Why are the effects of edibles so different to smoking?

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Ever wondered why the effects of edibles are so much more than smoking?

It sounds like a mysterious chemical, but if you’ve ever experienced the effects of edibles, you’ve probably had 11-hydroxy-THC in your system. This powerful cannabinoid is likely responsible for many of the medicinal and psychoactive effects in cannabis edibles — but it isn’t actually in cannabis or even part of your cannabis edible. Interestingly, this chemical is created in your own body when one of cannabis’ main ingredients, THC, is metabolized.

Cannabis can be taken in a number of different ways: inhaling its smoke or vapour, eating it with an edible, spraying it into your mouth, taking a tablet, or rubbing it onto your skin. And many people assume that it doesn’t matter whether you eat cannabis or smoke it — that it’s still the same thing going into your body. In reality, the way we take cannabis can have a big impact on what chemicals actually make their way into our bloodstream and affect our experience. The chemicals absorbed by inhaling cannabis and those absorbed by eating cannabis can be distinct.

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How the body metabolizes cannabis

Cannabis can produce over 500 known chemicals, but the most common (and most researched) chemical in the plant is delta-9-THC. Often referred to as just THC, this compound provides cannabis with most of its well-known effects like pain relief, euphoria, a psychoactive high, and shifts in appetite, coordination, and memory. When researchers talk about the effects of cannabis, they usually focus on THC. And this makes some sense — if you are smoking or vaping your cannabis.

This is because when you inhale cannabis, THC quickly enters your bloodstream through your lungs, where little metabolism takes place. The THC then travels all over the body in the bloodstream and activates its wide range of effects. Only a small portion of it remains in the blood and travels to the liver, where it is metabolized and becomes 11-hydroxy-THC.

THC metabolism when inhaled
THC metabolism when inhaled.

When you eat cannabis, things play out a little differently. When eaten, THC travels through the digestive tract. In the liver, enzymes break compounds down to make them easier to clear from the system, often transforming them into new compounds called metabolites in the process. So when THC makes its way to the liver, it is metabolized into its metabolite — 11-hydroxy-THC.

Inhaling THC will also lead to some 11-hydroxy-THC being created but around 10-times less than when it’s eaten. So while THC is usually the primary cannabinoid affecting us from inhaled cannabis, 11-hydroxy-THC is the main compound that causes the effects of edibles.

How 11-Hydroxy-THC feels different

While derived from THC, and somewhat similar, 11-hydroxy-THC has some of its own effects. Both substances show similar psychoactive and physiological effects but 11-hydroxy-THC is more potent and more psychoactive than THC.

In one study researchers gave two groups of patients the same amount of either THC or 11-hydroxy-THC, and asked them to report on how they felt afterwards. When asked how high they felt, with 0 being not high at all and 10 being as high as possible. Those given THC rated their high as an average of 3 out of 10, while those given 11-hydroxy-THC rated it as an average of 8 out of 10.

The researchers concluded that 11-hydroxy-THC is 2-3 times more potent than THC, which certainly means added psychoactive effects (given the research above), and could potentially extend to increased potency for physiological effects as well.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a great deal more research into the specific medicinal effects of 11-hydroxy-THC. Some studies have looked at the differences between inhaled and oral cannabis and have found differences in these two methods — differences which may or may not be related to 11-hydroxy-THC’s differences from THC. One noted difference is that oral cannabis takes longer to kick in and lasts longer than inhaled methods.

In the future, hopefully, more studies will look at the differences between these two compounds so that we can better understand why and how one method of using cannabis might be more effective than another.

This article first appeared on Cannigma.com and has been adapted for the South African audience

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