THC health benefits? Here is what we know.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most famous of all the cannabinoids, known as a psychoactive compound found to naturally grow in a plant. But what actually is the THC molecule and what are its medical benefits?

THC comes with psychoactive effects. THC carries a different set of effects, benefits, and complexities than CBD.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably heard a lot about CBD. You’ve probably also heard cannabis is bad for you because of the THC. We’ve dug through the evidence to show what the science really says.

What should a person expect medically from THC? There’s plenty of information out there but few say much about THC’s benefits — unlike CBD. Here’s an overview of what medical experts say about THC and whether it lives up to its medical claims.

THC (also called tetrahydrocannabinol) was first isolated in 1969 by Raphael Mechoulam and Yechiel Gaoni at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Although cannabis is legal for medical use in more than half of the states of the United States, no products have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Most of the early research has focused on showing how bad THC is for health, whereas CBD is recognized for its medicinal purposes. In the past, cannabis research often mixed THC with CBD to treat chronic pain, so most research failed to talk directly about THC’s benefits over CBD.

In April 2014, the American Academy of Neurology found evidence supporting the effectiveness of the cannabis extracts in treating symptoms of multiple sclerosis and pain. A 2015 review confirmed that medical cannabis was effective for treating spasticity and chronic pain.

THC Chemistry 101

Female cannabis plants contain at least 113 cannabinoids. Of course, everything begins at the electron, proton, and neutron levels. The diagram below shows cannabis at its subatomic level as moving bound particles.

This is what THC looks like as a floating chemical compound.

THC is essentially the strong psychoactive part of cannabis. This carbon-oxygen-hydrogen (C-21, H-30, O-2) compound is found in high concentrations in Cannabis sativa and less-potent hemp plants. Sometimes manufacturers mix it in trace amounts of CBD, the non-psychoactive chemical in cannabis that offer medical benefits without the high. Cannabidiol (CBD) is thought to be the major anti-convulsant that helps people with multiple sclerosis. It’s the THC that gives us a dopamine-heightening high.

This is how it looks when you show the chemical links.

Both CBD and THC have the same chemical structure. They both have 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and two atoms of oxygen. But it’s in how those atoms are arranged that make all the difference. Below is a video of the arrangement of CBD and THC atoms.

Then there are other compound combinations released when cannabis is burned. Cannabichromene (CBC) helps, for example, as an anti-inflammatory to help contribute to the pain-killing effect of cannabis.

How it works

In the Cannabis plant, THC begins as an ‘acid,’ mainly called tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA). When raw cannabis is heated, THCA is decarboxylated to produce THC. (If you bite into raw cannabis, you’ll also notice cannabis has a bitter taste — that’s the THCA.)

THC has a bioavailability of 10–35% when inhaled compared to 6–20% when oral (eating or drinking). The actions of THC come from its contact with cannabinoid receptor CB1, found mainly in the central nervous system, and the CB2-receptor expressed as immune system cells.

THC is a molecule that attaches itself to body fat, which can end up in adipose tissue (fat) in the brain and body. THC, like other cannabinoids, contains phenols that act as a mild antioxidant that protects neuron cells from degrading, offsetting the effects of glutamate-induced excitotoxicity.

THC is like the body’s own endocannabinoids (anandamide and AG-2).
THC is more powerful with our own body’s receptors than our body’s natural endocannabinoid molecules. In fact, once you’re body has reached its tolerance level — boo, the high isn’t high anymore — THC doesn’t seem to do anything. Then again, a tolerance break of two days can do wonders for returning you back to returning to those therapeutic effects.

Actually, THC is really called Delta-9-THC.

Although popularly called THC, the THC molecule is more properly known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or Delta-9-THC. The other form of THC is called Δ8-THC, which has more to do with ‘hemp.’

The forms Delta-8-THC and Delta-9-THC are essentially the same, but it’s this tiny difference that changes both. Delta-8-THC is slightly less potent than Delta-9-THC. Most of what is know about THC’s molecules is that Delta-9-THC and Delta-8-THC act on the CB1-receptor.

Both THC and CBD work their “magic” by working with the nervous system. From what molecular scientists know so far, it somehow changes proteins found all over the body responsible for managing pain, inflammation, mood, appetite, and even memory. It’s still unknown how the chemical compounds combined with terpenes and various cannabinoids.

What are the proven benefits?

  • Multiple sclerosis patients reported in trials that oral cannabis extract was effective in improving the subjective experience of people experiencing spasticity. THC is linked to treating central pain and painful spasms. THC is an active ingredient in Nabiximols that is approved in Britain in 2010 as a mouth spray for people with multiple sclerosis. Nabiximols is called Sativex in Canada and is prescribed to treat MS symptoms.
  • Delta-8 THC can help people fighting cancer during chemotherapy with side-effects such as nausea and vomiting.
  • Based on early studies, patients reported cannabis products containing THC were more efficient in treating Parkinson’s disease stiffness than oral products containing CBD.
  • Some people claim cannabis is effective in treating epileptic seizures and Tourette’s syndrome since THC is found to reduce the motor and vocal tics in patients. A larger study is needed to prove without a doubt that cannabis is responsible for these desired effects.
  • Studies reveal certain optimum benefits come from combining CBD, THC, and terpenes. The British Journal of Pharmacology suggests an entourage effect helped with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, fungal infections, and even some forms of cancer.

How much is too much THC?

Overall, doctors are reluctant to recommend THC for pain relief. There’s the question of whether having too much THC is safe enough for consumers. Fortunately, no one has ever died from consuming too much THC. The worst that people report is what’s called ‘greening out.’ This could include fatigue, dizziness, and loss of appetite. There are concerns that THC might interact negatively with other drugs, specifically blood thinners like warfarin.

Dosing depends on body weight, desired effect, and the way a person is taking it. THC products come with serving suggestions. With THC, dosage matters. If you over-indulge, you can feel ill effects. ‘Go slow, use low’ is the mantra for beginners.

What’s the best way to use THC for medical?

To treat chronic pain, depressive disorders, or other serious illnesses with cannabis, get your doctor’s recommendations first. As you self-care your own medical cannabis, stay within the recommended doses on the products’ labels.

Plenty of cannabis businesses are experimenting with THC-infused cookbooks and recipes. But what’s the difference when it’s baked like a brownie or sizzled in a skillet with sea bass and lemon rinds? Is it safe with all those chemicals? Part of the issue with cooking is that the chemicals degrade and lose their potencies. This makes it even harder to know whether a dosage is too high or weak. Bottom line: It’s best to avoid cooking with THC extract unless you are exactly certain of the amounts, especially if you’re new to using THC.

If you’re looking to supplement your health with THC to help unwind after a stressful day, use only legal products. Just because it looks like cannabis, if it’s bought from the black market, it likely has banned-pesticides and the THC might not live up to what’s promised.

For more cannabis business content, also read:

Starting an Industrial-scale Cannabis Operation

Challenges in the Cannabis Supply Chain

Milton Wani lives in Montreal and has worked in studying medical cannabis and the business side of the industry.

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