Even if you’re brand-new to the flood of cannabis-based products that are currently entering the health and wellness market, you’ve likely heard of THC. There are dozens of compounds, collectively known as cannabinoids, found in a cannabis plant, and THC is perhaps the most famous of all. THC is so well known because it’s the psychoactive compound that gets you high when using cannabis, but its potential uses extend far beyond the recreational. Doctors and scientists are learning more each day about the medicinal benefits of THC and two closely-related compounds: THCA and THCV.
Read on to explore the many connections and differences between THC, THCA, and THCV. We’ll discuss how these compounds function, and explore the scientific research that’s been done on each one, and learn the latest on their potential benefits for a variety of medical conditions. We’ll also dive into the key differences between THC and the other best-known cannabinoid: CBD.
What Are Cannabinoids, Anyway?
Before we dig deeper into the differences between THC, THCA, and THCV, let’s back away from the abbreviations and ask a much simpler question: what are cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are the naturally occurring chemical compounds found within the cannabis plant. First identified by Israeli scientists in the 1960s, more than 110 cannabinoids have been discovered to date. Even more, will likely be isolated as researchers continue to learn about the complex molecular structure of the cannabis plant.
Cannabinoids are the compounds responsible for the various medicinal applications of cannabis and hemp-derived products, which have been studied for the treatment of inflammation, nausea, epileptic seizures, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, chronic pain, cancer, and much more. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the specific applications of THC, THCA, and THCV.
How Does Your Body Use THC, THCA, and THCV?
To understand how the body uses cannabinoids like THC, you first need to understand a key internal system that may not have shown up in your high school biology textbooks: the endocannabinoid system. This complex, built-in mechanism allows you to respond to cannabinoids using a network of receptors scattered throughout the body. Found in almost every major organ system—from the brain and spinal cord to the gastrointestinal tract—these receptors help your body regulate its health and achieve homeostasis.
The endocannabinoid system contains two major types of receptors. CB1 receptors are predominantly linked to the brain and nervous system, while CB2 receptors primarily influence the immune system. These receptors, along with enzymes that aid in the cleanup after endocannabinoid system processes take place, help our bodies maintain a stable internal environment.
When activated by exposure to cannabinoids like THC, the receptors of the endocannabinoid system become reactive. This means they’re able to affect key body processes, ranging from mood and memory to appetite and pain. The specific effects of cannabis-derived products depend on two factors: the cannabinoid or blend of cannabinoids being used, and where you find the receptors that bind with those compounds.
Interested in learning more? Take a deeper dive into the endocannabinoid system.
What is THC?
Now that you know a little bit more about cannabinoids and how they interact with our bodies, it’s time to introduce delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. THC is one of the most prevalent cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant and the compound that’s responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis. Scientists first isolated THC in the 1960s; in the decades since, we’ve learned that THC has a wide variety of physical effects beyond the psychoactive—including many beneficial ones.
Within the endocannabinoid system, THC acts as an agonist, or activator, for CB1 receptors. (You’ll recall from above that these are the receptors closely associated with the brain and nervous system.) When THC is ingested, these receptors trigger increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area that controls decision-making, attention span, and executive functions like motor skills. The effect of THC on these functions produces the feeling of intoxication associated with cannabis use.
In recent years, scientists have discovered that THC can do much more than simply get you high—the boom in the medical marijuana industry is an indicator that we’re likely to see even more applications for cannabis-derived products in the coming years. THC has been studied as a potential treatment for a variety of medical conditions, including:
Nausea and Vomiting
THC has been studied as a possible anti-emetic; some researchers have found that it can also be used to boost the efficacy of other antiemetic drugs if used in combination.
For patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and other conditions that may cause decreased appetite, THC can function as an appetite stimulant. Research has shown that THC therapy helps patients regain their appetites and maintain stable body weight with extended use.
Some of the most extensive clinical studies of THC and other cannabinoids have focused on their efficacy as alternatives to NSAIDs and other common drugs for pain relief. They have been found effective in treating many types of pain, from everyday injuries to long-term and chronic pain associated with arthritis and inflammatory conditions.
THC can be ingested in a variety of ways, most commonly through inhalation (smoking or vaping), as well as orally in the form of edibles, tinctures, capsules, and oils. Inhalation causes the effects of THC to be felt more rapidly, while oral ingestion usually results in stronger and longer-lasting effects. Less common methods of THC use include sublingual (dissolvable strips, sprays, and lozenges) and topical applications.
What is THCA?
THCA is the abbreviation for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, a cannabinoid that’s closely related to THC. In fact, THCA is technically the precursor to THC. In the raw cannabis plant, THCA is produced before any THC is present. THCA is transformed into THC through a process known as decarboxylation, which occurs when THCA is exposed to heat, sunlight, or a curing process over a prolonged period. This process removes carboxylic acid (the “A” in THCA), leaving THC behind.
