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What is delta-8-THC?
Delta-8-THC is distinct from the THC that is often mentioned in conversation about cannabis. What we refer to as THC usually means delta-9-THC, the main form of THC found in cannabis. Delta-8-THC is an analog of delta-9-THC, a molecule with a similar structure, but some notable differences. While the two share many similar properties, such as reportedly stimulating appetite, reducing nausea, and soothing pain, delta-8-THC tends to exhibit a lower psychotropic potency than delta-9-THC.
What is delta-8-THC and what is its place among the other cannabinoids?
There are more than 100 cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant. While we have some foundational knowledge about the primary cannabinoids, delta-9-THC and cannabidiol (CBD), we know less about the secondary, or minor, cannabinoids.
Delta-8-THC is a minor cannabinoid, occurring in the plant in very small concentrations. Delta-8-THC is also known to be a degraded form of THC, and is not directly produced by cannabinoid-synthesizing enzymes within the plant. When THC is stored for a period of time, it degrades into delta-8-THC. Commercial growers and extractors use selective breeding and molecular isolation to access greater quantities of delta-8-THC.
How does delta-8-THC work with the endocannabinoid system?
Delta-8-THC binds to the CB1 receptors located in the central nervous system. Delta-8-THC additionally has an affinity for CB2 receptors, although less is known about this binding mechanism.
Delta-8-THC binds to the CB1 receptors located in the central nervous system.
Delta-9 vs. delta-8: similarities and differences
From a chemical or structural perspective, delta-8-THC differs from delta-9-THC due to the location of a critical chemical bond. Both delta-8 and delta-9-THC contain double bonds in their molecular chain. Delta-8-THC contains that bond on the 8th carbon chain, while delta-9-THC contains the bond on the 9th carbon chain. Although it’s a subtle difference, it has noticeable effects on how the body’s endocannabinoid receptors bind and respond to the molecule.
In addition, delta-9-THC is less stable than delta-8-THC. Delta-9 THC is easily oxidized to become cannabinol (CBN) or delta-8-THC. Delta-8-THC is stable, does not oxidize to become cannabinol, and boasts a prolonged shelf life. Such stability is desirable in a medicinal compound. Delta-8-THC is also about half as strong as delta-9.
Mechanism of action
Delta-8-THC binds to the CB1 receptor like delta-9-THC, but its affinity for the receptor is different due to its slightly altered molecular structure. The CB1 receptor is responsible for mediating most of the psychotropic effects of THC.
This differential binding may be responsible for the reported clearer high with reduced anxiety, and greater ability to concentrate often associated with delta-8-THC. It’s possible that its unique molecular structure also impacts the chemical’s effects on other receptors and neural pathways.
The entourage or ensemble effect is the principle that the THC molecule works better when taken in conjunction with the array of other cannabinoids, terpenoids, flavonoids, and compounds present in cannabis, rather than as an isolated molecule. This enhancement can create preferable therapeutic outcomes compared to isolated THC. While the knowledge we have about the entourage effect is based on delta-9-THC, the molecular similarity of delta-8-THC could mean that it produces enhanced effects when ingested as whole-plant medicine rather than as an isolate.
More research is needed, however, to gain detailed insights into the ensemble effects of delta-8-THC, and whether its presence helps to mediate the effects of other cannabinoids.
A range of preclinical and clinical studies are uncovering some of the unique properties and therapeutic potential of delta-8-THC.
Pain and anti-inflammatory effects
A 2018 preclinical study published in “Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research” found that delta-8-THC may help to diminish pain and inflammation in corneal injury in mice. The research found that delta-8-THC, applied topically, assisted in pain reduction, and reduced inflammation through its effects on the CB1 receptors. Another preclinical study on rats also reported that delta-8-THC delivers pain relief, but that tolerance to the cannabinoid developed rapidly.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, delta-8-THC displays anxiety-reducing qualities similar to delta-9-THC. While there is currently little clinical literature investigating its anti-anxiety potential, anecdotal reports claim that the consumption of delta-8-THC results in a very calm, focused high, without the anxiety that can sometimes accompany delta-9-THC.
The nausea fighting potential of delta-8-THC was reported in a 1995 study published in “Life Sciences.” The study followed eight pediatric cancer patients over two years and found that no vomiting occurred when patients ingested delta-8-THC before and for 24 hours after cancer treatment. The study reported very few side effects.
Delta-8-THC may also help to stimulate the appetite. Research conducted on mice and published in a 2004 edition of “Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior” found that a low dose of delta-8-THC administered to mice over 50 days resulted in a 22% increase in food intake compared with controls. The research also reported that delta-8-THC increased food intake significantly more than delta-9-THC, which is a reputed appetite stimulant.
Side effects and warnings
As a minor cannabinoid, there’s still a great deal that is unknown about delta-8-THC, which necessitates a cautious approach toward using it. Presently, the cannabinoid is generally available in concentrate forms, because most cannabis flower contains less than 1% delta-8-THC.
To acquire a substantial quantity of this cannabinoid, a significant amount of extraction and refinement must take place. While some delta-8-THC concentrates are isolates, other products may combine delta-8-THC with CBD and/or delta-9-THC for a more full-spectrum effect.
If you’re thinking about consuming delta-8-THC, it’s vital to be aware that a great deal of the current knowledge we have about the cannabinoid is based on animal studies. Research on animals has indicated that delta-8-THC (along with delta-9-THC) resulted in increased blood pressure by temporarily constricting the blood vessels. The rise in blood pressure was then followed by a drop in blood pressure and a slower heart rate. That being said, the effects observed in animals can be very different from the effects observed in humans, as evidenced in a 2018 systematic review published in “Pharmaceuticals.” For example, while delta-8-THC significantly slowed heart rate in animals, it conversely increased heart rate in humans.