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Most THC and CBD oil goes to waste in your body—here’s why

October 28, 2019
(CSA Images/iStock)
If you knew that only 6% of your CBD gummies would enter your bloodstream to do their job, would you still purchase them? Amid the current frenzy surrounding cannabis and its therapeutic benefits, it’s easy to gloss over the bioavailability of cannabis products.

Bioavailability refers to the degree and rate at which a substance is absorbed into your bloodstream to be used where needed. Physiological processes and consumption methods can affect cannabis absorption, rendering its effects somewhat hit-and-miss.

It’s critical to get clued up about bioavailability in order to maximize the medicinal potency of cannabis. The more bioavailable your cannabis, the lower the quantity of the plant you need to reap its benefits.

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What factors influence cannabis bioavailability?

The surge in cannabis popularity can be partly attributed to the range of consumption methods available. Edibles and tinctures can have less of the stigma traditionally associated with joints. However, when cannabinoids such as CBD and THC are ingested in oil form—oil is also used to make edibles—their bioavailability becomes compromised.

CBD and THC oils resist absorption into the bloodstream because the human body is up to 60% water. Basic science—and salad dressing—dictates that oil and water do not mix, and the same is true for cannabis oil and the human body.

“Cannabinoids are fat-loving molecules and have to traverse a cellular environment that is aqueous or watery,” explains Dr. Patricia Frye, a member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians and chief medical officer at Hello MD. When cannabis is consumed as an oil, the onset of effects can become delayed and bioavailability limited.

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Another phenomenon that limits oil-based cannabis extracts from reaching the bloodstream is the first-pass effect. When cannabis is ingested orally, it is absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and transported via the portal vein to the liver, where it is metabolized. As a result of this process, only a limited quantity reaches the circulatory system. Since cannabis oil is often taken orally, its efficacy can be hindered.

Are some cannabinoids more bioavailable than others?

There has been some investigation into CBD, THC, and less into cannabinol, or CBN. Studies have shown that the bioavailability of cannabinoids depends on the method of delivery.

When applied as a topical ointment or transdermal patch, CBD can penetrate the tissue ten times more effectively than THC. The same is true of CBN.

THC, however, is more bioavailable than CBD when administered orally or delivered via the lungs. A clinical study found that concentrations of THC in the bloodstream appeared 30-50% higher than CBD following oral delivery as a sublingual spray.

However, the bioavailability of THC is still limited when consumed orally, averaging only 4-12%. When smoked or vaped, the bioavailability of THC leaps to an average of 30%.

Which methods of cannabis consumption optimize bioavailability?

Some of the most common and convenient cannabis products, such as capsules, soft gels, tinctures, and edibles, limit bioavailability due to the first pass through the liver. “With edibles, absorption is slow, unpredictable, and highly variable,” says Frye. “Only about 6% of the dose is absorbed. The onset of action can be as long as 6 hours; it’s very easy to take too much, and the effects can last as long as 20 hours!”

Oral administration lasts longer than smoking, eliminating the need for frequent dosing. Oral methods also avoid irritation to the airways and the risk of malignancies associated with smoking or vaping.

That said, inhaling cannabis guarantees increased bioavailability because molecules are transported by vapor particles directly to the alveoli in the lungs. This allows cannabinoids to rapidly enter the bloodstream without being metabolized by the liver.

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Another lesser known method of administration is intranasal delivery, which enables cannabinoids to be easily absorbed with a rapid onset of ten minutes or less. “Intranasal methods are highly bioavailable at 34-46%,” says Frye. “It’s a particularly helpful mode of delivery for patients who are having a seizure or for patients trying to abort an impending seizure or migraine.”

Transdermal patches can be super effective at targeting localized or systemic pain. They allow for a steady infusion of active ingredients to the delivery site, so the patient is unlikely to experience spikes of THC in the bloodstream.

Finally, nano-emulsions and micro-emulsions can dramatically increase the stability and bioavailability of cannabinoids. These novel formulations use nanotechnology to offer up to 100% bioavailability. Frye cautions, however, that the research is still scarce. “We don’t know the full extent of how these manipulations affect cannabinoid activity at the cellular level,” she says.

What tips or tricks can help increase bioavailability?

One method that boosts the absorption of edibles is to combine cannabis product with fats. Frye recommends combining edibles or tinctures with healthy fats such as guacamole, hummus, or dark chocolate. If you’re feeling less virtuous, however, ice cream works as a treat. The same goes for alcohol-based tinctures.

For those who smoke or vape, bioavailability can be enhanced by minimizing sidestream loss and increasing the number of puffs. “Using a desktop or handheld vaporizer with flower will eliminate sidestream losses,” Frye advises. If you think you get more bang for your buck by holding your breath, think again. “There is no evidence supporting holding one’s breath for more than 10 secs,” says Frye.

