The physiology behind the different ways of consuming cannabis

Many people who use cannabis recreationally usually smoke it. It’s a practice that’s been done for many years among friends and users, but against medical advice to not smoke.

A 2016 Gallup poll found that one in eight people smoke marijuana and 43 percent of U.S. adults admit to trying it. The physiology behind the different ways of consuming cannabis is important to understanding which method is suitable for you.

Doctors, however, usually recommend ingesting cannabis in other ways like vaping or edibles, though they caution those methods come at their own risks.

Inhaling smoke regardless of the source of the smoke will irritate and inflame the respiratory tract and has the potential to lead to cancer. Cannabis smoke, tobacco smoke, even if one were to roll up spinach, would elicit the same effect.

Some people report smoking cannabis helps to alleviate their asthma, and this is true. For some patients, cannabis does help alleviate asthma. However, it is the smoke and the process of burning that release harmful carcinogens. This is what most physicians warn patients of for causing chronic lung disease and cancer.

This is also why medication like salbutamol and other bronchodilators deliver through inhalation but without combustion that releases harmful carcinogens.

How inhalation takes place in the body

Image depicts how gas exchange occurs normally with oxygen and carbon dioxide. Same principle can be applied to cannabis. (Image via. Shutterstock)

When someone smokes cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) enter the lungs and are lead to the pulmonary alveoli, which are tiny air sacs of the lungs, considered to be the basic unit of ventilation. These alveoli run close to capillaries in order for gas exchange to occur.

The THC enters the bloodstream via the alveoli to induce chemical effects to the brain by activating the endocannabinoid system. The effects of smoking cannabis occur after a few minutes of inhalation rather than if a person were to eat it. The effects are usually last a shorter period of time.

Vaporization basically happens the same way, except cannabis is heated at lower temperatures, enough for the plant’s oils and extracts to be released in vapor form. Although several studies have shown vaping is better than smoking, doctors still advise patients – especially those with lung disease – to stick to edibles so as not to put stress on the lungs.

Edibles have longer lasting effects

Edibles seems like the safest route, however, dosing can be difficult with many people overdosing when making edibles. It is important to ensure patients measure and stick to prescribed dosages as provided by their medical professional.

Aside from the popular “pot brownie”, edible cannabis can be added to a number of foods, including candy, ice cream, and butter. Some people even make teas and use oils with their salad dressing to ingest it.

When you eat cannabis, it enters the stomach and liver via the digestive tract. From there, it is absorbed into the bloodstream. It is important to note here that the liver has the potential to change THC into a stronger, more potent strain which results in a greater sedative effect.

Absorption this way is usually much slower than inhalation since the cannabis has to essentially be digested in the stomach, which absorbs slowly. In some cases, it can take up to two hours for a patient to feel the effects but they last longer than smoking. Some people even report feeling the effects of edibles up to twelve hours longer.