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What Is Decarboxylation? Why Is It Important For Cannabinoids?

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Decarboxylation is a chemical reaction that activates the cannabinoids in cannabis plants, making them more available for your body to use. It's important to know about decarboxylation if you're using raw cannabis flowers, as this process will help you get the most out of your cannabis.

This post will explain what decarboxylation is and what you can do with your decarbed cannabis flower.

The Key Takeaways: 

  • The cannabis plant is home to over a hundred cannabinoids that interact with the endocannabinoid system. The two major ones are CBD and THC. 
  • In nature, cannabinoids exist in another form, cannabinoid acids, containing a carboxylic acid group (COOH). 
  • The effects of the cannabinoids are largely dependant on their molecular shape. CBDa and THCa have slightly different interactions on the body.
  • Decarboxylation is the process of heating the cannabinoid acid to release the COOH group.
  • The effects of THCa to THC are much more noticeable, as THCa doesn't cause intoxication, while CBDa and CBD are much more subtle. 

Cannabis Plant & Cannabinoids

If you look closely at cannabis flowers—both hemp and marijuana varieties—you'll find hair-like resin glands (trichomes) that house over a hundred compounds that can interact with the body.

Cannabinoids are a class of compounds that interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) present in all mammals. It's a system designed to support one's ability to adapt to its environment by maintaining the homeostasis of vital systems, including mood, memory, metabolism, sleep, immune function, and much more.

Cannabinoids are unique in that they closely resemble neurotransmitters in the ECS that relay signals for homeostasis. Researchers are only beginning to understand the extent of different cannabinoids' roles in the body—but the research is promising. Cannabinoids have the potential for therapeutic use and are well tolerated in mammals.

In raw cannabis flowers, not all cannabinoids are biologically active, requiring some preparation to get the most effects. The two most abundant and well-known cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). In nature, they exist nearly entirely as acidic cannabinoids are known as THCa and CBDa. The "a" stands for acid.

Heating these acidic cannabinoids break off the carbon atom chain, transforming them into THC and CBD. The user's experience can be very different depending on the form of cannabinoid they consume.

What Is Decarboxylation?

Decarboxylation is a technical term for the heat activation of acidic cannabinoids (such as THCa, CBDa, and CBGa) to remove the carboxylic acid group attached to the molecule structure (COOH) and releases carbon dioxide (CO2).

Once this carboxyl group is removed, the cannabinoids become a much more suitable shape to interact with specific cannabinoid receptors, TRP ion channels, and various other receptors in the body.

The most noticeable difference in the effects of decarboxylating cannabis is with marijuana in transforming THCa into THC.

THCa doesn't produce a psychoactive effect. This is perhaps why eating a raw cannabis bud doesn't elicit a high, but when you heat the plant material by smoking it or baking it, you release the COOH from the molecule structure. This gives the cannabinoid a new shape better suited to interact with specific endocannabinoid receptors for noticeable effects.

Is Activated CBD Better Than Raw CBD?

You likely won't notice any difference between CBDa or CBD yourself, as these compounds don't have psychoactive effects. However, some researchers have found early evidence that CBD and CBDa can have different benefits in the body—it all comes down to the receptors they bind to. Some evidence points to CBDa's affinity to attach to the 5-HT1A receptor better than CBD to support nausea [1].

Additionally, a recent study from the University of Oregon found that CBDa inhibits a vital component of the SARS-CoV-2 viral entry and replication cycle in a petri dish study [2].

Related Article: What The Research Says About Cannabis And Covid-19

However, CBD reigns supreme with COX-2, TRPA, and TRPV1, receptors for inflammatory and pain support [3]. Both compounds still exhibit the potential to influence inflammatory markers in the body to support a healthy immune response, discomfort, and stress levels.

Some cannabis experts claim that CBDa is a more potent compound than its decarbed cannabis counterpart. Research in decarboxylated cannabis versus raw cannabis is still relatively new. There's still a lot to uncover about the pros and cons of each medical cannabis.

Because we see the benefits in both compounds, you'll find that our full spectrum and THC-free broad spectrum CBD products contain levels of CBDa to support the entourage effect for more prominent and well-rounded effects. We don't offer CBD isolate extract because research shows minimal health benefits.

