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How Cannabis Interacts with the Body: All the Delivery Methods Explained

With the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the cultivation of hemp, a range of consumption categories has emerged. Edibles, tinctures, capsules, vapes, creams, joints, beverages, patches, bath bombs, face masks, doggy treats, lube and tampons are just some of the ways that brands are dressing-up hemp and CBD for the masses.

All in all, these consumption categories can be broken down into just three main administration methods: oral, dermal, and inhalation.

But while many consumers may have a preference, not all users are necessarily aware that each delivery method has its own potential benefits, onset and duration, as well as a range of other important factors to consider when choosing the right product.

How Does Cannabis Interact With Your Body?

There are hundreds of different chemicals or “cannabinoids” in any given cannabis plant. Each strain has a unique chemical profile, meaning it has different combinations and ratios of those chemicals.

While we do not yet know exactly how cannabis works, we do know that it interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is present all over the body. 

In order to know how cannabis interacts with the body, it is important to understand the ECS. 

Discovered in the early 1990s, this mechanism regulates functions like pain, memory, appetite, temperature, the immune system, sleep, the female reproductive system, and more. This is a complex system, but to put it simply: the ECS can be activated by cannabinoids that are naturally created by the body. And yes, these same cannabinoids are molecules that can be found in the cannabis plant — hence where it got its name.

CBD is one of the main molecules in the cannabis plant, but unlike THC, (the other main molecule and the one associated with getting high), it is not intoxicating. Unlike marijuana, which has a high concentration of THC, hemp can produce a lot of CBD but almost no THC. 

In recent years, the benefits of medical cannabis have attracted a lot of attention, and since hemp (with scarce amounts of THC) is non-intoxicating and legally accessible throughout the world, a lot of hemp-based CBD products have been popping up. 

Other than THC and CBD, there are more than 550 other molecules in cannabis, many of which have a lot of therapeutic potential. Most of the scientific knowledge we have about cannabis is based on marijuana, but apart from the presence of THC, hemp is very similar.  

Cannabis Delivery Methods Explained: Oral, Dermal, and Inhalable

Delivery Method: Oral 

person taking CBD capsule

Oral delivery refers to products taken through the mouth, such as oil tinctures, edibles, beverages, and capsules.

In order for the various chemicals to have their systematic therapeutic effect on the body, cannabis must first enter the bloodstream. With oral delivery, this can happen in a few ways, but the three most popular administration methods are:

  • Sublingual Application: The product is dissolved under the tongue and the molecules enter the bloodstream and travel through the body. Products applied sublingually include oils and tinctures.
  • Gastrointestinal Administration:  Cannabis travels to the digestive organs, where it is being processed and then continues to the bloodstream (much like food). The main products associated with this category are edibles, beverages, capsules, and ingestible oils. With this method, it can take anywhere between 60-180 minutes for the cannabis to be activated. 
  • Buccal Administration: Here, cannabis is dissolved in the inner lining of the cheeks before it enters the bloodstream. Similar to sublingual application, the main products are CBD tinctures, stripes, and lozenges, they are just dissolved in your mouth rather than under the tongue.

Onset & Duration for Oral CBD Products

With gastrointestinal administration, it can take anywhere between 60-180 minutes for the cannabis to be activated, and the effect lasts for 6-8 hours. This method is often used by people with chronic conditions that last over time. 

With sublingual and buccal administration the cannabis will take effect in 15-45 minutes, and lasts for 6-8 hours.

It is important to note that most of what we know about cannabis onset and duration comes from research on THC, rather than CBD. 

Delivery Method: Dermal 

person rubbing cream on her legs

Dermal application refers to absorption through the skin, including topicals like creams, lotions, balms, salves and gels. Generally, there are two main types of dermal application:

  • Topical: Topical application is unique in the sense that cannabis does not actually enter the bloodstream. Rather, it is applied to the skin where it is absorbed and then interacts with the local area without being distributed throughout the body. This method is often preferred for local treatment (rather than a systematic one).  
  • Transdermal: This method refers to any dermal application where the product does in fact penetrate the skin and then enters the bloodstream, where it is distributed systematically through the body. This method is usually preferred by those who seek systematic distribution of cannabinoids, but do not want to inhale or ingest a product.

Onset & Duration for Dermal Hemp Products

While dermal application is very popular, and a lot of consumers praise its effectiveness, it should be noted that the level of scientific evidence on the efficacy of these types of products is scarce and based primarily on laboratory research, rather than human. For this reason, very little is known about both onset and duration.

Delivery Method: Inhalation 

CBD Vape pens

Another popular way to consume hemp is by heating and inhaling it. Here, the chemicals go through the lungs directly into the bloodstream.

There are two main inhalation methods:

  • Smoking: With smoking, the cannabis is combusted at 600-900℃ and the smoke is then inhaled into the lungs, directly absorbed into the bloodstream, and from there travels to the rest of the body. Smoking usually requires a cannabis dried flower and either rolling papers or a pipe.  
  • Vaporizing: When using a vaporizer, the cannabis is heated to 160-230℃, temperatures that are high enough to extract chemicals, but low enough to avoid the combustion and the harmful toxins that follow it. Like with smoking, the vapors travel to the lungs and then into the bloodstream.

Onset & Duration for Inhalable Hemp Products

Inhalation typically has a 5-10 minute onset and 2-4 hour duration, making it popular in the treatment of acute conditions that require immediate effects. But like with oral delivery, the research available here is mostly based on THC’s metabolism. 

The Bottom Line

With so many different types of CBD products on the market, it is important to do the research and know the difference between the three delivery methods, including how cannabis interacts with your body. Onset and duration are important to consider, as well, when choosing the right product for whatever condition you are trying to treat.

Whether you prefer to take CBD orally, dermally or through inhalation, there is no shortage of options. 

If you are still not sure which product or brand is right for you, take the Green Valley Nation quiz.

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