Have you ever wondered why you have to smoke or heat cannabis to experience psychoactive effects? Most cannabis consumers are already aware that the primary psychoactive cannabinoid in the plant is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
However, THC is not found in fresh cannabis. Fresh cannabis refers to raw cannabis that has not been dried, cured, or heated. If THC is present, it is only in very small amounts. Instead, the cannabinoid exists tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA). But, what is THCA? And what’s the value in consuming raw cannabis, anyway?
What is Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA)?
THCA is a non-psychoactive precursor to THC. Unlike THC, THCA will not cause a euphoric “high”. Rather, THCA can ease pain, soothe an upset stomach, and is safe to use by pretty much anyone. If you make a juice out of raw cannabis leaves and buds, you’ve successfully made hemp juice.
Age and heat break down THCA into THC. This happens through a process called decarboxylation. During decarboxylation, the THCA molecule is transformed. It loses what is called a carboxyl group, which gives the cannabinoid its acid structure. Some of this acid is also lost when fresh cannabis is cut, dried, and cured.
Are there health benefits to THCA?
Between the two compounds, THC is often referred to as the most “active”. However, THCA has some serious nutritional and therapeutic potential on its own. In fact, many medical cannabis patients incorporate raw cannabis into their overall treatment plan. While most cannabis research focuses on the cannabinoid’s psychoactive offspring, here are five potential health benefits of THCA:
1. Nausea and vomiting
Rodent research published by the British Journal of Pharmacology suggests that THCA can reduce nausea and vomiting. In the study, gave THCA to rodents who showed nausea behaviors as well as to shrews who were given a substance to induce vomiting.
Some test subjects were also treated with a low dose of THC by comparison. THCA successfully eased vomiting and reduce gapping, which is how rats show signs of nausea. The raw THCA was more successful than the low-dose THC. The rodents did not show signs of cannabis intoxication.
Many of the best medicines come from plants. One of the most common over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs, aspirin, was actually derived from white willow bark. Interestingly enough, the cannabis plant seems to work in a very similar way.
A 2011 study found that THCA blocks two particular enzymes from manufacturing pro-inflammatory compounds. Those enzymes are COX-1 and COX-2. Both of these enzymes are also targets of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), like aspirin.
As it turns out, brain health may be another great reason to include some raw cannabis into your daily diet. In a 2012 study, THCA treatment successfully reduced disease progression in experimental models of Parkinson’s Disease.
The research was performed in rodent cultures and scientists treated cells with a positively charged compound that weakens the ability to respond to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs when the body cannot successfully subdue or repair the damage from free radicals.
In this experiment, THCA successfully reduced damage to neurons. In Parkinson’s disease, brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine begin to die. As a potent antioxidant, THCA neutralizes the damage from positively charged neurotoxins.
Green juice and smoothies are extremely popular among those seeking a natural remedy for arthritis. Green juices contain a wealth of micronutrients, including antioxidants and anti-inflammatory terpenes and vitamins.
In a way, you can think of THCA as the raw cannabinoid for pain. Early evidence suggests that raw cannabis may be a helpful analgesic. While the effects of cannabis juice might not be as noticeable as the psychoactive stuff, there may be some benefit to supplementing with raw THCA.
A 2008 cell line study found that both THC and THCA engaged a cell receptor that is currently a target for pain research. The receptor is TRPA1 and it is suspected to play a role in inflammatory, neuropathic, and migraine pain. This is yet more evidence that raw cannabis is good for you.
Cancer patients tend to need all of the nutrients they can get. Now, preclinical investigations suggest that raw cannabis may have some anti-cancer potential. The research was published in 2013 and suggests that THCA may have some anti-proliferative effects.
The research was conducted in laboratory models of prostate cancer. THCA was not the strongest anti-cancer compound. Rather, cannabidiol (CBD) showed the most significant effects. Still, this small study provides cause for further investigation into the preventative uses for raw cannabis.
How do you consume THCA?
THCA is a dietary supplement. Unlike other cannabis products, this compound does not provide any sort of psychoactive high. Instead, it can soothe a nauseous stomach and eases pain through nutrition. For those hoping to add a little THCA into their diet, here are three ways to get your daily dose of THCA:
1. Juicing and smoothies
Popularized by Dr. William Courtney, raw cannabis juices and smoothies are an excellent addition to a daily diet. Cannabis juices can be made out of leftover fan leaves, yet the beverage will be more potent if made from raw cannabis bud. Opting for a blender over a juicer might prevent some of the potency from being lost in the pulp.
2. Raw cannabis oil
Some cannabis extractors use special technology to manufacture raw cannabis oils. These raw oils are typically sold in an oral syringe or capsules. These oils can be consumed as is, like a dietary supplement, or can be heated to activate the cannabinoids.
One of the major benefits of going raw is that you can take a very high dose of THCA without any psychoactive effects. With psychoactive cannabis, your dose is limited by your ability to tolerate the THC “high.”
3. Culinary applications
To get the most THCA, raw cannabis should be kept fresh. Leaves can be stored in the refrigerator just like any other leafy green herb. Fan leaves and snips of fresh bud can be thrown into a food processor for herbal salad dressings. Clippings can also be eaten like salad itself.
Though heat may break down some THCA, lightly steaming raw cannabis fan leaves or bud is unlikely to fully activate the bud. To get a significant psychoactive experience from edible cannabis, the cannabis not only needs to be heated but cooked with some fat.