Some final words of advice from Dr. Fyre, for those looking to optimize cannabis bioavailability: “The most cost-effective way to use cannabis is not to use more than you need. Less is more,” she says. Due to its biphasic nature, excessive dosing may exacerbate the symptoms you’re trying to alleviate.

Emma Stone's Bio Image

Emma Stone

Emma Stone is a journalist based in New Zealand specializing in cannabis, health, and well-being. She has a Ph.D. in sociology and has worked as a researcher and lecturer, but loves being a writer most of all. She would happily spend her days writing, reading, wandering outdoors, eating and swimming.

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  • Dave Morgan

    Lexaria Bioscience deals with the bioavailability of Cannabinoids and has figured out how to bypass the liver. Here’s a copy of their investor presentation:
    https://www.lexariabioscience.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Lexaria-Presentation-07-2019-15-Minute-Version.pdf

  • Thor

    thanks, a good article, just the facts.
    Hold on, this is waiting to be approved by Leafly

    • Soul Critic

      Yeah, what’s that about?

  • Another method for drastically increasing bio-availability is one developed by the pharmaceutical industry in the mid-90s, called liposomes. It was the first technology that allowed drug (and plant compound) particles to be sized below 100nm and more easily delivered across brain and other membrane barriers that otherwise wouldn’t happen. In the case of cannabinoids, it can increase absorption to above 80%, proven by before/after plasma testing. I recently toured a lab which had a new sonicating machine that lowered the particle size to 20nm. For scale, a human hair is around 60,000 nm, which means 3,000 of those nanoparticles could lie next to each other. Sure beats the ancient smoking method.

    • Olive

      This is spot on! With CBD, however, nano-emulsified delivery is best used because it is oil based versus liposomal which is water based.

    • Soul Critic

      I know bubble bag trichome extraction bags go down to 25 microns. So you’re talking about thousands of times smaller than a trichome.

  • R V A

    Yeah man, i take it for depression, when I run out i get depressed.

  • Belinda Schwartz

    An interesting article, but I’m baffled as to why there is no discussion about juicing fresh cannabis. We drink this daily in the form of ice cubes made from freshly harvested and juiced plant. The effects on Lupus and osteoarthritis pain are dramatic after just a few weeks. Would really like to hear more discussion about this.

  • Danni Mills

    Kat Smiles aka BadKittySmiles developed the very first cannabis liposomal nano encapsulation tech in the early 1990s based off science used for horse and rabbit supplements for better vitamic C absorption using lecithin lipids, and then translated her data into tutorials for cancer patients to use at home at a time when people thought only grounding up weed in brownies was the only way to eat it, way ahead of her time. She is the reason lecithin is found in so many edibles today and why non-GMO sources became so heavily sold, I read her work in the 2000s at least five years before I saw bioavailability mentioned anywhere else with cannabis then when it caught on it was her forum and methods being shared everywhere. Now using lecithin even in less functional ways is just seen as common knowledge. Her work was recognized by dozens of traditional science mags and then canna enthusiast mags like Hightimes, Sensi and other outlets, she guest spoke at events about bioavailability at edible panels before the idea of whether you were absorbing the oil was a theme, she was also an early advocate of decarboxylation and using different oils to promote absoprtion at different times in digestion to help with lymphatic or liver absorption without over metabolizing the medicine. It took a lot of education from her for years before it became mainstream, the science was there but I doubt we’d have things like micellar CBD liposomal waters for another 50-100 years without her input and persistent teaching on so many different websites and medical outlets, a lot of people ridiculed her early for doing anything besides the usual of using butter with water or grinding 1/8s into brownie batter, but she persisted and here we are today, at a place that I really believe is years ahead of schedule.

  • jacksdadinaz

    You know I never really thought about it, but when I take my evening dose for Sleep (tincture) I almost always take it right after I have my evening snack, which is an avocado, cut in half and filled with salsa, but it makes total sense.

  • Olive

    This is a great article! And the reason why I love my company Quicksilver Scientifics’ CBD products so much. They are nano-emulsified which means the uptake and bioavailability is unbeatable. You actually get what you take. It’s by far the most effective CBD on the market and I can’t recommend it enough!

  • Soul Critic

    Simmering schwag, stems, leaves and shake in butter and water and then refrigerating to allow the butter to solidify is the easiest and most foolproof way to “extract” THC for edibles. You probably don’t want to get it up to a boil, of course, but simmering in water allows you to do it for a really long time without worrying about burning it (as long as you don’t let all of the water evaporate.)

    As far as the “holding your breath” thing, I don’t know why anyone would hold it for more than 10 seconds. If you’ve ever seen smoke in a large glass jug or other container, most of the smoke never touches the edge of the container (where the alveoli would be if the container was a human lung.) A better strategy than holding your breath would be to exhale the smoke into a plastic bag and re-inhale it a few times, perhaps.