Psychoactive effects are the key difference between THC and THCA. THCA is non-intoxicating because its molecular structure doesn’t allow it to interact with the CB1 receptors that cause the high from THC. Because THCA molecules don’t fit with the CB1 receptors, they don’t trigger the same type of activity within the endocannabinoid system.
For patients seeking relief from a variety of conditions without the psychoactive effects of THC, THCA may provide a valuable alternative. As a nutritional supplement, THCA may benefit users who suffer from inflammatory conditions like arthritis and lupus, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammatory bowel diseases, nausea and appetite loss, some forms of cancer, and more. Research is still in the early phases for this lesser-known cannabinoid and should continue to expand in the coming years.
Since THCA is transformed into THC through exposure to sunlight or heat, the only way to obtain this compound is via raw cannabis. The plant must be fresh, uncured, and unheated to contain THCA. Because of this, THCA is most commonly consumed in the form of raw juices and smoothies. Alternative options, including transdermal patches, are also entering the marketplace.
What is THCV?
THCV, short for tetrahydrocannabivarin, is the final compound in our trio of cannabinoids. One of the lesser-known cannabinoid compounds, THCV is relatively under-studied in the medical community; in fact, there’s still some disagreement about whether it has psychoactive properties at all. Some studies even suggest that THCV activates CB1 receptors at higher doses, but acts as a CB1 antagonist at lower doses.
THCV is found in very small quantities in most strains of cannabis, so you’re likely to encounter it in combination with THC and other cannabinoids, rather than in isolation. Though it’s similar to THC in molecular structure, THCV has been shown to have very different physical effects in a small number of scientific studies. Research suggests the potential for THCV use in the following fields:
Unlike THC, THCV has been found to dull the appetite, indicating possible benefits for consumers interested in weight loss.
Researchers have shown potential applications for THCV in reducing insulin sensitivity and regulating blood sugar levels.
Anxiety and PTSD
Like many cannabinoids, THCV may be an effective option for the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders.
Like several other cannabinoids, THCV may stimulate the growth of new bone cells.
THCV was discovered nearly a decade after better-known cannabinoids like CBD, CBG, and THC, which may help to explain why there is so much room for further research on the applications of this compound. Until scientific research becomes more definitive, the jury is still very much out on the functionalities of THCV.
How is THC Different from CBD?
The most widely known and significant difference between THC and CBD is rooted in the psychoactive qualities of each compound. CBD does not share the intoxicating effects of THC, meaning that CBD-only products are safe to use as you go about your daily life. By contrast, THC gives most users the typical high associated with cannabis use, so should be utilized with greater caution.
Why are the effects of these two compounds so different? It all comes down to how they interact with the endocannabinoid system. As we noted above, THC activates CB1 receptors, triggering blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and affecting decision-making, attention span, and executive functions like motor skills—giving an overall feeling of intoxication. CBD, on the other hand, interferes with the action of CB1 receptors, which means it can actually function to balance the effects of THC on the brain and does not have intoxicating effects if used alone.
Do THC and CBD Work Together?
While each cannabinoid compound can have potent effects in isolation, scientists have recently discovered that they may be most beneficial when used together—a phenomenon known as the “entourage effect.”
Also known as “whole plant medicine,” this theory of treatment suggests that products containing the full spectrum of cannabinoids like THC and CBD, along with other compounds known as terpenes and flavonoids, can provide the most balanced options for therapeutic use. In particular, a blend of THC and CBD can help to mitigate the high associated with THC-only formulations, while still allowing users to experience the medical benefits outlined above.
What’s Next in Cannabinoid Research?
While the study of THC is still in the early stages of development for many conditions, two FDA-approved drugs containing THC are currently on the market. These drugs, dronabinol, and nabilone use synthetic THC to treat nausea caused by chemotherapy and increase the appetites of patients who experience weight loss caused by AIDS. Sativex®, an oral spray containing a mixture of THC and CBD, has also been approved in Canada and several European countries for the treatment of muscle control issues caused by multiple sclerosis. As the pool of available research continues to expand, new THC-containing drugs may appear on the market for a wider variety of conditions.
How Do I Know if I Could Benefit from THC?
If you’re interested in trying THC for any of the medical conditions discussed above, you might be apprehensive—and you might have questions, too. Will you experience any real benefits? Should you be concerned about the psychoactive effects of THC? How can you determine which cannabinoid products are right for you?
If you’re contemplating THC as a possible medical treatment, start by talking to your doctor. Many medical professionals were somewhat dismissive of cannabis as a legitimate medical treatment in the past, but the legalization of and expanding research on medical marijuana has dramatically changed the outlook of the medical community in recent years.
Have an open and honest conversation with your doctor about your interest in THC. They’ll be able to share the latest research, direct you to reputable sources, and monitor your health if you choose to try THC.