Did you know that 94% of the CBD in your edible is flushed from your body without ever entering your bloodstream? With so much talk about the health benefits of cannabidiol, it is easy to forget that your bodies’ ability to absorb different cannabinoids like CBD or THC depends on the method of consumption. However, researching the products you use can help; plus there are a few tricks you can use to get the most out of your favorite cannabis product. If you are mostly after the medical effects of cannabis, you might want to try microdosing: research finds that smaller doses of cannabis can treat certain conditions more effectively.
Bioavailability of cannabis
When you take a medical drug, your body does not always absorb it completely; only a part of it may enter your bloodstream. Scientists have a word for the percentage of a substance that enters your circulatory system: bioavailability. When it comes to cannabis, many factors influence how well your body absorbs it. It is hard to predict the exact effect a product may have on your body.
What can you do to increase the medical effects of cannabinoids and maximize health benefits? First of all, it is important to be well-informed about the product you consume: with a highly bioavailable cannabis product, you will need to consume less to get the desired effect. Moreover, different cannabinoids have different effects on the body. Which method of consumption works best for you may depend on the condition you are hoping to treat.
What are the effects of different cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are the chemical components of the marijuana plant that cause its effects on the human body. They react with different receptors in your body, which results in a variety of physiological responses, creating both medical and recreational effects. While there are 113 cannabinoids in total, three, in particular, have been discussed in research: THC, CBD, and, to a lesser extent, CBN.
The most widely known cannabinoid is THC, a psychoactive component famous for causing the marijuana “high.” Consumers report a wide range of effects including euphoria, increased appetite, relaxation, and enhanced sensory perception. There are some unwanted side effects that THC consumers may experience, such as dryness of mouth, bloodshot eyes, dizziness, and anxiety. However, THC also has a variety of medical benefits; for example, it can help with vomiting and nausea, as well as certain types of pain.
CBD has recently gained popularity because of its many medical benefits and lack of psychoactive effects. CBD has anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to treat pain. Moreover, research suggests that it may help alleviate some psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia. There is some evidence that CBD may benefit in the treatment of some forms of childhood epilepsy.
CBN is created when THC is exposed to an excessive amount of heat or light. Its effects are less studied, but there is some evidence that CBN has antibacterial properties. Another study suggests that this cannabinoid may be used to treat inflammatory diseases. Finally, CBN may be used to treat certain types of cancer.
Combined Effects of THC and CBD
CBD can mellow out some THC’s unwanted effects, including anxiety and an increased heart rate while improving medical effects such as relief of pain. Because CBD suppresses some of the psychoactive effects of THC, adding it to your dose can be beneficial if you want the medical benefits, but are less interested in the recreational aspects of cannabis. For example, patients who medicate during work hours might not want to consume a product that gets them “high” on the job.
When taking CBD and THC in combination, it is important to be aware of the proportions of each substance. A good ratio for medical purposes is 1:1; however, large doses of such products can still cause some of the adverse effects associated with THC. Generally, when a product contains more CBD than THC, it is less likely to produce intoxication. When the CBD:THC ratio is as high as 4:1, it is unlikely that adverse side effects will occur, except when extremely excessive amounts are consumed.
Why are some cannabis products more effective than others?
Today, there are countless ways to consume cannabis: you no longer need to roll a joint and smoke it. For health reasons or to avoid the stigma of smoking, many people turn to oils, tinctures, or edibles (which, by the way, are also made from oil). Unfortunately, oil-based consumption makes cannabis products less effective. Why? The answer lies in the make-up of the human body itself.
About 60% of your body is water: your blood, of course, but also your heart, brain, muscles, and even your bones, are mostly H2O. Water does not blend with oil: if you have ever made a vinaigrette, you know that the two substances stay separate from each other, even after you stir them hard. The same effect makes it hard for your body to absorb CBD or THC in oil form. As a result, it will take longer for the cannabis to take effect, and a sizable portion may not end up in your bloodstream at all.
