Since before CBD became a buzzword, it’s been under the microscope, literally and figuratively.
There has been much research centered around how CBD’s naturally anti-inflammatory properties might be harnessed to aid in inflammation reduction and pain.
But what about THC? Is THC anti-inflammatory, too?
The answer is yes…and no. In some cases, THC, one of the main active compounds in cannabis, can have anti-inflammatory effects. In others, it can increase inflammation.
It depends on a number of factors, factors we’ve taken a deep dive to learn more about.
So, if you’re curious about how THC works in the body alone and alongside other compounds, and whether it really is the wonder compound some say, you’re going to want to keep reading.
Understanding THC and Its Mechanisms
What is THC?
If you’ve ever gotten high on cannabis, that’s THC doing its thing. (1)
THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (say that three times fast), is a chemical compound, or cannabinoid, found in the cannabis plant.
It’s the primary psychoactive compound responsible for the “high” you feel when you consume cannabis. (2)
It’s not just a one-trick pony, though.
THC has also been studied for its potential medicinal benefits, such as pain relief and appetite stimulation. Of course, THC also has potential side effects and can impair brain and motor functions.
THC can overstimulate something called the endocannabinoid system, which is what causes its negative effects. At the same time, it can be useful for moderating inflammation.
Just what is the endocannabinoid system? Great question, we’d love to tell you.
The Endocannabinoid System and Its Role in Inflammation
The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is the invisible superhighway in our bodies that regulates pain and inflammation.
The ECS can be broken down into 3 primary components:
Endocannabinoids: Despite how the name sounds, endocannabinoids are actually produced by our bodies! “Endo” is the prefix for “inside”, and the cannabinoids we produce are structurally similar to compounds found in the cannabis plant. Wild. (3)
Receptors: The ECS contains two main types of receptors: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain and spinal cord, while CB2 receptors are primarily found in the peripheral nervous system and immune cells.
Think of receptors like locks, and cannabinoids as keys. We’ll get into this a bit more later.
Enzymes: Once the THC or CBD you’ve ingested has fulfilled its function, enzymes break them down. Enzymes like fatty acid amine hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL) break down our internal, or endocannabinoids. They can also break down THC and CBD. (3)
The ECS plays a significant role in how our bodies deal with inflammation.
It modulates the release of pro- and anti-inflammatory molecules, which can be assisted with the usage of CBD and THC, which bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors. Based on the levels of endo (inside, body-produced) and exo (outside, like CBD or THC) cannabinoids in the body, the ECS turns the inflammation and pain dials up or down.
We’re throwing a bunch of terms at you, but we promise this is as technical as it gets. If you’ve got these down, the next section will be a breeze.
Examining Existing Studies
Studies Suggesting THC’s Anti-Inflammatory Effects
The best word to describe the results from studies investigating THC’s anti-inflammatory is “mixed.”
Why? The relationship between THC and inflammation is complex. Some studies have shown anti-inflammatory effects in some contexts, while others have demonstrated pro-inflammatory effects.
We’ve taken a survey of the existing literature and broken it down a bit for you.
Pro-Inflammatory and Anti-Inflammatory Effects
It’s easy to think of inflammation as something general and invisible, or something specific and invisible, like a rash.
The truth is, inflammation is both. It can be a generalized immune system response to an irritant, or a specific reaction in a specific organ, like the ocular inflammation that occurs in glaucoma.
With that in mind, we’re exploring both sides of THC’s coin.
Pain and Inflammation: THC has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation in some studies, which is especially relevant for chronic inflammation conditions like chronic pain and rheumatoid arthritis.
Neuroinflammation: Some research indicates that THC may have neuroprotective properties and can reduce neuroinflammation, potentially benefiting conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): THC and other cannabinoids have been explored for their potential to alleviate symptoms of IBD, such as reducing inflammation and improving gut function.
Ocular Inflammation: THC has been studied for its potential to reduce intraocular pressure, making it a candidate for the treatment of conditions like glaucoma.
Dose-Dependent: At higher doses, THC has been associated with pro-inflammatory responses.
Immune System Modulation: THC use can lead to both suppression and stimulation of the immune system, depending on context and individual factors.
Respiratory Inflammation: When THC is smoked or vaped, it can irritate the respiratory system and lead to airway inflammation, contributing to respiratory issues.
Addressing Conflicting or Inconclusive Findings
Sometimes, conflicts of interest can arise with research when financial, professional, or personal interests might influence research findings.
No research happens without funding, but it’s important to examine where the funding comes from. In the case with THC research, researchers may receive funding from pharmaceutical companies or cannabis industry organizations that are angling for a certain outcome.
Bias is also a thing, but in general, we’ll stand by our original conclusion: THC’s anti-inflammatory properties in studies is, at best, mixed.
The Role of Cannabidiol (CBD)
CBD and THC’s Anti-Inflammatory Potential
Let’s skip straight to the takeaway: both CBD and THC have potential anti-inflammatory properties.
