itself to cell receptors in the body, primarily in the brain, and alter brain communication.

THC stimulates cells in the brain to release dopamine, creating euphoria. It also interferes with how information is processed in the hippocampus, which is part of the brain responsible for forming new memories. However, overuse of THC will overwhelm the endocannabinoid system, throwing it out of balance. THC also affects parts of the brain that make a person feel good, but over time THC can change how the EC system works in these brain areas, which can lead to problems with memory, addiction, and mental health. 

How Cannabis Produces THC

The cannabis plant consists of over 113 cannabinoids cur

rently being researched, there are many more still unexplored, each with varying and complementary effects to each other. Cannabinoids are primarily found in the resin secreted by glands of the marijuana plant, but also in very small amounts, on leaves and stems. THC, however, is not normally found on the raw cannabis plant. For this reason, people won’t experience psychoactive effects when consuming raw cannabis.

Cannabinoid acids must be decarboxylated, or activated, by being heated. Heating can occur when cannabis has been left out in the sun, exposed to heat, or via smoking and vaping cannabis.

What are the Effects of THC?

After THCA has been decarboxylated or heated, it converts to THC. When consumed, THC enters the bloodstream and affects the brain. By assuming the role of anandamide, THC can, for example, release more dopamine to elicit feelings of euphoria. This can help patients suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders.

As mentioned above, THC can also reduce activity in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory formation and retention. This function has helped people with PTSD reduce frightening memories.

THC has sedating effects making some people feel relaxed and drowsy. THC has been used to induce sleep for people who suffer from insomnia. Patients have used THC to treat pain and inflammatory conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and other chronic pain conditions.

Acute pain like headaches and migraines have also been alleviated by THC. In some patients, THC has been used to stimulate appetite and aid with nausea. New research continues to uncover the far-reaching effects of THC.

Dosage is Key

The effects of cannabis can differ greatly from person to person and are often dependent on the dosage and delivery methods. Why is this? Cannabinoids are biphasic in nature. Basically, this means that a low dose may give you a completely different effect compared to a higher dose.

A high dose of cannabis can produce the opposite effects of a low dose. For example, for those with anxiety, low doses of THC have been documented to reduce anxiety, but high doses can increase anxiety. Another example, patients who use cannabis for pain relief at lower dosages, obtain relief from their chronic pain, but higher doses resulted in a rise in their pain sensitivity.

Optimal THC dosing, which is a low to moderate dose, can result in relief for pain, nausea, and a feeling of euphoria. Some users also experienced a heightened state of creativity, elation, and sleepiness.

Side Effects of THC

Despite having little conclusive evidence, smoking THC has been shown to worsen respiratory conditions including bronchitis. This is due to the combustion of charred plant material than the actual consumption of THC.

Some patients with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can exhibit paranoia or psychosis after using cannabis. Even first-time users can consume too much THC and feel dry mouth, dry eyes, headaches, and anxiety. These symptoms subside after a few hours.

THC content and effects will vary by marijuana strain and person. Other cannabinoids and chemical compounds found in marijuana can alter the effects. For example, THC products that contain CBD can create a more balanced experience that some users prefer. Although there is no perfect strain or product for every person, users can experiment to find which strain or product provides the desired THC effects.