Most people assume cannabis always gets you high. While certainly true when smoked or eaten, cannabis works differently with topicals since it gets absorbed through the skin barrier and into our endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Cannabis companies take advantage of this non-intoxicating approach to provide relief. With on-going research uncovering how isolated compounds affect our ECS, it can be hard to know which one is right for you. In this post, we'll review a few solutions and how to best hone when using these treatments.
What are Compounds?
Cannabis contains hundreds of different chemical compounds within each plant. These range from the most popular cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, to terpenoids and flavinoids.
Manufacturers extract these compounds from cannabis flower and add them into their creams, rubs, sublinguals, topicals, and even suppositories to offer consumers added relief.
Depending on the extraction process, compounds can come from a single cultivar, called whole plant or full spectrum, or be isolated to one compound, called isolates or broad spectrum.
Unlike flower, which can only exist as a whole plant offering, compound/topical manufacturers formulate products depending on the benefits they want to highlight.
The Endocannabinoid System
Understanding how topicals work requires knowledge of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). For starters, just like your brain and heart, everyone has an ECS, regardless of whether they consume cannabis or not.
The ECS is a network of nerves that connects everything in our body. Topicals are not ingested through the stomach or lungs, but rather get absorbed through the skin barrier, where they act on ECS receptors.
The two main endocannabinoid receptors are:
CB1 - found mostly in the central nervous system
CB2 - found in the peripheral nervous system + immune cells, which control our pain responses.
Upon applying a cannabis topical, cannabinoids attach themselves to these receptors, offering localized effects such as pain relief and/or anti-inflammatory responses.
Aside from patches, most topicals fail at getting you high because the THC doesn't have a way into your blood/brain barrier, making them perfect for non-psychoactive treatment.
What About Those Patches?
Most topicals lack the ability to enter the bloodstream, all except for transdermal patches. Patches contain an additive that functions as a carrier to get THC into the bloodstream.
This system bypasses the liver, so the high doesn't resemble edibles (whereby delta-9-THC converts to ultra 11-Hydroxy-THC), but feels more like smoked or vaped products albeit with a slower, timed delivery.
Patches are an alternative approach for anyone concerned with the instantaneous rush from traditional methods of consumption.
How Much Should I Use?
There are a host of factors to consider when evaluating compounds. In addition to the full spectrum vs. isolates discussion, compounds extracted from cannabis vary greatly from hemp derived versions. Other ingredients also get mixed in, so researching those allows a clearer indication of the compounded benefits, no pun intended.
With ongoing research, we're discovering CBD may reduce THC sensitivity, and this interplay makes cannabinoid ratio (i.e. 18:1, 10:1, 2:1) and potency highly important as well.
As with all cannabis products, everything is individualized. Unlike other forms of ingestion, compounds offer localized pain relief. In short, each body part should get its own dosage, which should start low and slow and gradually approach your desired experience.
Maintaining tracking data helps you evaluate and manage the most effective parameters for you. Since compounds involve timed release, familiarity with how a product functions allows you to manage both efficacy and cost.
Lastly, compounds may require a longer term treatment approach. Staying attuned to improvements helps you adjust your regimen. Our bodies will adapt to dosages, so in-between breaks can help reset the ECS should dosage wane over time.
Advantages of Compounds
Aside from transdermal products, there is no psychoactive high
Timed release with lasting effects
Beneficial for sleep
Disadvantages of Compounds
Not immediate pain relief
Hard to determine the final outcome without the use of a tracking tool
Important differences that need attention (whole plant vs isolate, THC vs hemp, THC to CBD ratios, etc.)
Different types of topicals/compounds have their own unique benefits. To find the right one for you, look into a product's ingredients to compare the non-trivial details. Knowing what to treat along with a method allows budtenders to suggest relevant items. Lastly, track the short and long term effects along with the ECS location (body part) so you can dose and modify to your needs. Doing so ensures the most of your compounds success.