Most of us have been lucky enough to have some personal experience with the effects of THC on our mental state. Perhaps, like me, you have felt that initial rush of relief on inhale and then burst into a painful coughing fit and wondered, hmm, is this good for me? What is this magical molecule THC really doing to our physical bodies? Long-term side-effects?
After decades of increasing legalization, scientists dedicated to studying the effects of cannabis have made significant discoveries. First, they were able to identify the many different active ingredients in cannabis including the popular Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Second, scientists discovered a whole new system built within the human body that they dubbed the “Endocannabinoid (EC) System”. This regulates where and how active ingredients like THC work in the body. The EC system is a unique communications system with receivers located within the brain, the spinal column and throughout the body. When stimulated by THC, these receivers affect many important functions, including how a person feels, moves, and reacts to certain stimuli. The reason that plant cannabinoids (like THC) have psychoactive and medicinal effects on humans is, indeed because we we born with this innate EC system of receivers that they can interact with.
Because cannabinoid receptors are found in so many different parts of the brain and body, and all humans brains and bodies are built a wee bit differently, the effects of THC are wide-ranging. Endocannabinoids can relax muscles, reduce inflammation, slow nerve impulses, protect damaged tissue and feign off cancerous tissues growth, and regulate cellular metabolism that directly affects appetite.
THC in its raw form is totally inert and will do nothing for you. If you eat a handful of dried cannabis flowers, you will not feel high; you will have a stomach ache from trying to digest all those strong plant fibers! You need to apply heat to make THC actively work. Technically speaking, the cannabinoid that we are referring to is actually THCA. The “A” designates its acidic form. It takes heat to convert THCA to the psychoactive delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol- THC. That is why you have to apply a flame to dried cannabis, to actually activate the THC. Different methods of “applying flame” and ingesting THC may affect your body differently. When you inhale cannabis smoke into your lungs, THC is quickly released into your bloodstream via the lungs, instantly affecting your brain and other organs. It takes a little longer to feel the effects of THC if you eat, drink, or absorb the cannabis through the stomach, intestines, and skin.
Bronchial Passages and Lungs
Since cannabis smoke consists of a number of toxic chemicals (such as ammonia and hydrogen cyanide), long-term exposure to smoking can damage bronchial passages and lungs. Cannabis smoke can cause many of the same respiratory problems experienced by tobacco smokers, such as persistent cough with increased mucus and phlegm production, and more frequent incidents of acute chest infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Smoking cannabis may even increase your risk for asthma attacks. When you smoke cannabis, large air sacs called “bullae” start to develop in your lungs. Over time, bullae can grow and cause shortness of breath. What’s even more dangerous is the possible development of “pneumothorax”, (a life-threatening condition that occurs when bullae rupture in the lungs). According to the American Thoracic Society, you’re at an increased risk of developing bullae from smoking anything let alone cannabis.
So, it is no surprise that the very act of smoking anything (with or without THC) has negative health consequences. It is often also assumed that smoking cannabis can cause lung cancer. But, according to a 2013 study by Dr. Donald Tashkin, (UCLA professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine), even those who are heavy cannabis users, do not appear to be at greater risk for developing lung cancer. In fact, in mouse studies, concentrated THC cut lung tumor growth in half and helped prevent the cancer from spreading, says Anju Preet, PhD, a Harvard University researcher in Boston. Moreover, other research suggests the cannabis compounds like THC and CBD could help fight brain, prostate, and skin cancers as well. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research back in 2008.
THC is an Aphrodisiac
On a lighter note, it’s been shown that THC can also act as an aphrodisiac, strengthening orgasms in women and overall boosting libido. “Sometimes when couples smoke cannabis, they take more time to have a fuller sensual experience and slow down, which would allow more time for vasocongestion (blood flow to genitals) and myotonia (muscular tension),” says sex therapist Ian Kerner. THC can cause couples to feel more relaxed and mentally comfortable,which may lead to a higher quality of orgasm. Sounds pretty good to me.
THC for Pain Relief
One of the most popular medical uses for THC is as a pain-reliever. And when compared to the dangerous and addictive opioids, cannabis is incredibly safe. From temporary muscle aches to chronic neuropathic pain, THC’s ability to stimulate the release of dopamine (just like opioids) make it a powerful medicine for treating pain and inflammation. THC holds great promise as an alternative pain killer.
THC is Not Physically Addictive
While it is widely accepted that THC is not physically addictive, about 30 percent of cannabis consumers report some degree of cannabis use disorder. Most users reports overspending on medicine as their main issue. But, long-term cannabis users who try to quit often report cravings, increased anxiety and irritability, sleeplessness, and decreased appetite. A 2016 study suggested that some people may have a genetic predisposition to cannabis addiction. That same study showed an overlap between the genetic risk factor for cannabis dependence and the genetic risk factor for chronic depression, suggesting a simple solution as to why these two conditions often occur together. Self-medicating is a serious science.
THC is Beneficial for Physical and Mental Ailments
Aside from treating depression and anxiety, can THC actually help clean up the brain? Though scientists don’t have an exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease, they know it’s partly due to a buildup of toxic amyloid proteins that form plaque in the brain. According to findings by the Salk Institute, THC (and other compounds found in cannabis) helps physically remove these amyloid beta plaques from nerve cells in the brain. With continued mapping of our endocannabinoid system, we could create an Alzheimer’s cure by directly targeting the brain’s natural janitorial system and releasing a clean up crew of disease killers.
Thanks to endocannabinoid receptors in the digestive tract, cannabis can help folks suffering from severe GI-tract diseases like Crohn’s and irritable bowel syndrome. In the digestive tract, THC stimulates the release of the hunger hormone called ghrelin. Despite prohibition, the FDA has recognized THC’s ability to reduce nausea and other symptoms related to gastrointestinal distress, by approving a synthetic form of THC called Marinol. Marinol is currently prescribed as an appetite stimulant and an antiemetic for AIDS and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Within a few minutes after inhaling cannabis smoke, a person’s heart rate speeds up, the breathing passages relax and become enlarged, and blood vessels in the eyes expand, making the eyes look bloodshot. The heart rate—normally 70 to 80 beats per minute—may increase by 20 to 50 beats per minute or may even double in some cases. A 2017 study by the Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia found that those who used cannabis were 26 percent more likely to have a stroke than those who did not use cannabis. Those studied were also 10 percent more likely to have developed heart failure. The American College of Cardiology, notes that cannabis causes an irregular heart rates and increases the risk of coronary syndrome, referring to any number of conditions that can be brought on by the sudden interruption of the blood flow to the heart. As a result of this, users who are susceptible to conditions of the heart are taking a serious risk when they smoke cannabis. Thankfully, alternate forms of THC consumption exist.
As you can see, THC can affect your body in both positive and negative ways. It is imperative that we remain conscious of what we are putting into our bodies, and the methods by which we are doing so. Researching the long-term effects of THC on the body is challenging because cannabis is still federally classed a Schedule I drug in the United States, which places significant restrictions on the scientific investigations required to obtain knowledge.
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