A second issue arises when you consume your CBD or THC as oil because you consume them orally. Whenever a drug is ingested orally, its effects are reduced because of how the body processes it. Scientists call it the first-pass effect. Whenever you ingest a substance, it first goes into your stomach. Next, your body carries it to your liver via the portal vein and metabolizes it there. As a consequence of this process, only small amounts of the substance reach your circulatory system.
“Inactive” versus “Activated” THC
When you buy cannabis as flower at the dispensary, most of the time you will receive a printed label with the percentages of THC and, if present, CBD, in your product. However, there is no official standard for determining the amount of THC in cannabis products. Sometimes, the label will contain some additional numbers, labeled as THCA or CBDA. This can be confusing for consumers, who want to know how much of each cannabinoid is available for consumption.
THCA is the substance that naturally occurs in the cannabis flower; it is converted into THC via a process of decarboxylation. When the consumer applies heat energy, for example by using a vaporizer or a lighter, your product heats up and THCA is transformed into THC. An alternative expression you may have heard is the conversion of “inactive” to “activated” THC.
How much cannabidiol is available to enter your bloodstream strongly depends on the decarboxylation process. It makes a difference how much heat you apply, and for how long you apply it. For precise results, it is easiest to use a desktop vaporizer. If you heat your product for about five minutes at about 400° Fahrenheit (or 200°Celsius), nearly 100% of the THCA in your flower will be converted to THC.
The minimum temperature you will need to start the process of conversion is about 356°Fahrenheit. With higher temperatures, other components of the flower will vaporize, such as terpenes, which are responsible for flavor. As temperatures increase further, the product will start to combust. Combustion, or burning, of your product, can lead to a higher conversion rate of THCA to THC; however, it creates harmful byproducts. Moreover, some of your THC will be converted to CBN.
When smoking cannabis, your lighter will apply much higher temperatures to the flower. A typical lighter will apply about 1800° Fahrenheit, which will lead to some loss of terpenes and THC. This will impact the absorption of cannabis into your bloodstream.
What methods of consumption work best for different cannabinoids?
Research into different cannabinoids and their effects upon consumption is still sparse, but some useful insights are available. For example, we know for sure that the method of consumption influences how each of the cannabinoids is absorbed into your body.
Oral administration via edibles, oils, or capsules is popular with many consumers. Edibles circumvent the risks associated with smoking or vaping. Moreover, the effects can last up to twenty hours, which means you probably do not need more than one dosage.
On the other hand, oral consumption is not the most effective way of consuming cannabinoids. For one, the body will only take up a small percentage of the cannabinoids present in the product. When consumed orally, the absorption rate of THC is unpredictable and varies between an average of 4-12%. Secondly, it might take up to six hours until you feel the effects of edibles, which makes them extremely difficult to dose.
Smoking and vaporization generally grant higher bioavailability. The cannabinoid molecules enter your body via the alveoli of your lungs. Unlike ingestion, the particles do not pass through the liver, resulting in higher absorption rates. The bioavailability of CBD and THC after smoking is about 30%. Finally, inhalation is much faster than oral consumption, with effects taking hold within minutes.
Looking to use cannabinoids for localized pain? Transdermal patches and skin lotions might be a good option for you. This method offers an alternative to oral consumption that bypasses the first-pass effect. Moreover, the transference of cannabinoids through your skin happens steadily over time, which means you are likely to avoid sudden spikes in THC. One study finds that transdermal absorption of CBD can help access its anti-inflammatory properties and treat arthritic pain. However, patches and lotions are ten times less effective when it comes to absorbing THC.
Nasal sprays may seem like an unusual choice for delivering cannabinoids, but they are quite effective. The intranasal method ensures a fast uptake, so that effects, as with smoking and vaping, take hold within less than ten minutes. What’s more, the absorption rate with intranasal uptake is quite high at 34 to 46%. Therefore, the method is especially useful to patients who use cannabinoids to treat acute seizures or migraines.
