What Happens When You Consume Edibles on an Empty Stomach?

Cannabis edibles provide a delicious and discreet way to enjoy your cannabis at any time of day, but consuming edibles on an empty stomach can lead to some negative side effects.

Just like any drug, vitamin, or medication, you need to know when and how to consume your cannabis-infused food. The important thing is understanding how edibles are absorbed, why you shouldn’t eat them without food, and what you should do for best results.

The Effects of a Cannabis Edible

The effects of edibles are different from the effects of smoking cannabis. Smoking has faster effects, but the effects don’t last as long. When you ingest CBD or THC edibles, the active compounds (cannabinoids) pass through your digestive tract to the liver where they are metabolized and converted into the analogous compounds 7-hydroxy-CBD and 11-OH-THC. This is the first-pass metabolism.

These compounds are then absorbed in the small intestine and released into the bloodstream, reaching peak concentration about 4 hours after you ingest edibles (with a meal) or 1.5 hours if you’ve eaten edibles on an empty stomach. Because the 11-OH-THC metabolite is much stronger than THC, edibles can have much stronger effects. That’s why medical marijuana doctors often advise their patients to start with small microdoses.

Edibles Last Longer than Tinctures

Compared to plain CBD and THC, the metabolized compounds remain in the bloodstream for a long time: 6-12 hours. This is why edibles are a preferred option for sleep — the metabolized compounds last much longer than the un-metabolized versions found in tinctures.

The exact length of time that the cannabinoids in edibles affect you will vary according to your metabolism and whether you had edibles after a meal. That’s important to take into account if you’re having edibles for the first time. You don’t want to suffer from THC overload.

Food Matters When You’re Consuming Cannabis Edibles

Like any other bioactive substance — caffeine, alcohol, vitamins, and medications — cannabis has very different effects when taken on an empty stomach as opposed to after a meal. Like many medications, your edibles should also come with the warning: “Eat after a meal.”

Remember the last time you had a big cup of joe without eating and suffered from a severe case of the jitters? Or that spontaneous cocktail before the meal that sent you reeling after only a few sips? The same can happen when you eat edibles on an empty stomach, except that here we’re talking about a bad experience of anxiety, rapid heartbeat, and paranoia.

Be mindful of your cannabis strain as well. While some strains have only 10 to 15% THC, others can have nearly 30%. This will greatly impact the intensity of your high.

Why Cannabis Edibles Should Always Be Consumed with Food

The science of food absorption gives us some important clues about why eating edibles on an empty stomach is a bad idea and what you should do instead. Here are three things to keep in mind when enjoying your cannabis in the form of edibles:

Rate of Gastric Emptying

Edibles first arrive in the stomach when they are partially digested by stomach acid. From there, they pass into the small intestine where the cannabinoids are absorbed and released. When there is no food in the stomach, there is nothing to slow or limit the rate at which the THC enters the small intestine. However, combining edibles with food slows down the entire process of gastric emptying for a more gradual release of the active compounds.

Solubility

Drugs like THC can’t be absorbed exactly as they are. They need to be solubilized in water or another liquid. Because cannabinoids don’t absorb well in water — they are “lipophilic” — they need to be turned into a solution by the presence of bile acids, which are released by the gallbladder when you eat fat-containing foods. While it might seem counterintuitive, eating edibles with a meal actually helps the THC do its job better!

THC: CBD Ratio

Perhaps the most influential factor in the anxiety you can feel from eating edibles on an empty stomach is the ratio of THC to CBD. It’s a well-known fact that cannabidiol (CBD) helps to moderate the more intoxicating results of THC without lowering its effectiveness.

Some research suggests that food consumption can influence the absorption rate (and therefore the bioavailability) of different cannabinoids in different ways, potentially flooding the body with more THC and less CBD. As a result, the psychotropic effects may be more intense without food. If you want to maximize your CBD absorption, the secret may actually be fatty foods.

Understanding the Fats Connection

As we mentioned previously, eating fats stimulates the gallbladder to produce bile acids, which solubilizes THC and CBD and helps them to be absorbed more effectively. In particular, consuming edibles together with fats is necessary for the absorption of CBD — tempering THC’s more extreme psychoactive effects.

According to a 2016 study, oral co-administration of cannabis and lipids in rats increased the systemic exposure of THC by a factor of 2.5 and CBD by a factor of 3. A 2019 study with patients of epilepsy found that taking CBD with a high-fat meal increased the amount of CBD in the body by a factor of 4 and the maximum amount of CBD in the blood by a factor of 14.

Which Lipids Are Best?

If you really want to optimize your experience with edibles and avoid edibles on an empty stomach, which kinds of lipids are best? Fortunately, there are several fats that can help with cannabinoid absorption.

Breakfast Burrito

The 2019 study mentioned above gave the breakfast burrito as an example of a “high-fat meal” that can be eaten before taking CBD. Typically, this meal includes a toasted wrap filled with avocado, meat or chicken, salad, eggs, and cheese. It typically contains 850 calories and reaches 52% fat.

Full-Fat Dairy

Dairy products like milk, cream, butter, cheese, and yogurt contain fats that can stimulate the production of bile and help your edibles go down smoothly. While full-fat milk contains 3.4-5% fat, this figure increases to 4.3-30% fat in cheese, 35% in cream, and 80% in butter. Yogurt has similar fat content to milk, varying from 0.2-3%.

Fatty Fish

Fish contain omega 3 fatty acids including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosapentaenoic acid, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). At the same time as enhancing THC and CBD absorption, these essential fatty acids can help with heart function, brain function, and inflammation and can help to lower blood pressure.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is made up of more than 80% saturated fats, compared to olive oil, which has less than 20% fat. To enjoy the benefits of coconut and cannabis edibles, try making coconut oil mayonnaise, mix up some raw coconut oil energy balls, or top your breakfast with coconut yogurt and/or coconut cream.

Avocado

Avocado is undoubtedly the star of the breakfast burrito, but you can include this high-fat fruit in all kinds of sweet and savory meals. Instead of saturated fat, avocados contain monounsaturated fat, which can help you maintain healthy levels of cholesterol. It also contains a wide range of vitamins and minerals.

Nuts

Nuts and seeds are a favorite source of fats for the health-conscious and make the perfect post-edible snack for cannabis users. In the hours after a high-fat meal and downing your gummy or hash brownie bar, try snacking on some (lightly roasted) almonds, Brazil nuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, and seeds to stretch out the effects of cannabis edibles.

Enjoy Your Edibles — Without the Anxiety

At first glance, it might seem like ingesting edibles on an empty stomach would lead to a better high. However, as we’ve seen, these sweet treats should carry the label “always take after food.”

Having your edibles within 30 minutes of a full, high-fat meal may not only moderate the intoxicating effects of THC by boosting CBD levels naturally. It may also increase THC absorption and help your high last longer.

So, as it turns out, your parents were right: You should always save the cookies and brownies for after your meal.

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