The Complete Guide to Understanding THC
Even as a beginner, someone who is only discovering the many benefits of cannabis, one term you have come across is THC. Almost any product that you came across – buds, edibles, oils, and more – prominently indicates the concentration level. At the very least, you have come to understand its significance as being related to potency. The truth, though, is that it is far more than that. Once you dig deeper, not only do you see how it benefits you recreationally and medically but also how to use this information to your advantage.
What Is THC?
THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, Δ9-THC, or delta-9-THC) belongs to a unique family of compounds called cannabinoids, of which it is only one of over 100 identified thus far. In raw plants, it exists first as THC-acid (THCA) – an inactive, non-psychoactive state and converted to THC – the active, psychoactive form when heated to a certain temperature range for a period of time.
For the purpose of this article, we will refer to THC for easier reading and understanding.
For cannabis plants, THC serves numerous protective roles against threats and invaders. Not against humans, though, as it is its psychoactive and medicinal properties that make us exploit the plants.
The production of THC occurs primarily in glands called trichomes and is found mostly in cannabis flowers. These glands secrete resins filled with cannabinoids and terpenes. Both Sativa and Indica species produce THC in concentrations greater than other compounds. Hemp is the exception as it produces higher CBD levels and insignificant amounts of THC.
Once inhaled ingested, THC enters the bloodstream through the lungs or digestive tract. It then crosses the blood-brain-barrier to eventually bind with receptors, triggering responses that alter cognitions, sensations, and perceptions. The significant short-term health effects of THC include:
- Euphoria and a sense of wellbeing
- Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
- Enhanced sensory experiences (sight, taste, smell, and sound)
- Fatigue, confusion, and impaired memory
- Impaired motor functioning
- Anxiety, fear, or panic
THCA and Decarboxylation
As alluded to earlier, cannabis plants produce THCA. In this form, it has no value recreationally. Recent studies, however, suggest that it may have therapeutic properties.
If the buds (dried and cured) contain THCA, why does it get you high when you roll it into a joint and smoke?
The answer is decarboxylation.
Once you light up the joint, the heat converts THCA into THC – on the fly. The same thing also happens with vaping and dabbing.
Decarboxylation also occurs naturally. Over time, temperature, light, and storage conditions play a role in the conversion process.
Legal Weed Labels and Total THC
When you buy legal cannabis in Canada, you may see a label indicating “Total THC”. It refers to both THCA and THC, of which THC would be significantly lower as most of the THCA has yet to be converted.
The small level of THC represents the amount decarboxylated by natural process. On the other hand, the concentration of THCA in the label tells you the expected THC level after the decarboxylation process.
Cannabis products in Canada express total THC in a percentage range or in terms of milligrams per gram (mg/g). For example, Lemon Z comes with a total THC concentration of 19%-27%. It can also be expressed as 170-230 mg/g (remember there is 1000 mg in a gram) Total THC = THCA x 0.877 + THC.
Now that you understand the basics behind THC, you may be wondering how this one compound produces such widespread effects on the human body and mind. The answer lies in the existence of an ancient physiological system call the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
The ECS, comprising receptors, ligands, and enzymes, is a lipid signaling system that exists just about everywhere in the human body. They produce effects when the correct ‘ligand’ activates the receptors. Think of the receptors as locks and the ligands as keys.
There are two primary cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. Once the key (ligand) activates a receptor, it produces physiological effects. Without going into too much detail, the primary role of these receptors is to modulate activity. The activation of the ECS in the nervous system leads to reduced electrochemical signaling. It is important to remember that these receptors are found all over the nervous system, and so they serve as broad moderators of the nervous system.
Enzymes ensure that the balance of ligands is kept in check. They also help create and subsequently break down the ligands. The ligands that our body creates are called endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids). Endogenous describes how they produced naturally inside our body, as opposed to phytocannabinoids produced by plants.
Combined, all of these cannabinoids share certain structural similarities, which explains how they all interact with the ECS. Phytocannabinoids mimic natural endocannabinoids, and this is why they produce physiological effects.
How THC Impacts the ECS
THC is known to primarily interact with CB1 receptors, many of which are inside our brain and nervous system. It is similar enough to one specific endocannabinoid – anandamide – that it produces the same effects. Hence, it should be no surprise that anandamide is called the “bliss” hormone, as it is associated with euphoria.
One example of the natural production of anandamide is the “Runner’s High,” which produces euphoria, sedation, relaxation, and stimulates hunger. This neurobiological “reward” is a response to exercise and is thought to be one way our bodies support us getting exercise.
As you can see from that list of effects, they sound a lot like the impacts of THC. And this makes perfect sense because THC functions like anandamide inside our body through our ECS. Consuming THC produces similar physiological rewards without having to exercise.
Unlike with anandamide, however, THC consumption is not carefully controlled and regulated by our internal physiology. This fact leads us into a conversation about the effects of THC and topics like dosing and the biphasic effect.
The Effects of THC
THC is lipophilic, which describes how it mixes with other fats or oils but does not mix well with water. Once THC is absorbed into our bloodstream, it rapidly disperses throughout the body and is also stored in fat cells. THC in the body produces significant effects, but much more so in the brain.
As mentioned, THC compounds can cross the blood-brain-barrier and enter our nervous system from the bloodstream. It is here inside the brain where CB1 receptors abound. We learned how these receptors are involved in the ECS’s regulation of chemical and electrical signaling. THC can function like anandamide and act upon these receptors in impactful ways.
Dosing and the Biphasic effect
Unlike anandamide, our body does not control the production of THC. Dosing is critical here as it takes time for our body to process and removes excess THC compounds. The amount of THC inside our body impacts our symptoms and side effects.
To fully understand THC, it is helpful to understand the biphasic nature of it. Biphasic describes how a low dose of something may decrease a specific symptom, but a larger dose can reverse this pattern and increase that symptom. This is why small amounts of THC appear to alleviate anxiety, but large quantities increase it.
Ultimately, this means that it is our responsibility to manage the amount of THC we consume. Over time we develop tolerance as our bodies learn to process THC compounds more quickly for removal. For novice consumers, this is why the advice “start low and go slow” is so important.
Here at Weed Me, we provide a range of strains with different strengths to meet your needs. Check out our award-winning cross between Jack Herer and Cinderella 99, called Cindy Jack, for a 17-21% THC strain. Want more punch? Our Garlic Jelly comes in at 20-25% THC with a spicy and potent aroma.
THC in Summary
THC is a cannabinoid produced by cannabis plants that can mimic our natural endocannabinoids. While it is only one of these cannabinoids, it is the most prominent of the bunch because it is primarily responsible for the cannabis high. That said, we learned that dried flower contains more THCA compounds, which first require heat for decarboxylation to create THC compounds.
It is through this mimicking of anandamide that THC can produce such widespread impacts through the human body. While THC can act upon CB1 receptors in the brain to create a similar result to the runner’s high, it can also lead to unwanted effects. The importance of dosing is pivotal for ensuring we avoid adverse biphasic effects.
THC can produce euphoria and relaxation while enhancing our sensations and perceptions. The dose and our personal tolerance moderate these effects. Ensure you stay within your tolerance level and go slow when increasing your dose to avoid a biphasic reversal of the positive effects of THC.