Maybe you’re curious about cannabis and its potential therapeutic effects, or you’re an amateur chemist who looks up the chemical structures of drugs for fun. In either case, you may have run across something called THCA, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, in articles connecting it with cannabis and various health concerns. 

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What Is the Difference Between THC and THCA?

According to a 2016 Cannabis Cannabinoid Res review, the acronym THCA has been used in scientific literature to refer to several acid precursors of THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana. Although THC gets the most attention, cannabinoids exist mainly in the plant in their acid form, and then are “decarboxylated” over time by light or through heat, so the initial acid form becomes the THC which gets you high and which is used for various forms of pain relief.  The acid is synthesized in the plant and is present in flowers and leaves, where it represents up to 90 percent of the total THC in the plant, according to the Cannabis Cannabinoid Res review. Decarboxylation happens quickly when people bake marijuana in edibles, or smoke or vape it.  Unlike THC, the acid precursor does not have psychoactive effects, and the review authors suggest that this may be the reason its potential value as a medicine is ignored in comparison to the attention THC gets. The review suggests there may be some unexplored uses for raw, unheated cannabis.  

Benefits of THCA

Several studies indicate THCA has potential therapeutic effects, including anti-inflammatory properties, and may also generally benefit the nervous and immune systems. This does not mean we have proof of THCA’s value, but it does suggest the compound should be studied more extensively. Some studies have investigated whether THCA can bind to cannabinoid receptors in the body, including CB1, which, according to a study by Indiana University, are present in high levels in several brain regions and bring about many of the psychoactive responses to THC in marijuana. The study points out that there are other main receptors called CB2 and are found mostly in immune cells and some neurons.  The ability of THCA to bind to cannabinoid receptors is controversial, though there’s some mixed evidence from the Cannabis Cannabinoid Res review, that the acid is able to activate both CB1 and CB2 receptors. The acid may have limited access to the brain and central nervous system, which means it could have potential in treating issues such as: chemotherapy-induced nausea, pain, inflammation or muscle spasms while avoiding the strong psychoactive side effects of THC.  A 2013 study in rats and shrews investigated the potential anti-vomiting and anti-nausea properties of both THCA and THC. Researchers induced nausea and vomiting and looked to see how both behaviors were influenced by doses of THCA and THC. The acid significantly reduced the nausea behavior in rats and vomiting in shrews, but a comparatively low dose of THC didn’t suppress nausea. The study authors suggested that the acid might be a better choice than THC in treating both these conditions. 

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THCA for treating bowel diseases

Another 2017 study investigating inflammation in colon tissue suggests that the anti-inflammatory activity from cannabis in colon cells is actually coming from THCA.  The authors also suggest that patients with inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, who are looking for non-psychoactive treatments should consider THCA instead of CBD, another common ingredient in cannabis that also doesn’t lead to a high. 

How do you consume THCA?

There are a few methods of getting THCA from raw cannabis, including steeping cannabis in water to make tea. A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology looked at the composition of different cannabinoids in teas and at the behavior of THCA in the tea preparation process. The authors found that multiple factors influence how much THCA will end up in the finished product, including how long the cannabis sat in storage and how long it’s steeped.  Some companies also sell THCA in drop form or in powders. The products can be juiced or put into edibles that aren’t baked. Most companies recommend you avoid baking or heating the THCA because it’s difficult to know how much of the acid is being converted into THC, so it’s easy to get a lot more than you bargained for.  If you do choose to buy products containing THCA, you may be taking some health risks, considering the sparse and contradictory research available on the subject. It’s possible that THCA could represent a treatment for certain conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease and pain disorders, but the evidence isn’t conclusive. 

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This information is presented for educational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition.  Please always consult your own doctor.