Lastly, scientists have developed nano- and micro-emulsions, which can be mixed into water and show extremely promising levels of absorption. CBD nano-emulsions have a bioavailability of 80-90%, which allows for precise and effective dosing. However, as of yet, there is little research available on the subject. It is not clear how cannabinoid molecules change when they are prepared in this way.
Are there any tricks you can use to improve the absorption of cannabinoids?
Yes, there certainly are a few. Cannabinoids like to bind with fats, so one way to increase absorption is to consume your edibles (including oils and alcohol-based tinctures) along with food that contains some fat. Whether you prefer healthy options such as avocado and hummus, or you are simply feeling chocolate and ice cream, the effect is the same.
If you prefer smoking or vaping your product, you can increase effectiveness with more puffs and less sidestream. To decrease sidestream, it may help to invest in a vaporizer; both towers and handheld devices will do. By the way, there is no scientific evidence for the old rumor that holding the smoke in your lungs for ten seconds increases absorption.
Finally, it is advisable to only use as much cannabis as you need. Doing so is not only more cost-effective, but it also helps you avoid negative side effects. For example, if you are using cannabis for anxiety, taking too much can make your symptoms worse. Find a product and method that works for your needs and be aware of how your body absorbs it. That way, you have a better chance of getting the dosage right.
The perks of microdosing
Some people are highly sensitive when it comes to THC; they may not want to exceed doses as low as 1 mg. However, some patients have been reported to consume up to 2000 mg a day without experiencing any adverse side effects. Typically, we expect drugs to have a stronger medical effect when the dose is higher, along with a greater risk for adverse effects. However, cannabis consumption does not seem to function by the same set of rules.
Consumers prefer lower doses
Most cannabis consumers are not looking to get extremely high: many are as interested in medical benefits as they are in recreational effects. This has not stopped cannabis growers from breeding strains that have as much as 30 percent THC, but hardly any CBD. By comparison, in the 1980s, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported an average potency of about 4%. For average cannabis consumers, the new high levels of THC are not helpful, as they render the strains less medically effective while adding unwanted side effects.
The biphasic effects of cannabis
Cannabis causes what scientists refer to as biphasic effects. To use a simple example, consider the effects of alcohol: while a few glasses of beer or wine may make you feel happy, elated, and social, going over your limit can cause extreme emotions and even illness. While low doses cause a positive effect, high doses achieve the opposite: that is the biphasic effect.
Of course, with cannabis, the effect is less noticeable than with alcohol: cannabis does not usually make the consumer loud and aggressive as alcohol does. However, on a subtle level, the biphasic effect has a significant impact. An overdose of THC can override the positive, medicinal effects, causing extreme anxiety or paranoia or high sensitivity, which is not desirable when you’re using the product to treat pain. As a result of the biphasic effects, many patients experience better results when they first increase their dose but then get to a point at which further increases weaken the desired medical effects while increasing adverse effects.
Lower doses work better for pain treatment
Research has confirmed this phenomenon. One study examined cancer patients who previously were treated with opioids and suffered from ongoing pain. Three groups participated in the study; one received 21 mg of combined CBD and THC daily, another received 52 mg, and a third was dosed at 83 mg. The first group, which received the lowest dose, experienced the most benefits. The third group, which was given the highest dose, experienced the least benefits, but also the most adverse side effects.
These results may seem confusing, but they show the delicacy and complexity of the human endocannabinoid system. Higher doses of cannabis product can cause an overstimulation of the cannabinoid receptors in our body; as a response, our body “pulls in” the receptors, either recycling or destroying them. This results in a lower presence of cannabis receptors, which in turn leads to a reduction in the desired medical effects. This is the physiological process that occurs when we “build a tolerance.”
What is microdosing?
Microdosing involves taking cannabis in small amounts to receive the medical advantages without the psychoactive effects or intoxication. Microdosing is especially beneficial when treating psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, stress, or sleep problems, but it is also an effective way of treating pain. In one study, incarcerated patients who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder were treated with several low doses of the synthetic cannabinoid Nabilone. As little as four milligrams caused patients to report alleviation of PTSD-related symptoms such as sleeplessness and pain.
