What does THC do?

Updated by Marc Lewis
Written by Erik Neilson
Shelby Ireland, Unsplash

Between the rising CBD industry and a growing push for marijuana legalization sweeping the United States, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)—a compound found within hemp (in very small amounts)—has become more well-known than perhaps ever in the past. 

While most people who are familiar with THC recognize it as the chemical responsible for creating the “high” associated with marijuana use, there’s a lot more to tetrahydrocannabinol than euphoria.

As research in parts of the world such as Israel continues to go deeper into how it truly affects the mind and body, it’s becoming clear that getting high is just one use for THC. People are also starting to realize CBD oil may change or improve the effects of THC—but more on that later.

What is THC?

At its simplest, it’s one of many molecules called cannabinoids—a chemical compound found within the cannabis plant. These molecules interact with receptors throughout the body and brain, leading to a multitude of different effects. 

While dozens of cannabinoids have been identified, THC is most well-known for two main reasons—its abundance within the plant and the euphoric high it can give users.

It was actually isolated in its molecular form over 50 years ago by an Israeli chemist named Raphael Mechoulam. This was a major step in the direction of identifying additional cannabinoids, as well as the body’s cannabis receptors and endocannabinoid system, which naturally produces THC-like compounds as a way to maintain homeostasis within the body. 

Both humans and animals have receptor systems which allow for the molecule to bind to via a group of specialized signaling chemicals receptors and metabolic enzymes. It’s a symbiotic relationship between plant and animal, as cannabinoids second metabolites which don’t actually have a role in the cannabis plant’s development.

Effects of THC

Even for those who are familiar with THC and the effects it can provide, the vast majority do not understand how it actually works when introduced to the body and mind. The functionality of THC begins as the molecule binds to cannabinoid receptors which are found within the brain and nervous system, causing the familiar “high” associated with marijuana use.

In many ways, the efficacy of THC when it interacts with the human body is somewhat of a fluke byproduct of evolution. Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans evolved to interact with and even naturally produce certain cannabinoids such as 2AG and anandamide. Most runners know this as the chemical component responsible for leading to a “runner’s high”—a wave of euphoria often experienced after a significant amount of cardiovascular exercise has been sustained.

As our bodies learned to better interact with natural cannabinoids like anandamide, the same system eventually became responsible for the effects of THC and additional cannabinoids.

THC is one of at least 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis.

What Is a THC “High?”

One of the most unique aspects of THC is just how different its effects can be from one person to another. Though generally short-term in length, THC may elicit feelings of calm and wellbeing in certain individuals, while spiking anxiety levels in others due to the potential intensity of its effects. This comes down not only to specific body chemistries, but also to the concentration of THC and other elements (terpene profiles, for example) of a particular strain.

Effects often elicited from THC in both small and large doses can include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Relaxation
  • Sedation
  • Euphoria
  • Pain Relief
  • Energy Boost
  • Memory Impairment
  • Drowsiness
  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Dry Mouth
  • Red Eyes
  • Feelings of Happiness
  • Uncontrollable Laughter
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety / Panic

As stated above, the specific set of effects felt from ingesting THC can vary significantly depending upon the type of strain, percentage of THC present, and individual body chemistry. In many cases, however, perceived strain effects can be attributed to marketing and antiquated schools of thought, such as indica strains resulting in a “couch-lock” high, with sativas being “racy” and energetic in nature.

Read More about high-CBD strains of hemp

Medical Benefits of THC

Due to federal laws and regulations, cannabis research remains in its early stages, with a great deal more to learn about as time progresses. It’s likely that future research will not only further explain how THC and other cannabinoids work in tandem with each other, but also how these compounds might play into potential use cases in the medical field.

Currently, evidence exists which identifies THC as an effective molecule in treating such ailments as PTSD, chronic pain, insomnia, migraines, glaucoma, appetite loss, and much more.

With new research emerging on a regular basis, this is just the beginning of learning more about the capabilities inherent within THC.

This is one of the reasons why cannabis products, including those that use medical marijuana and those with Cannabidiol (CBD), are in demand.

People are looking for medical cannabis with and without the psychoactive effects of high-THC strains. They see cannabis as valid alternative to FDA approved prescriptions that have serious side effects.

How Is THC Different from CBD?

The CBD market has grown exponentially over the course of just the past few years, with new companies popping up seemingly every day. While still an unregulated industry, CBD is legal across the country and is used by people of all walks of life to find relief from pain, anxiety, insomnia, and other conditions. 

In comparison to THC, however, the main difference comes down to the perceived effects of each. While THC is capable of producing strong moments of euphoria that can at times be overwhelming for certain users, CBD doesn’t elicit any intoxicating effects at all.

The reason? THC activates CB1 receptors in the brain—the catalyst for creating a “high”—while CBD does not.

A far more subtle compound, CBD may bring relief from pain, anxiety, and inflammation—all without resulting in any type of high at all.

How THC Interacts with Other Cannabinoids

THC and CBD may seem like polar opposites in the effects they lend to users, but the relationship between the two is exceedingly difficult to ignore at this point. 

In ratios of 20:1 CBD:THC, the minuscule amount of THC present joins other cannabinoids found in the plant like CBG and CBN in promoting a more holistic delivery of CBD to the body. This has been coined the “Entourage Effect,” meaning the whole of a full-spectrum product is better than the sum of its parts.

For this and many other reasons, full-spectrum CBD oil is typically recommended over products made with CBD isolate, which strips out the additional cannabinoids and keeps the CBD from operating at peak performance levels.

The Bottom Line

As research into the effects of THC and how it interacts with other cannabinoids such as CBD continues to emerge, chances are an entirely new assortment of use cases will materialize. Until then, however, it’s safe to say that THC is an incredibly unique molecule that most certainly has strong effects on the brain and body. When harnessed and used with intention, the possibilities are enormous.

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