[Editor’s Note: While THC and CBD steal most of the limelight, they represent just two of the hundred-plus compounds in the cannabis plant—each with unique properties just waiting to be studied, and with them, potential medical and therapeutic benefits. This series shines a spotlight on these little-known, less studied, and therefore less understood wonders in waiting.]
The Germans have a word for it—Kummerspeck, literally “bacon guilt,” the regret one feels after a rash overindulgence of food. It’s a general term yet is apropos in describing an at times unsavory (at others, very savory) aftereffect of what we call the munchies, meaning chomp chomp.
This is partly why another compound produced by the cannabis plant, tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THCV (delta9-THCV to be precise), although first isolated in the 1970s, has been getting more and more attention in recent years. Nearly identical in chemical composition to THC, THCV has two fewer carbon atoms in its hydrocarbon “tail.” This seemingly small change makes THCV a different puzzle piece with which the body interacts. THCV can produce effects similar to those produced by THC but with lower potency. In low doses, THCV actually antagonizes some of the effects of THC, while at higher doses it can encourage them, but it’s definitely not “THC-lite.” Unlike THC, THCV has been shown to suppress appetite, which could be beneficial to those with overeating disorders, and shows signs for some other potential avenues for use farther down the road. Let’s dive into what those are.
But first, let’s back up to how cannabinoids interact with the body. A full description is beyond the scope of the blog entry and it’s worth remembering that many cannabinoids have diverse and dose-dependent pharmacology, THCV very much included. With that said, once cannabinoids are consumed, the compounds come into contact with endocannabinoid receptors, part of the endocannabinoid system, which helps to regulate many biological functions, such as appetite, anxiety, learning and memory, emotional response, reproduction, metabolism, growth and development. The endocannabinoid receptors are CB1, which are located mostly in the brain, and CB2, which are found throughout the body. Because of this, the endocannabinoid system is often thought of as the bridge between the body and the mind.
The brain’s CB1 receptors have been determined to play a role in reward signals related to appetite and the consumption of food, among other signaling pathways. THC tends to activate these receptors, resulting in those hedonistic dives into the fridge. At low doses, THCV opposes this activation of the CB1 receptor. In other words, THCV blocks the CB1 receptors from activating in presence of THC, which, presumably, is how THCV can attenuate some THC effects. Relatedly, in rodent tests, THCV has been variously shown to decrease weight gain and interest in food, as well as increase weight loss and energy expenditure. Other studies show that this reward-blocking trait may have some potential in combating nicotine addiction and relapse.
“While I’m not so sure about its pharmaceutical value, in terms of the diet market, there’s definitely potential,” says Jon Wani, Director of Client Relations at MCR Labs, a Massachusetts cannabis testing firm.
The compound is found only in trace amounts in most cannabis plants (half of 1%). Slightly more potent strains, such as Durban Poison or Doug’s Varin, usually descend from a subset of monstrous sativas—sometimes growing 30 feet high—in parts of Africa and Australia, as they thrive in hot, arid climes. Wani says that while most, if not all, indicas and sativas in the U.S. are actually bastardized hybrids, sativas from places like these are genetically more pure, meaning they’re also more likely to produce the high that sativa is commonly bandied about.“From anecdotal reports, there’s a tremendous amount of energy—like an I-wanna-go-clean-my-house-right-now sort of thing,” he says. “You’ll get stoned in your head but you won’t feel lethargic. Imagine the appeal of that for a second: getting stoned and then being motivated to go take a hike or go play some tennis.”
Of course, confounding factors such as individual physiology, mood, and diet make any promise of desired effect somewhat suspect, he still sees value in THCV. “If someone had a sativa and it got them really ‘up,’ I would venture to guess it’s not only the terpene profile in that specific plant, but it’s the THCV that’s causing that effect.”
Suffice it to say, these varietals grow best outside, Wani says, while the majority of U.S. cannabis growing is done indoors, making it another barrier to research and development aside from the industry’s nascency and a thicket of laws that tie the hands of researchers.
Another factor, he says, is grow time. Higher THCV strains take about twice as long to flower as common strains’ period of seven to ten weeks, making it unattractive to most growers and producers, many of whom have never heard of the compound or are understandably skeptical about its effects and their marketability thus far.
Given the runaway success of CBD and an industry full of undiscovered territory, sheer novelty still has outsized currency in the market. “If someone had 100 pounds of it, they would sell out in a couple of days, even if people didn’t even know what it was going to do to them,” Wani says.
In some lab studies, THCV has lowered blood sugar and stimulated insulin production, prompting some speculation that the compound could have potential benefits for those with diabetes. To this end, England-based GW Pharmaceuticals is reportedly working on a drug that couples it with CBD. Other possible applications include the treatment of osteoporosis, as it may help stimulate the growth of bone, and its anticonvulsant attributes may one day lend themselves to treating neurodegenerative disorders and various types of seizures.
THCV interacts not just with the endocannabinoid system but with constituents of other signaling and regulatory systems, and it may be possible to exploit these properties. For example, the compound has shown signs of decreasing inflammation and pain in mice and could one day be useful in lessening the symptoms of schizophrenia.
For now, THCV will always come with other cannabinoids, such as THC, and the extent to which it can offset or augment some of the effects of THC remains to be seen. If seeking it out for yourself, of course, ask for the test results.
So, does THCV have a future in the diet world and beyond? Until we find out, we certainly have something to chew on.
The statements on Lab Notes have not been evaluated by the FDA. The products mentioned herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.