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Why Higher THC Isn't Always Better

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The High THC Path

The path to relief is unique to each patient.  As a medical marijuana patient experiences the program, the cost and effectiveness of the products become a major focus. When a person finds a product that successfully mitigates their malady, their product explorations can turn into product expectations. Over time, patients may gain tolerance to the products they medicate with consistently, and that can often create obstacles in the path to relief.  When things seem to stop working as effectively, a great deal of opinions, assumptions, and facts can flood the horizon, and make adjusting treatments plans difficult to predict and frustrating to bear. 

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Fig. 1

As the patient, it is very logical to conclude that increasing the size and/or potency of each dose should overwhelm any build up of tolerance and return the preferred depth of effects.  This style of thinking is common practice in medicine, where prescriptions will often increase and multiply their strength over time, and high-dose formulations become the norm. Marijuana interacts with our bodies differently than most treatments, and that means that the same ‘more is more’ approach will not dependably create the same outcome.  Over the dispensary counter, the idea that only a ‘high THC diet’ works is common to hear, but can often lead to more questions than answers.

Variety is one of marijuana’s greatest strengths and many of the other molecules found in this plant are also significant factors in how the effects are achieved.  To better understand “why ‘high THC’ isn’t always better”, let’s look at the mechanism of how THC interacts with our biological systems. 

The Plant and the Animal

Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a cannabinoid in marijuana that drives the primary psychological effects. THC is one of over 60 known cannabinoids found in medical marijuana.  You’ve probably heard about the other main marijuana cannabinoid, Cannabidiol (CBD), which is quickly becoming a household name. Although the other cannabinoids are important and also create effects in the body (CBC, CBN, CBG, THCV, etc), they usually occur in trace amounts while THC can be found in concentrations above 30% in the dried flower.  THC is a phytocannabinoids (comes from plants), whereas the human body naturally synthesizes Anandamide, an endocannabinoid (comes from our bodies) on demand. When we consume THC, it mimics the role of Anandamide and interacts with receptors in our Endocannabinoid System (ECS); a system that deals with the regulation of appetite, sleep, pain, mood, and memory. 


The Wall of Tolerance

When THC is consumed, it binds primarily to receptors in our ECS called CB1 and CB2, along with several other receptor-types in the body (TRPV1, GPR55, 5-HT, etc).  As consumption becomes regular, the receptor sites are constantly flooded with cannabinoids and they can produce less effects over time, which leads to tolerance. If the dosage of THC is increased to meet the rising tolerance, the sites will continue to decrease performance and diminish effects.  At that point, relief becomes difficult to achieve physically and financially. Samples of marijuana flower tested by the DEA in the 1990’s contained THC concentrations around 4% potency and by 2012 had tripled to around 12% THC content with improved breeding techniques. Historically, flower with more than 12% THC can be considered high potency marijuana and the medical program has yielded strains crossing the 30% mark.  Products around that potency can exacerbate the development of tolerance quickly, as they virtually didn’t exist until very recently and can skew the judgement of a patient when thinking about treatment options.

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When purity is that high, there is little room for the other medicinal molecules such as terpenes, terpenoids, flavonoids, and other phytocannabinoids that can help enhance the effects of THC and prolong the process of building tolerance. Understandably, relief may be achieved with high-THC content, however, depending on other factors in the approach, significant increases in tolerance can develop in as little as a few weeks or months, or it can take as long as years and decades.  Patients who reach a plateau in their treatment may be faced with having to take a “tolerance break”, where one may have to greatly reduce or stop treatment altogether to let the body reset a bit and lose tolerance. This process may last from a few days to a month. It is always best to discuss any changes with a Medical Professional. 

The Other Players

There are many ways to avoid rapidly building tolerance. Products with the highest percentage of THC/THCa may win the numbers game, however products that include the other beneficial molecules from marijuana can create relief comparable to the high-THC products, but with more potential for a unique relief profile.  Here are a few molecules to consider when thinking about treatment:

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Fig. 3

  • Terpenes are essential oils produced throughout the plant world and in the marijuana plant and they are responsible for the smell characteristics of the buds and extracts.  When consumed with THC and other cannabinoids, terpenes can modify their behaviors and effects adding a variety of nuances to the experience. There are over 100 terpenes known to occur in marijuana.

  •  Flavonoids are plant chemicals responsible for the vibrant colors in fruits and vegetables.  There is a host of beneficial effects from intake of flavonoids, which help color the foliage and flowers of marijuana. 

  • Other Cannabinoids – THCV is known as a potent psychoactive stimulant and may significantly impact the effects of treatments.  CBD has been very popular in today’s culture, having a wide range of similar benefits to health as cannabis without the psychological euphoria.  CBN is regarded for its ability to help as a sleep aid, and can induce heavy sedation. There are over 60 known to occur in marijuana.

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Fig. 4

For the Future

With over 200+ chemicals in marijuana that can interact with our body, it would be limiting to approach relief with a High-THC only mentality.  Like with food and nutrition, consuming a variety of things can help diversify the sources of beneficial bio-molecules. Including products that have other ingredients besides THC can bring a new level of effects and potentially reduce the amount of THC needed to reach the threshold of relief.  For patients, that means harnessing the possibility of gaining less tolerance less quickly and a higher likelihood of maintaining access to significant relief. 


Image Credits

Fig. 1: TerraVida Holistic Centers

Fig 2: TerraVida Holistic Centers

Fig 3: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0108/5063/1744/articles/article_cannabinoids-and-terpenes_850x.progressive.jpg?v=1555000307

Fig 4: https://www.cannabend.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/buddybud.jpg