Cannabis Science - Cannabis Studies
April 24, 2019

What is THC? How does THC work? Understanding the Basics of THC

Mel Perron
6 min

Until recently, cannabis was famous thanks to one single compound: THC. This well-known molecule is responsible for the plant’s infamy, but also many of its medicinal benefits. Today, due to a growing body of scientific literature, THC is linked to numerous therapeutic applications – from Parkinson’s disease to glaucoma to arthritis.

With cannabis now available across Canada – more people than ever before are interested in the plant’s possible therapeutic benefits. If you are interested in cannabis (if you can’t find a  general introduction, here), then it goes without saying you likely have some questions about THC. As the plants only intoxicating property, it’s natural to have some questions.

THC may be the most famous cannabinoid, but it’s also the most misunderstood. You aren’t alone if you still wonder how THC works in the body, or how it may have therapeutic applications. Let’s take a minute to introduce THC in all its glory.

THC rich cannabis sun grown outside

What is THC?

Cannabis is a plant full of chemical compounds known as ‘cannabinoids’. Cannabinoids are the reason for many of the possible therapeutic benefits of the plant, and each has an interesting interaction with our bodies.

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is one of over 100 identified cannabinoids. Out of all the compounds in cannabis, it’s the only known intoxicant. That means, it’s the only one which leads to the high we associate with cannabis use. In strains with little to no measurable THC, there is little to no intoxication.

Beyond its intoxicating properties, scientists have also linked  THC to a number of therapeutic benefits. Most notably for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, pain relief, and inflammation, among many others.

balancing healthy yoga cannabis THC

How Does THC Work in the Body?

All cannabinoids interact with the human body through our endocannabinoid system. Discovered in the early 1990s, the endocannabinoid system is a relatively recent realization. It manages our mood, memory, appetite, the experience of pain and many other physiological processes. The system is composed of a vast network of chemical messengers (endocannabinoids) and endocannabinoid receptors.

The CB1 and CB2 are the two receptors of the endocannabinoid system. As your body releases naturally occurring endocannabinoids, they travel to receptor sites to regulate various activities. For example, your endocannabinoid system may send out messengers to the CB2 receptors to turn on the inflammatory response to help fight off pathogens.

When it comes to THC, the molecule works much like our natural endocannabinoids to communicate with the CB1 receptor. We have a high concentration of CB1 receptors in our brain and central nervous system. When you consume THC, in any format, it heads to the brain and locks into the CB1 receptor. This strong connection is what creates intoxicating effects.

Cannabis grown outside for medical patients by licensed producers

THC is a Natural Therapeutic Option

By now, you’ve probably heard the often-repeated statistic that nobody has ever died from a cannabis overdose. It’s true. As far as anyone can tell, there are no reported overdose deaths directly linked to the plant. Of course, THC is an isolated compound, and the plant contains hundreds of others – but there is also no indication of any deaths from THC. Cannabis is comparatively safe when compared to other medicinal options on the market today, such as opioids.

The World Health Organization has gone so far as to recommend the declassification of cannabis from a Schedule I substance, because of its relative safety profile. Most scientific studies, covering a broad spectrum of medical conditions indicate “that the safety profile of the short-term use of medical cannabis is acceptable. A systematic review of 23 [randomized controlled trials] and eight observational studies of medical cannabis found that 96.6% of the adverse effects reported in the trials were not serious.”

Of course, overdoing it with any substance can lead to an adverse reaction. It is important to highlight that THC can have a powerful, intoxicating effect. In large doses, too much THC can lead to what is known as an ‘acute intoxication.’ While not deadly, it is unpleasant and worth avoiding. Acute intoxication is rare, and if it does happen, the experience is typically short-lived.

THC rich cannabis bud grown medically by licensed producers

What are the Therapeutic Benefits of THC?

Until recently, there was a gap between the science and how people were already using medical cannabis out in the real world. Health care providers were hesitant to prescribe the plant without the backing of scientific literature, but that didn’t stop patients from seeking it out.

To this day, medical research teams are still hard at work discovering which medical conditions and diseases cannabis can effectively target. Researchers are eager to find the scientific support behind the many forms already in use.

In one of the most in-depth literature reviews thus far, the National Academies Press issued a complete report on the Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids in 2017. They reported there was substantial evidence supporting the effectiveness of cannabis (with THC) for the treatment of:

  • Chronic Pain
  • Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • Multiple sclerosis spasticity

The report also found moderate evidence that the plant could improve sleep disturbances from obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis. This is in line with Health Canada’s resources, which highlights the plant’s potential for treatment during palliative care, nausea and vomiting, and multiple sclerosis.

Out of all the compounds in the plant, THC is perhaps one of the most fascinating cannabinoids. As the only known cannabinoid to have a direct bond with our endocannabinoid receptor, researchers are fascinated with it.  It’s intoxicating, it’s got massive therapeutic value, and it’s better understood than ever before. Cannabis has already had a positive impact on the lives of many patients, and with more knowledge it’s influence will very likely grow.

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