New Study: ‘Genetic moderation of the effects of cannabis’
It isn’t exactly news to announce that connections have been found in the way cannabis effects individual consumers based on variations in their genetic makeup. But a new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, conducted by researchers in the United Kingdom, points to an interesting correlation between a specific genetic variation and individual differences in cognitive and psychotic function upon ingestion of THC. Citing numerous past studies concerning cannabis and predisposition for psychosis and schizophrenia, the paper focuses on a gene well-studied with regards to THC, genetics, and individual vulnerabilities: catechol-O-methyltransferase, or COMT.
Naturally occurring changes in the sequence of a gene can impact the way two different people process the same chemicals. A commonly occurring genetic variation, or polymorphism, that affects the COMT gene is one known as Val158Met. According to the new paper, COMT affects the impact of THC on working memory performance differently in individuals with and without the Val158Met polymorphism. The paper, entitled ‘Genetic moderation of the effects of cannabis: Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) affects the impact of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on working memory performance but not on the occurrence of psychotic experiences,’ reports captivating findings relative to the cognitive effects of THC.
COMT is an enzyme that degrades dopamine in the brain, and the Val158Met genetic variation makes the COMT enzyme less effective at degrading dopamine. This means that individuals with this genetic variation have higher levels of dopamine, and higher levels of dopamine mean better working memory.
Study participants were administered THC or placebo intravenously by a psychiatrist. Following drug administration, researchers evaluated the working memory performance of participatory volunteers. What’s most interesting is that a difference in working memory performance following drug administration, “was not significant in Met carriers.” This is to say, those study participants with the Val158Met polymorphism were less likely to display a difference in working memory performance under the influence of THC than those without the popular genetic variant.
“In our participants, the administration of THC had little effect in Met carriers, impairing performance by ~12% compared with those given placebo (a difference that did not reach statistical significance). In contrast, Val/Val carriers given THC were dramatically impaired (~40%) compared with those given placebo.”
While the new study’s findings are consistent with past research exploring the relationship between COMT and THC, this study declares itself, “the largest to date to examine the impact of COMT genotype on the response to experimentally administered THC.”
Studies such as this serve as fuel for advancing underexplored areas of research, the results of which could drastically alter the way humans understand cannabis — and the way scientists understand humans.
Source: Tunbridge, E. M., et al. “Genetic moderation of the effects of cannabis: Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) affects the impact of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on working memory performance but not on the occurrence of psychotic experiences.” Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England) (2015).
Among the more than 110 medically therapeutic cannabinoids found in marijuana, the big players are THC and CBD. The influence of CBD-only cannabis oils, which cause no euphoric high, is so great that 13 states have passed limited medical marijuana laws targeted only at CBD extracts.
Products like Charlotte’s Web, an increasingly popular pharmaceutical-grade CBD (cannabidiol) extract from Colorado that’s available in capsule, oil, and tincture form, are being used by patients in several states where they are legal. Instead of activists on bullhorns, the loudest — and most persuasive — voices for at least limited medical cannabis legalization are those of the parents of very sick children.
Children with intractable epilepsy, especially those who have tried all conventional pharmaceutical treatments but gained almost no benefit, are using CBD oil to control seizures with amazing efficacy. Unfortunately, CBD is not an end-all cure. It does not work in all cases.
Charlotte Figi & Benton Mackenzie
Charlotte Figi, a nine-year-old Colorado resident, has become the poster child of pediatric medical marijuana. She inspired the creation of a family of CBD-rich Charlotte’s Web products (named by its producer, CW Botanicals, in her honor) to reduce her epileptic seizures. Use of CBD oil has reduced Ms. Figi’s seizure activity by 99.7 percent (before CBD treatment, she suffered between 400 and 1,000 seizures per week).
Benton Mackenzie, a man from Iowa, was suffering from aggressive angiosarcoma, a highly invasive form of cancer. He used high-CBD strains of cannabis to treat his condition — some of which, like Valentine X, provide a 25:1 CBD to THC ratio. For two years, Mackenzie was able to hold his angiosarcoma at Stage 1 though the use of high CBD cannabis.
After being busted for cultivation and incarcerated, where he was obviously deprived of his cannabis medicine, Mackenzie’s cancer progressed from Stage 1 to Stage 4 in only six weeks. Although highly anecdotal, this case is convincing evidence for the power of the CBD cannabinoid to prevent tumor growth and possibly kill cancer cells.
The medical benefit of certain cannabinoids, like CBD, has been clearly illustrated both anecdotally and via limited medical research. The good news is that actual extract products, like Charlotte’s Web, are finally becoming available and legal in many states.
Beyond Extracts: Synthetic Cannabinoids
While cannabinoids are typically isolated via extracts, they have also been synthesized by pharmaceutical companies. In fact, the FDA has approved both Marinol (dronabinol) and Cesamet (nabilone), two forms of synthetic THC.
Unfortunately, these man-made products have garnished mixed — and often negative — reviews from patients with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and cancer. This indicates that there may be other chemicals and elements available in CBD oil extracts that simply aren’t present in synthetic versions of these cannabinoids. (It is already understood that certain cannabis terpenes play a role in regulating the amount of cannabinoids that reaches the brain.)
Dustin Sulak, an osteopathic physician and advocate of integrative medicine in Maine, succinctly summarized the attitude of the medical establishment toward cannabinoids and whole plant cannabis medicine:
“Many physicians cringe at the thought of recommending a botanical substance, and are outright mortified by the idea of smoking a medicine. Our medical system is more comfortable with single, isolated substances that can be swallowed or injected.”
“Unfortunately, this model significantly limits the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids.”
Think Outside the Box
When considering medical cannabis, one must think outside the box and not constrain the issue to only whole plant cannabis that is smoked, vaped, or used to create edibles.
In the case of children, a cannabis-derived medicine that provides no euphoric high, is easy to administer, and delivers significant relief for some patients is where medical science and nature work in tandem to provide sometimes remarkable efficacy.