If your body is a temple—and of course it is—it is a temple with a VIP entrance.
Multiple points of ingress are available, and each pathway differs with screening, processing (and rejecting!) its entrants. And once inside, access to various areas of your brain and body is similarly stratified.
This imperfect analogy is useful to remember when choosing how to consume cannabis. Will eating an edible or taking a puff of a vape change how your body absorbs cannabinoids? (Advanced cannabis consumers can think of it this way: Does the method of ingestion change how my endocannabinoid system is triggered?)
The short answer is “of course” — your digestive tract is different from your pulmonary system. Experiencing the onset of effects in seconds rather than in half an hour is significant. And depending on your consumption method, some cannabinoids may be lost during the process.
So how do you pick a consumption method? A better way to think about this might be, What is the point? That is, what effects are you seeking to experience and what context are you in?
With this starting inquiry, the right method will reveal itself to you. Grasping this concept will also give you a working understanding of what science nerds call “ cannabinoid pharmacokinetics,” which is a fancy way of describing how the body absorbs, distributes, metabolizes and clears cannabinoids from its system after consumption. There’s a lot to take in here, admittedly. But it’s all quite fascinating and super handy, to be honest. So let’s break it down together!
A Brief Review of Key Terminology
You’ve probably heard of constituent cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) by now. Scientists have actually identified over 100 cannabinoids, but THC and CBD are the ones you’ll commonly see printed on product labels.
You may also be aware that both of these cannabinoids activate different receptors in your endocannabinoid system, a network of neurotransmitters located throughout your brain and body (but not uniformly) that regulate key functions like mood, appetite and sleep. Which receptors they reach first and in what quantities absolutely hinges on consumption method!
The blood brain barrier is a semi-permeable barrier that blocks certain compounds in the blood from entering the brain (but not other parts of the body!).
And bioavailability is a measure of how much of a substance (like THC) can be absorbed into your bloodstream. Some consumption methods let more cannabinoids into your system than others.
Now let’s take a look at how different cannabis consumption methods can impact your experience.
Concern: I want to get high, now—but not too high, and not for too long!
Inhalation still delivers the most immediate effects–both rapid and efficient—and is thus the best method for immediate relief that the user can fine-tune with additional puffs, a technique called titration. Research indicates smoking THC provides a higher level of bioavailability than oral ingestion. However, there are a number of different factors that play into THC bioavailability of various consumption methods for different people. And some people report feeling more intoxicated after eating an edible than from consuming the same dose via inhalation.
The key thing to know is that the effects of inhalation generally hit harder and faster than oral ingestion, but the effects of cannabinoid-infused edibles last far longer—which can be a plus or a minus, depending on your level of experience and intended use. The delayed onset makes titration more difficult, and thus, it’s easier to accidentally ingest too much and have an extended unpleasant experience. Discomfit from smoking recedes quickly. Not so with edibles.
Inhalation delivery methods include smoking and vaporizing. Some consumers prefer lighting up a joint, while others prefer the cooling effects of using a water pipe or bong filled with ice cubes. For many consumers who’d rather avoid inhaling smoke altogether, vaporizers are a great option. Devices range from tiny vape pens to handheld portable vaporizers and table-top vapes. Thanks to the latest innovations in vape technology, cutting-edge handheld vaporizers like DaVinci's IQ2 Vaporizer work with concentrates and dry flower, and offer a number of added benefits, like on device dosage, temperature control, draw resistance and more.
Concern: I want long-lasting relief (and I don’t mind getting high)!
If, on the other hand, you’re seeking long-lasting relief for conditions like insomnia or chronic pain, the extended effects of orally ingesting cannabinoid-infused edibles may be a big selling point. The long-lasting effects of oral ingestion also have the added benefit of reducing the frequency of doses needed for relief.
Eating cannabis means the cannabinoids are absorbed through your metabolic system, rather than going directly into your bloodstream (and your brain, and the rest of your body) through the lungs.
This process where cannabinoids are metabolized by enzymes in your liver before moving into the bloodstream is described as the “first-pass metabolism” of ingested edibles. And it explains why edibles have a delayed onset and why the effects of oral ingestion last longer than inhalation.
Concern: I want localized pain relief, but I don’t want to get high!
Not everyone likes feeling the intoxicating effects of THC. But many people who don’t want a psychoactive, full-body high still want to experience the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids. For such consumers, topical cannabis products are an excellent option for localized pain relief or relief from various inflammatory skin conditions.
Topical cannabis products applied to the skin react with local endocannabinoid receptors in the skin, muscle and ligature, but do not reach the bloodstream and thus, don’t trigger the full endocannabinoid system or produce intoxicating effects in the brain (a notable exception to this are transdermal patches).
Many consumers attest to the effective localized relief they get from applying topical sprays and lotions with equal parts THC and CBD to aches and pains like an arthritic wrist or a sore knee. And because these topicals don’t produce intoxicating effects, they can be applied throughout the day without much concern about being in an “appropriate” environment.
Concern: I want the most absorption of cannabinoids possible!
Another delivery method option (one that’s mostly utilized by quite advanced consumers and certain medical patients) are cannabis suppositories. Yes, these are a real thing, and advocates say they work well.
They are an increasingly popular option for a few reasons. As Leafly reports, cannabis suppositories are easy to use, they take effect quickly, and they don’t produce a strong head-high, like inhaled THC does.
According to Project CBD, although some reports suggest decreased bioavailability as a possible explanation for why users report less “head high,” the research is still limited. Meanwhile, other research indicates that bioavailability for suppositories is close to 80 percent—so what gives? Why do consumers report less of a head high here?
There remains much to be known. And while clinical research is still limited, there is substantial anecdotal evidence that cannabis suppositories are a particularly effective option for patients seeking relief from inflammatory bowel conditions like Crohn’s disease. Suppositories may also be a promising option for patients who are too sick, or otherwise unable to ingest or inhale cannabinoids.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide. There are more factors at play that affect how your body reacts to cannabis, including frequency of use as well as biometrics like nutrition and sleep. But the main takeaway is an understanding that ingestion method absolutely matters, and and your preferred delivery method will likely come down to your desired outcome and reasons for consuming in the first place.