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THC: Everything You Need To Know About Delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol
What is THC, anyway? You might have heard that THC is the primary psychoactive found in cannabis. But, what does it do? And how does it work? Does it really have medical benefits, or is it all just hype? Whether you’re a long-time consumer or just interested, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about this fascinating plant product.
What is delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)?
THC is one of many chemical compounds known as cannabinoids found inside the dried resin glands of the female cannabis flower. In the plant’s raw form, THC is found as an acid rather than the psychoactive we have come to know and love. Male cannabis plants also produce mild amounts of THC, but typically not enough to interest most people.
In organic chemistry, these cannabinoids act as secondary metabolites, supplementary chemicals produced by the plant that don’t have a direct impact on plant development or reproduction. Plants like marijuana produce these secondary metabolites in place of an internal immune system.
The potent chemicals help the plant fend off parasites, viruses, bacteria, and other natural predators. THC even seems to have anti-bacterial properties in human. Other cannabinoids like cannabigerol (CBG), do as well. A handful of the unique compounds are found to kill or slow the growth of bacteria in people and plants alike.
The discovery of THC
When Chemist Rafael Mechoulam first began his research on cannabis in the early 1960s, he found himself facing one major problem: where do you legally obtain cannabis for scientific study?
The answer? The police.
Though hardly an appropriate supplier in today’s legal and political climate, the five kilos of hashish given to Mechoulam by Israeli police helped pave the way for some of the most groundbreaking findings in marijuana and biochemical research to date. Mechoulam was the first man to isolate delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis.
The science behind THC
Out of the 85+ individual cannabinoids found in marijuana, only one of them produces powerful, intoxicating, psychoactive effects. Our good pal THC. But why?
It’s simple: shape.
THC just happens to have the right molecular structure to fit into special binding sites on cells throughout the body. These specific sections are now known to be parts of a larger, endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system and THC
Though THC was first isolated in 1964, it wasn’t until 1988 that Dr. Allyn Howlett of Wake Forest University uncovered the binding sites for THC in the human brain. What she discovered was nothing short of revolutionary: THC was attaching itself to special cell sites in the hippocampus (responsible for memory), the frontal cortex (where we think), and the cerebellum (responsible for movement).
These cell sites are called cannabinoid receptors, and each acts as a part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a cell receptor network that regulates a variety of bodily functions. It helps maintain homeostasis, which is a long word for optimal balance or harmony. This receptor network sends and receives signals that facilitate larger, more complicated chemical reactions. Certain cannabinoid receptors are most highly concentrated in the central nervous system. However, these cell sites can actually be found all through the body. There are plenty in our digestive tract, our skin, and even in our reproductive organs.
As smoothly as keys fit into a lock, THC binds to cannabinoid receptor and ignites a series of chemical reactions. This causes changes in your brain and body.
When THC engages the brain, you’ll experience altered behavioural and cognitive ability. These changes aren’t necessarily negative changes unless you find them uncomfortable. Mostly, THC will just make you feel different than you normally do. Once you get used to how it feels to consume THC, you’ll find that you can perform all of your normal daily activities just fine.
In a way, THC is similar to trying on a new pair of glasses. It causes you to see and experience things in a different way.
Cognitive and behavioral changes are not the only effects of THC, however. The cannabinoid engages the immune system, quelling inflammation. It spurs appetite, triggering the release of hunger hormones and jump-starting your metabolism. It can also have a sedative effect, making you feel blissful and sleepy.
But, how does THC actually work? It essentially takes the place of chemicals our bodies make themselves. There are a few chemicals it replaces, but the most well-known is a little molecule called anandamide
Anandamide: Our natural THC
Some may ask: If THC fits so well into these receptors, then humans must be made to consume cannabis, right?
The short answer? No. THC just happens to tap into a system already present in the body.
Once scientists managed to figure out how THC is used by the body via the endocannabinoid system, it took them another five years to isolate the THC-like substance that our bodies create naturally. That compound, what can loosely be described as the human version of THC, is anandamide. Modern scientists are still struggling to figure out exactly what complicated role anandamide plays in the human body, but one critical function sets this compound apart from all others.
Like nature’s own white-out, anandamide is a chemical that helps us forget. Anandamide helps get rid of all of the clutter, allowing you to remember only the important things.
Understanding some of the essential functions of anandamide is immensely helpful to understanding the ways THC affects our bodies and sheds some light on the role of THC in treating certain psychological disorders, such as PTSD, where patients struggle to overcome the negative memories surrounding a traumatic event.
There are a few key differences between THC and anandamide. Namely, THC lasts a lot longer than our natural endocannabinoids do. Anandamide actually begins to break down in a matter of minutes after binding to a cell. This means that its effects are fairly short-lived. It seems to live long enough to tag a cell and “you’re it!” and then quickly disappears. THC’s half-life can last several days in frequent users. This is a huge difference.