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How Cannabis Works in the Body
Cannabinoids are delivered to the bloodstream through the lungs (when inhaled), the digestive system (when consumed) or the skin (when applied topically). Once in the bloodstream, they are available to the brain and central nervous system.
Inhalation is the fastest method, with peak blood levels achieved within 5-20 minutes. Oral ingestion is slower because the cannabinoids go through the gastrointestinal tract before entering the bloodstream. The bioavailabilityThe degree to which a drug or other substance becomes available to the target tissue after administration. of cannabinoids in the body is an important area of ongoing research with implications for the medicinal use of Cannabis.
Typical plasma levels of THC after smoking Cannabis are 70-160 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). Because THC is lipid-soluble, it rapidly leaves the bloodstream and goes into the fatty tissues of the body. When Cannabis is smoked or inhaled, only about 10-25% of THC is absorbed into the bloodstream from the lungs and about 1% of that reaches the brain rapidly. This is important because brain cells possess unique binding sites for cannabinoids called cannabinoid receptors. When cannabinoids bind to these receptors, they trigger the pharmacological effects such as pain mitigation, nausea suppression and appetite stimulation. After the patient stops ingesting Cannabis, plasma levels of THC typically decrease to less than 20 ng/ml within 30-45 minutes. Pharmacological activity peaks at about 20 minutes after inhalation and is gone within 3 hours. When ingested orally, the pharmacological effects of THC are delayed by 30-90 minutes, peak after 2-3 hours and last for 4-12 hours. Bioavailability by ingestion is affected by liver metabolism and varies greatly (4-12%), making oral treatments difficult to manage.