Microdoses of cannabis can also be used in treating chronic illnesses such as neuropathy, fibromyalgia, and multiple sclerosis. While an acute episode may warrant a higher dose, a small daily dose can aid in managing the chronic conditions. A dose low enough to avoid psychoactive effects can help manage stress while staying focused at work.
Of course, there is no one ideal microdose that works for everybody. The effects of cannabis can differ from person to person, even from day to day, depending on various factors such as metabolism, genetics, tolerance, and more. The goal of microdosing is to go for the smallest possible effect. Finding a dose that works for you may take some experimentation. As a starting point, those new to microdosers might want to try a dose between 1 and 2.5 mg THC; if necessary, you can increase the amount after three days.
What if I have already built up a tolerance?
If you are used to higher doses but want to give microdosing a try, you might want to start with a 48-hour abstinence period. This window gives your endocannabinoid system the time to recover. While two days may appear like a short time for a decade-long consumer, research has shown that even heavy consumers need only 48 hours to return to base levels.
How can you dose your edibles effectively?
Edibles are difficult to dose because of their prolonged onset time. Consuming too many edibles can have long-lasting uncomfortable effects. We all have different bodies, and a range of factors plays into how we process a dose of cannabis: your tolerance, your digestive system, and your cannabinoid receptors influence how you react to a product. Because of that, there is no universal rule as to how much cannabis you should consume.
Edible Doses for New Consumers
Absorption via the digestive system can be unpredictable. To avoid inconsistent uptake, it may be best to start with an edible that can be absorbed orally, such as lozenges, mints, oils, or tablets; dissolvable foods such as chocolates are also acceptable. Place the product under your tongue and hold it for at least one minute before swallowing. For the most precise dosing, tinctures and oils are recommended. Start with a dose of 1-2.5 mg of THC, adding CBD as desired, and slowly increase.
Because the onset of effects can take several hours with edibles, do not consume any additional product for at least two hours after taking your dose. Many inexperienced consumers are surprised when they do not feel the effect of the products, and add a second or third dose; this can lead to unwanted side effects that last for several hours.
What if I do not feel any effects?
When an hour has passed after consuming your dose, and you cannot feel any effects, it may help to have a snack, such as an apple, to activate your digestive system.
When you consume cannabis products for the first time, you may not feel any reaction in your body. You may need up to three attempts until you feel the effects. Be patient with your body; stick with a low dose, and consume them at least eight hours apart.
Finally, some people may, for whatever reason, not absorb enough product when ingesting cannabis orally; in those cases, it may be best to switch to another method, such as transdermal patches or vaporization.
What if I had too much?
A THC “overdose” can be uncomfortable. If possible, seek out a trusted person or space that can help you stay calm and feel safe. Meditative breathing can help avoid anxiety and panic attacks.
Make sure you drink lots of water. If available, you might want to consume some CBD (50 to 200 mg) without THC as an antidote. Alternatively, you can try lemon oil: chew on a tablespoon of finely grated lemon zest before swallowing.
If you have a serious medical condition or cannot stop vomiting, you may need to seek emergency medical care.
When it comes to cannabis, how you take it and how much you consume can significantly shape your experience. Research has shown that oil-based cannabis products such as edibles and oils are not always the most effective way of absorbing the product into your body; however, by eating them in combination with fatty foods, you can increase their bioavailability. Generally, your body absorbs more THC and CBD when you smoke or vape; however, the temperature you use to heat your product changes how much cannabinoid is available to you. Methods like nasal sprays and nanoemulsions offer high levels of bioavailability. Transdermal patches are effective ways of using cannabis to treat pain. If you are primarily interested in receiving medical benefits, microdosing is an effective option. If you choose to consume cannabis in edible form, be sure to pay close attention when dosing.