Why You Need To Decarboxylate Cannabis

For some cannabinoids, the carboxylic group can prevent the molecule from attaching to specific receptors to exert their effects—this is most prominent with THC. However, suppose you're looking to use hemp flower to leverage its benefits for relaxation, sleep support, and comfort. You may want to use a decarboxylation process to transform the raw cannabinoid into a more bioavailable compound.

If you're using an oil/tincture, capsules, or edibles purchased from your favorite hemp brand, you don't need to worry about cannabis decarboxylation, as the manufacturer has already done this step.

Once the cannabis flower is harvested, it's dried and cured—this process alone will decarboxylate 15–20% of the cannabinoids. It'll go through further heating and filtered extraction to isolate the terpenes and cannabinoids used to create products.

Some manufacturers are forgoing cannabis decarboxylation altogether to create raw hemp extracts or CBDa oils—as the cannabis community is finding more interest in the natural form of cannabinoids.

How To Decarboxylate Cannabis At Home

The most straightforward method of cannabis consumption is to smoke the dried flower, like a joint or hemp cigarettes. However, smoking plant material isn't ideal for everyone, so we'll teach you how to decarb cannabis.

Don't get thrown off by the science of decarboxylation. The process itself is simple, and it can be done at home with a few supplies to create cannabis edibles.

Heating cannabis at temperatures of 175ºF (80ºC) or higher will cause the chemical reaction needed to break off the bond of the carboxyl group.

You don't want to do this too fast, or you risk burning the flower and losing the beneficial terpenes and cannabinoids that you want in your edibles—but if you don't apply enough heat, you'll get a weaker overall product.

It's best to use a lower heating temperature for a more extended time.

Preheat your oven to around 150ºF. While waiting for the oven, take your raw hemp flower and break it up with your hands or a grinder to create smaller pieces and place them evenly in a baking tray.

Once the oven has reached the temperature, place the tray in the oven on the middle rack. Set your timer for an hour. At the 30 minute mark, check your cannabis flower and carefully stir it on the tray. You want to make sure it's not getting burnt, or you'll reduce the natural terpene flavor of the flower.

Let your decarbed cannabis flower cool before mixing it with oil or butter as a base for infusion and strain to make edibles. You want to store your oil-cannabis mixture in an airtight container in cool dark storage for future use—away from direct sunlight that can degrade cannabinoids.

The Takeaway: What Is The Decarboxylation Process?

If you've ever smoked a hemp cigarette or a marijuana joint, you've already carboxylated your cannabis to transform cannabinoid acids to their more bioavailable forms.

At a specific heating temperature, a chemical reaction occurs that breaks off the bond of the carboxyl group from the rest of the cannabinoid molecule structure—turning THCa, CBDa, CBGa, and CBCa into THC, CBD, CBG, and CBC.

While some compounds' effects are more noticeable after decarboxylation—like THCa into THC. Some early research is finding some benefits of raw cannabinoid compounds, so we're seeing a rise in raw cannabis products hitting the market.

You can find CBDa and CBGa in our hemp extractions as we follow the most prominent evidence to show that hemp extracts are much more potent and well-balanced with other naturally occurring compounds, including cannabinoid acids.

To learn more about the benefits of cannabinoids for wellness, you can find more articles like this on our blog. Or you can subscribe to our Insider Scoop for cannabis industry news and exclusive promotions on your favorite hemp products.

Resources:

  1. Bolognini, D., Rock, E. M., Cluny, N. L., Cascio, M. G., Limebeer, C. L., Duncan, M., ... & Pertwee, R. G. (2013). Cannabidiolic acid prevents vomiting in S uncus murinus and nausea‐induced behaviour in rats by enhancing 5‐HT1A receptor activation. British journal of pharmacology, 168(6), 1456-1470.
  2. van Breemen, R. B., Muchiri, R. N., Bates, T. A., Weinstein, J. B., Leier, H. C., Farley, S., & Tafesse, F. G. (2022). Cannabinoids Block Cellular Entry of SARS-CoV-2 and the Emerging Variants. Journal of Natural Products.
  3. Takeda, S., Misawa, K., Yamamoto, I., & Watanabe, K. (2008). Cannabidiolic acid as a selective cyclooxygenase-2 inhibitory component in cannabis. Drug Metabolism and Disposition, 36(9), 1917-1921.

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