What are Acidic Cannabinoids, and How Do They Work?

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Ever wondered what it would happen if you ate a cannabis plant? Now, you can find out. Acidic cannabinoids (non-intoxicating cannabinoid compounds found in raw, pre-decarboxylated cannabis) are on the market, and they’re way cooler than you think.

Since around 2,000 BCE, cannabis-enthusiasts around the globe have been exploring methods of extraction, concentration, and decarboxylation (i.e. heating cannabis to activate the psychoactive effects.)

However, with more and more people discovering the magic of THC and CBD every year, more people are also discovering the adverse effects getting high, or even just trying a powerful CBD oil, can produce. For some people, exposure to THC can cause anxiety and hallucinations, and several CBD-users have reported feeling high on products advertised as having no psychoactive effects.

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Enter acidic cannabinoids – the non-intoxicating cousin to THC and CBD.

What are acidic cannabinoids?

Currently enjoying a growing presence in the U.S. cannabis market, acidic cannabinoids are non-intoxicating cannabinoid compounds that come straight from the cannabis plant. Though we have yet to fully understand their full potential, they are already used for a wide variety of medical issues, including (but not limited to) Alzheimer’s, tumors, and chronic pain.

Acidic cannabinoids come in two varieties – THCA and CBDA. Sound a lot like our old friends, THC and CBD? You’re not wrong.

Acidic cannabinoids are the precursors to the psychoactive molecules THC and CBD. Because the THCA and CBDA molecules are larger than THC and CBD, they do not fit in our brain’s cannabinoid receptors – most importantly, the CB1 receptor, which generates the effect of intoxication. In order for that to happen, THCA and CBDA must be decarboxylated (i.e., exposed to heat and light.)

So, while made of similar molecules to THC and CBD products, THCA products will not get you high. And, while CBD will often help relax thought-spirals, CBDA won’t impact your mental state.

Though they may not get you high, acidic cannabinoids can be used medicinally. Kathryn Cannon, a Plant Medicine Integration Specialist who works with medical cannabis patients, says the best way to understand acidic cannabinoids is to treat it as, well, exactly what it is–a plant.

“Looking at cannabis like an herb, it can be easier to understand how the phytonutrients in the raw plant, including the acidic form of cannabinoids, can help us reduce inflammation and be part of a healthy lifestyle, even without the psychoactive effects.” Cannon said.

What do acidic cannabinoids do?

Because they can’t fit into our brains’ cannabinoid receptors, acidic cannabinoids have to interact with the brain in an entirely different way than THC or CBD.

Rather than acting directly on the endocannabinoid system – the part of the brain THC reacts with when you get high, and that CBD reacts with to make you feel relaxed – THCA and CBDA impede COX-2, an enzyme that promotes inflammation. They also act on 5-HT receptors to boost serotonin production.

Because of this, acidic cannabinoids were pretty much ignored in the scientific community until 2008. That year, researchers realized that CBDA has a similar structure to common painkillers (such as ibuprofen.) Further research showed CBDA blocking COX-2, the same chemical blocked by everyday anti-inflammatories.

Since then, scientists have been watching the effects of THCA and CBDA on rats. Though there isn’t a lot of data out there about acidic cannabinoids yet, the little that’s been published is exciting.

Thanks to their serotonin-boosting abilities, a 2013 animal study showed them to be as much as 1000x more effective in relieving nausea than prescription anti-nausea medications currently used by chemotherapy patients.

Also, a 2012 study showed acidic cannabinoids are neuroprotective, which could make them beneficial for patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis (M.S.)

Cannon said she is most excited about acidic cannabinoids’ potential in pediatrics.

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A growing amount of research suggests cannabis impairs brain development in minors, largely because of the way it interacts with the brain’s CB1 receptors. Even so, many minors have to use medical marijuana on a daily basis for severe forms of epilepsy and other ailments only treatable with cannabis.

Acidic cannabinoids, however, do not react with the CB1 receptors. That means, if THCA and CBDA could replace or supplement traditional medical marijuana to treat children, the potential neurological harm caused by medical marijuana would be significantly decrease, if not be eliminated.

“Research has shown THCA and CBDA to be anti-nausea, anti-inflammatory, anti-seizure, and anti-tumor,” Cannon said. “That makes me excited about the potential application in pediatric conditions, where a high dose is required to treat the symptom but the patient is looking to avoid the impairment that comes with ingesting a large, active dose.”

How do I use acidic cannabinoids?

Like most things in the cannabis world, when it comes to how to take your acidic cannabinoids, you’ve got a few options.

If you’re pressed for time, the easiest (and perhaps most effective) way to consume THCA and CBDA is microdosing. Just put a few drops (exact dosage should be advised by a healthcare professional) of CBDA or THCA oil under your tongue every day and see if it has any effect on your symptoms. Acidic cannabinoid oil is sold by many cannabis vendors in states where recreational marijuana is legal.

For at-home cannabis growers, there are a few more creative ways to incorporate acidic cannabinoids into your diet. Since acidic cannabinoids are a large part of the cannabis plant, Cannon said that simply using some cannabis leaves in everyday meals will get THCA and CBDA flowing through your system.

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“I recommend using young cannabis leaves,” Cannon said. “Juicing them or adding them to a salad or a yummy pesto is a great way to derive the anti-inflammatory benefits of acidic cannabinoids. Plus, they’re tasty!”

Are acidic cannabinoids safe?

With so little research on the subject, it’s impossible to know exactly what adverse effects acidic cannabinoids will have on users. That’s why Cannon advises users take extreme caution when trying out THCA or CBDA products, and consult a health professional before use.

“At this time, it seems the safety profile of acidic cannabinoids is high,” Cannon said. “As consumers grow more knowledgeable about their conditions and current cannabis research, they are reporting that the acidic form of cannabis is effective. But, it’s important to speak with your doctor about what’s going to work best for you.”

Elissa Esher is Assistant Editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to elli.esher@hearst.com.