Ingesting cannabis is markedly different than inhaling.
Pathways are different as are effects on the body. Brownies, cookies, and gummies are most often come to mind but there are more and more ways to consume cannabis (or, more specifically THC) edibles, from the home-made to the pre-packaged. Before adding that splash of cannabis-infused olive oil to your salad, let’s take a look at what happens to our bodies when cannabis is consumed in various ways.
THC is absorbed differently when eaten
THC is absorbed differently because of the way it goes through your body. A brownie (or a cookie, or pizza, or popcorn) will be chewed and then passed through the esophagus to the stomach. Very little is absorbed through the sublingual glands. Once through the stomach, the THC makes its way to the liver where it is metabolized into 11-hydroxi-THC (11-OH-THC). This metabolite easily passes the blood-brain barrier and gets to the brain where it binds to the CB1 receptors.
In comparison, inhaled THC (either by smoking or vaping), travels through the respiratory tract all the way to the lungs from where it’s immediately absorbed into the bloodstream. The THC gets to the brain where it binds with the CB1 receptors. This whole process takes from 10 to 30 minutes. The effect from inhaling arrives more quickly but also leaves more quickly.
Time before effect is felt
When ingesting cannabis, the route to the brain is longer and slower as THC must be broken down into its metabolites through digestion. This whole process can take from 30 min to and hour, hence the effect after ingesting cannabis will always take longer.
When inhaling, on the other hand, THC is enters the bloodstream straight from the lungs and then to the brain. The time it takes THC to travel from the mouth to lungs to brain can be as fast as 5 minutes, with the effect being felt within 10-15 minutes following the first inhalation.
Effects and duration
For a short and sweet hit, then inhalation is the obvious choice. The effects of inhaling will be felt as soon as 10 minutes and can last up to an hour. After which time another inhalation can be taken.
With edibles, the effects and duration are different. As previously mentioned, THC takes awhile to be metabolized by the liver and then released into your bloodstream. Additionally, the other nutrients that may have been consumed at the same time (lunch or dinner) affect the speed at which the liver breaks down THC into 11-OH-THC. This process can take from 30 minutes to an hour before the effect is felt. Often, with edibles, depending on how many milligrams consumed, the effects last longer (up to 5-6 hours) and are stronger compared to inhalation.
The interwebs are full of posts on eating vs inhaling cannabis and the same information is usually found – eating cannabis yields stranger and longer lasting effects because the 11-OH-THC is a strong metabolite that passes the blood-brain barrier faster.
OK, but why does it feel like there’s something missing with this explanation? What is it about edibles and this 11-OH-THC that cause the effect to be stronger? Where does 11-OH-THC come from and why is it always mentioned as an explanation for the edibles effect. Is 11-OH-THC released only when THC is eaten or inhaled. And, if 11-OH-THC is present in both situations, what is causing this difference?
To answer all those questions, let’s start with a bit of a chemestry lesson. The cannabis flower contains THC-A that once heated it is transformed into THC. This process is called decarbolxylation. THC is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis. When THC is metabolized, inside our bodies, a metabolite called 11-OH-THC is formed. One interesting fact about it, is that 11-OH-THC does not exist in the cannabis plant. It is only formed by the human body after we intake the THC.
The explanation to why you get higher off of edibles is because the amount of 11-OH-THC that’s formed, varies greatly depending on whether you eat it or inhale it. As you have probably guessed, higher levels of 11-OH-THC are formed after ingestion than after inhalation.
Now, why is that? And digging deeper we found that, when inhaling cannabis, THC is absorbed directly by your lungs, and there is little metabolism happening. Then, the THC quickly distributes to other body tissues and only a small part of it remains in the blood. Those THC leftovers floating around in your blood will be converted to 11-OH-THC. However, there is not much THC left to be metabolized and so not much 11-OH-THC is formed overall. The levels of 11-OH-THC in your blood after smoking cannabis are only about 5% of THC levels.
However, after taking cannabis orally, the average levels of 11-OH-THC vary from 25% of THC to more than 300% of THC levels.
Now this explains why your high on edibles lasts way longer and it’s way more intense.
Next time, you can make an in informed decision on the type of high you want to get and how much time you have to spare 😛