In our series for folks new to cannabis, we take a closer look at marijuana’s most common—and most controversial—compound: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This powerful cannabinoid, which was first identified in 1964 by Raphael Mechoulam, is best known for its psychoactive qualities. While THC is denounced by some for its disorienting and high-flying side effects, it also lays claim to having many medicinal benefits.
While the medical cannabis world is beginning to broaden its focus to address the wide variety of cannabinoids and terpenes available in the marijuana plant, no chemical has received as much attention as THC has. In fact, THC rates in cannabis have increased over the last few decades since its discovery, as growers focus on breeding ever higher percentages of THC into their plants.
One of the biggest reasons for THC’s popularity is, of course, its psychoactive effects. While this is a big factor for recreational users who want to use cannabis to shift into a more relaxed and blissful state of mind, it can also be a huge benefit for certain patients. For example, studies show that THC can act like an antidepressant, uplifting a patient’s mood, easing depression and calming anxiety. These mood-altering effects can be life-saving for patients struggling with deep depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or severe anxiety.
Another main reason patients use high-THC cannabis is for its pain-relieving abilities. While other cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) are also known to help with pain relief, research shows that THC offers the highest degree of pain relief that marijuana has to offer. For those suffering from daily chronic pain, or even occasional pain like a muscle sprain, THC is the substance that’s most likely to help.
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THC is also known to be highly effective at easing nausea and vomiting, as well as stimulating appetite and reducing muscle spasms. It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory, neuroprotectant and antioxidant. THC can even shift your metabolism to curb weight gain. With so many powerful qualities, it’s no wonder people continue to gravitate towards cannabis strains containing high levels of THC.
Of course, THC doesn’t come without its share of negative side effects. As with most powerful substances, what creates a positive effect in some can bring about a negative effect in others. For some patients, THC causes symptoms that can be uncomfortable, disorienting or downright scary.
The psychoactive element of THC, while helpful for many, can also be extremely disorienting. Patients using THC may find themselves feeling confused or unable to think clearly. Conversations may become difficult, or you may find yourself “spacing out” and getting lost in your thoughts. Memory may also become less clear while using THC, and balance and coordination can suffer. It’s difficult to function in this state, so folks may steer clear of high-THC products to avoid these effects.
THC can also cause issues like an elevated heart rate. Though this doesn’t pose a big health risk for most, in patients who already have dangerously high heart rates, THC could be contraindicated. For healthy individuals, experiencing a jump in heart rate isn’t usually a problem, though it can be unnerving or uncomfortable.
Another negative that can come with consuming THC-dominant marijuana is the anxiety it can induce. In some cases, THC is able to reduce anxiety—usually when used in combination with certain terpenes or with other cannabinoids like non-psychoactive CBD, but it can also cause intense anxiety and paranoia in certain folks.
While THC is an incredibly beneficial cannabinoid, its side effects can leave some feeling too overwhelmed to function comfortably. Fortunately, there are many ways to cope. One way is to moderate the effects of THC with another cannabinoid: CBD.
While CBD on its own doesn’t have the same effects as THC has (although it has its own beneficial effects), it has been shown to reduce the side effects of THC. Patients using a combination of the two often get the benefits of THC without having to deal with memory impairment, mental confusion, psychoactivity, increased heart rate or anxiety.
Certain terpenes can also help modify THC’s effects, although it’s often the case that a given terpene’s counteracting effects will vary from person to person. I do well when my THC is mixed in with beta-caryophyllene and myrcene. These two terpenes ground the THC, making it more sedative and relaxing for me.
That said, I know others who prefer a more energizing profile and get better effects with terpenes like limonene and pinene. The only way to know which terpenes will work for you is to try some out and see what happens. If there’s a strain you’ve tried that works well for you, try to get the test results to see what kind of terpenes and cannabinoids are found in that strain. This will help you hone in on what’s working for you.
In our next few installments of our Cannabis for Newbies series, we’ll continue on the topic of cannabinoids, looking at other popular cannabinoids’ uses and side effects. Our next piece will look at a cannabinoid that’s getting increasingly popular: CBD.
Photo credit: Precision Medical Caregivers
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