So, what’s the difference?
Like we outlined earlier with the endocannabinoid system, CBD interacts with the ECS through CB2 receptors, which are highly concentrated in immune cells. It’s this interaction that’s thought to modulate the immune response, reducing inflammation. (5)
It’s also non-psychoactive. Psychoactive effects are not inflammatory, but they can be unpleasant for some users.
THC also interacts with the ECS, through both CB1 and CB2 receptors. And while it can have anti-inflammatory effects, those are usually dose-dependent and context-specific.
THC can have pro-inflammatory effects at higher doses or when used chronically, unlike CBD’s reputation for being generally anti-inflammatory.
It’s also psychoactive, which can be undesirable for the user. That’s also what makes it subject to legal regulations, making it less accessible for treatment than CBD. (5)
The Entourage Effect
We can’t think of the phrase “entourage effect” without thinking of that show with Drama, Turtle, and Ari Gold. Remember that one?
In science speak, it’s similar – the same way the guys all hung around each other hoping to make it big, there’s evidence to suggest that the combination of various compounds in the cannabis plant, including THC and CBD as well as other cannabinoids, terpenes, and phytochemicals, may work together synergistically to produce more significant therapeutic effects than individual compounds alone. (6)
Simply put: they’re better together.
Here’s a more detailed explanation of the entourage effect:
Cannabinoids: We’ve talked THC and CBD already, but cannabis plants contain over 100 distinct cannabinoids. Each interacts with the endocannabinoid system in unique ways, affecting various functions. One such cannabinoid, cannabigerol (or CBG) may also play a role in modulating inflammation when combined with THC and CBD. (7)
Terpenes: These are aromatic compounds found in many plants, including cannabis. Terpenes contribute to the distinct flavors and aromas you might associate with certain strains. Some terpenes, like myrcene, have demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects. (8)
Phytochemicals: Biologically active plant compounds. Phytochemicals like flavonoids and other compounds are found in cannabis, with therapeutic potential all their own.
When cannabinoids, terpenes, and phytochemicals come together, magic happens.
Ok, well, maybe not exactly magic, but something pretty cool.
The entourage effect suggests that when these compounds are consumed together in their natural ratios (that’s important!) they may enhance each other’s benefits while mitigating potential side effects.
For example, overactivation of CB1 receptors via THC can cause unpleasant effects like dizziness, paranoia, and anxiety – side effects of an overstimulated endocannabinoid system.
But, when taken together with CBD, which has a lower binding affinity, you may experience a much more pleasant and analgesic effect. (7)
Keep in mind that the entourage effect’s exact mechanisms are still being researched, and individual outcomes will vary. Some may find inflammation relief with certain combinations of THC and CBD in strains or products, while others may experience different effects.
Always consult with a healthcare professional who can provide personalized guidance.
Safety and Side Effects of THC
Risks and Side Effects of THC Consumption
Ever heard “you can’t OD on weed!”
Usually it’s a cannabis super-enthusiast using that logic.
And they’re kind of correct? Only in the sense that you won’t experience sudden death with overconsumption, which happens with harder drugs.
But that certainly doesn’t mean you won’t experience any negative side effects from consuming THC, whether that’s smoking, vaping, or eating it. (9)
– Psychoactive Effects
– Impaired Coordination
– Cognitive Impairment
– Increased Heart Rate
– Anxiety and Paranoia
can be part and parcel of using THC.
And with longer-term use,
– Respiratory Issues
– Memory/Learning Impairments
also make the list. (9)
Our best advice? Start with a low dose, be mindful of potential risks, and consult with a professional.
Difference in Individual Responses to THC
The above advice goes double if you’re interested in THC for anti-inflammatory purposes.
Chances are, you may already be on other medications. In that case, you’ll want to consult a healthcare professional to determine what interactions might occur, and how you can avoid them.
Reactions to THC are so individualized that it can be impossible to anticipate how a specific strain or product might affect you. The ECS is different in everyone’s system, with different levels of endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors.
You don’t want to mess up your levels, so get with a pro before proceeding.
Other Factors Influencing Inflammation
Diet and Lifestyle’s Impact on Inflammation
If you are managing a chronic condition, it can be overwhelming.
Especially if you’re dealing with chronic pain.
Chances are, you’re relying on NSAIDs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen, to manage the pain. NSAIDs don’t work with the endocannabinoid system the way cannabinoids like THC or CBD might.
Instead, they function by inhibiting enzymes that produce inflammation-promoting compounds called prostaglandins. Basically, they put a stop to the pain by reducing prostaglandin production. (11)
Some studies have explored the synergistic effects of combining THC and/or CBD with NSAIDs for enhanced pain relief, but more research is needed.