  • Danni Mills

    Great info! I’m surprised lecithin and Kat Smiles aka BadKittySmiles were not mentioned as the original sources of cannabinoid bioavailability info, if you make your oil the right way then eating it is better than smoking, edible oil made with lecithin actually compares to IV intravenous medicines delivery rate. Kat developed the very first cannabis liposomal nano encapsulation tech in the early 1990s based off science used for horse and rabbit supplements for better vitamic C absorption using lecithin lipids, and then translated her data into tutorials for cancer patients to use at home at a time when people thought only grounding up weed in brownies was the only way to eat it, way ahead of her time.

    If you want to absorb your cannabis oil, you just process at specific temperatures maintained just over 215F then cool gradually to create micelle liposomes that contain micropscopic clusters of cannabinoids, small enough so you can absorb them faster before your digestion empties out, and before you can metabolize and damage the medicine with liver enzymes or stomach acids. She was also the first to mention increasing and decreasing processing time to accurately create CBN from THC and other metabolites, so your one type of flower can be used for dozens of purposes. A few journals even credit her with first suggesting cost effective fractionating cannabinoids into basic heat tolerant groups, before bigger labs could.

    It’s helped treat my and many patients cancers and diseases after thinking I couldn’t even absorb edible oil so I mention it because she was widely praised for this and most of us are still grateful even though she never went on to profit and never showed any signs of greed to the community, she taught freely and gifted her harvests, she lived very modestly, now three out of four products say lecithin on the labels even though many aren’t made the way she taught and don’t perform the nano delivery, big companies profit from it as a novelty on their label and it still emulsifies, but it still helps more than an oil without, thanks to her teachings.

    She is one of the big reasons people today even think bioavailbility with cannabis and why lecithin is found in so many edibles today and why non GMO sources became so heavily sold, I read her data on increasing cannabinoid bioavailability over 17yrs ago in the 2000s, at least five years before I saw cannabis bioavailability mentioned anywhere else. Then when it caught on it was her forum and methods being shared everywhere. Now using lecithin even in less functional ways is just seen as common knowledge. Her work was recognized by dozens of traditional science mags and then canna enthusiast mags like Hightimes, Sensi and other outlets, she guest spoke at events about bioavailability at edible panels before the idea of whether you were absorbing the oil was a theme, she was also an early advocate of decarboxylation and using different oils to promote absorption at different times in digestion to help with lymphatic or liver absorption without over metabolizing the medicine. It took a lot of education from her for years before it became mainstream, the science was there but I doubt we’d have things like micellar CBD liposomal waters for another 50 100 years without her input and persistent teaching on so many different websites and medical outlets, a lot of people ridiculed her early for doing anything besides the usual of using butter with water or grinding 1/8s into brownie batter, but she persisted and here we are today, at a place that I really believe is years ahead of schedule.

  • Danni Mills

    It’s too bad only corporate sponsored comments get approved on here now, I guess other on topic conversation is diluting the promotional agenda here, so real people get comments limited and deleted. I tried to contribute three times on edible bioavailable aspects on this article, and it goes from waiting to be approved to disappearing, but at the same time links to corporate sites that basically plagiarized for profit, the same original free data I was sharing that predates their company, are visible. That says something. 🙁

  • PatrickMonkRn

    KISS.
    Backyard dirt farmer. Grow and make my own meds. Tinctures and salves, Process in MBM with 50/50 190 Rectified Spirits and Veg Glycerin. Regular dropper shots AM & PM. Oral sublingual pray PRN during day. What % am I getting. Any suggestions for increasing bioavailability.

  • Emma

    Yes, they have 🙂
    http://www.lifapure.com

  • Syrgio cbman

    Hi Jonathan would Iontophoresis be an option for introducing concentrates for specific cases such as severe joint and/or muscle disorders? I’ve wondered about this. Thanks in advance for any thoughts on this.

  • Mark Osborn

    No Mention of suppositories unfortunately.

  • Bob Khan

    I decarboxylate my bud in an oven bag and then use it to make a crock pot tincture with sunflower lecithin and MCT oil. I take the finished product sublingually and hold it there for a couple of minutes. Eating a mango or drinking mango juice an hour before consumption seems to help make the high more potent. A hamburger patty topped with mild guacamole makes an awesome meal when I get the munchies.

  • Gunner

    No.
    I have never seen a study, heard of it, but can pretty much guess what could happen.
    It would be like injecting “oil” and your heart/lungs/and everything else would not do well-like those body builders that injected testosterone cypionate, and the word cypionate means its locked into the cottonseed oil. THC, locked in oil, think about it for a second and then pat your self on the back for asking the question out here so someone does not do that to themselves thank you……