How CBD and THC Work in Your Body

Photo credit: Elsa Olofsson via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

New words to add to your cannabis vocabulary

You’re hanging out with friends, smoking a joint together. You take a hit and within a matter of minutes, you start to feel a little high. But how exactly does that happen?

Cannabis contains chemical compounds like THC and CBD called cannabinoids. When you smoke marijuana, THC enters your body through your lungs. It then gets absorbed into the bloodstream where it travels throughout your body, attaching to receptors. And your body has receptors almost everywhere, says Dale Deutsch, professor of biochemistry and cell biology  at Stony Brook University, who has been studying cannabinoids for years.

“Your body has receptors almost everywhere,” he explained. “Your immune cells have receptors, your peripheral nerves have receptors, your backbone has receptors and, of course, so does your brain.”

The receptors are part of our endocannabinoid system, a network of chemical signals and receptors throughout our body that responds to cannabinoids.

THC resembles a naturally-occurring cannabinoid found in our body called anandamide. It attaches to cannabinoid receptors – also called CB1 receptors – in our brain and central nervous system. THC can also attach to these receptors, affecting multiple parts of the brain and body. This is why we may experience hunger, euphoria, paranoia or short-term memory loss.

“No one knows exactly why THC affects people differently,” Deutsch says, “but different people have different dispositions. I think it depends on people’s tendencies.”

When cannabis is ingested as an edible, the process is similar, but it first goes through your digestive system before being absorbed into the bloodstream. That’s why it takes longer to feel the effects of an edible.

CBD on the other hand, acts differently.

“CBD is much more complicated because it hits about 10 different receptors in the body and so it has so many different effects,” Deutsch says. “However, it does not activate the cannabinoid receptors, so you can’t get high.”

In fact, a study in 2019 found that CBD can block some cannabinoid receptors instead of binding to them.

“That’s why people say if you take marijuana that has CBD in it, it’ll prevent you from getting too high. It’s the yin and yang,” Deutsch says. “In some ways, the CBD counteracts the THC.”

Deutsch’s lab discovered the specific protein that transports cannabinoids around in your body; the same protein that carries fatty acids and brings them to parts of the body where they can be degraded. Taking CBD can actually increase the amount of anandamide in your body because it inhibits this protein. He says increased anandamide might be good for mood and appetite while also helping decrease inflammation and pain.

Cannabis also contains other compounds called terpenes, which give plants their distinct scent. Cannabis contains more than 100 terpenes. A 2020 study found that terpenes may enhance the effects of cannabinoids in the body when treating anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, though more research is needed, says the study’s author. “Research doesn’t yet paint a clear picture about the roles that terpenes might play in humans, but the purported benefits range from improved immune function to reduced inflammation,” writes Amanda Capritto for CNET.

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