In the meantime, what can you do to help manage inflammation? It sounds basic, but it’s effective: improving diet, exercise, and sleep hygiene can all play a major role in reducing inflammation by limiting the opportunities for it to take hold.
After all, if the lifestyle you lead is contributing to chronic inflammation, no amount of cannabinoids or NSAIDs will give you true relief.
Holistic Approaches to Inflammation Management
The quickest way to start managing inflammation holistically can be found in the foods you eat. (10)
Eating the rainbow can help reduce inflammation. Think colorful fruits and vegetables along with whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish. These foods contain vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that combat oxidative stress and inflammation.
Replacing saturated and trans fats with healthier options like olive oil and avocado can also be beneficial. Also, limiting sugar and soda can help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce inflammation.
On the anti-inflammatory side, certain spices and herbs like turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon have anti-inflammatory properties. Golden milk latte, anyone?
Might as well combine a revamped diet with a shift in lifestyle, right?
First step: chill out! Practicing stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises can help lower stress levels and potentially reduce inflammation.
And if you’re not getting good shut-eye, try. Poor sleep quality can increase inflammation.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol definitely promote inflammation while increasing the risk of inflammatory-related diseases. Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake can have a positive impact on inflammation – but we probably didn’t need to tell you that!
Speaking of no-brainers: drink your water. Staying well-hydrated is important for overall health, and it can help your body digest more efficiently, potentially reducing inflammation.
Lastly, go with your gut. A healthy gut microbiome plays a significant role in regulating inflammation. Consuming probiotics (like in yogurt and kefir) and prebiotics (like in garlic, onions, and bananas) can help balance a gut microbiome and reduce inflammation.
Legal and Regulatory Considerations
The Legal Status of THC and Cannabis Products
Bummer alert: under federal law, cannabis, including THC, is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. (12)
Schedule I substances are considered illegal, with no recognized medical use and a high potential for abuse.
Flies in the face of all this research for pain management and inflammation, right?
There is a silver lining: cannabis laws are primarily regulated at the state level. As of 2021, a majority of U.S. states have enacted some form of cannabis legalization, but specific regulations and uses differ significantly from state to state.
States typically fall into one of the following categories:
Some states have legalized the recreational use of cannabis for adults. In these states, adults can purchase and possess cannabis products containing THC for personal use. Examples of such states include Colorado, California, and Washington.
Many states have established medical cannabis programs that allow qualified patients to access THC-containing products for specific medical conditions. These programs require patients to obtain a doctor’s recommendation or prescription.
CBD-Only or Limited THC
Some states have legalized the use of low-THC or CBD-dominant cannabis products for medical purposes. These products typically contain minimal levels of THC.
In some states, cannabis remains fully illegal for all uses, including both recreational and medical.
Kind of a broad spectrum, huh?
While many states have legalized cannabis in some form, federal law still classifies it as illegal. Unfortunately, this creates a legal gray area and potential conflicts between federal and state law enforcement – not to mention limits on research for medicinal purposes.
We can say cannabis laws here in the United States are continually evolving. Additionally, there have been ongoing discussion and legislative efforts to reevaluate cannabis’s Schedule I status and potentially decriminalize or legalize it.
If the federal law does change, it would have significant implications for the legal status of cannabis and THC products nationwide.
Responsible Usage and Consumer Awareness
Responsible Consumption of THC
Whether you’re using or planning to use THC, responsible consumption is key.
And responsible consumption starts with knowing your local laws, knowing the product you’re about to consume, and knowing yourself.
A little research can help with the first two, but self-knowledge is paramount. That’s why we advocate starting with a low dose and monitoring its effects before proceeding to higher doses.
Slow and steady wins the race, and that’s especially true when it comes to substances that have such individual effects. There’s also a wealth of products available, so if one form of THC/CBD isn’t your thing, there are other forms out there.
Informed Decision-Making and Understanding Risks
If you don’t have a local dispensary near you, digital resources like Leafly, The Cannabist, or Leafwell’s Medical Marijuana Blog can help answer your questions and keep you up-to-date on the ever-changing landscape that is cannabis regulation.
Of course, digital resources are no replacement for speaking to a licensed healthcare professional when it comes to actually ingesting substances, or choosing a product to integrate into your everyday life. For those purposes, we always recommend a local professional.
Getting a straight answer on THC’s usability for pain management or inflammation can feel like an impossible task.
There’s a ton of research out there, much of it conflicting. Not to mention that it’s often found in long, jargon-riddled articles that can make your eyes glaze over super fast.
Who knows? In 5 years, we may have a more concrete understanding. Research, after all, takes time.
In the meantime, there’s no substitute for self-knowledge and mindful experimentation. If you’re considering a cannabinoid-based intervention for chronic inflammation, don’t be discouraged – but also, don’t expect miracles.
At the end of the day, it’s your day-to-day life that determines your outcome. Meaning, lifestyle changes that reduce or limit inflammation can be a great first step while you determine your next one.