Van der Pop

Waiting To Exhale


Dear Vandy,

This is something I heard in my early 20s but never knew if it was true.... Can someone experience a stronger ‘high’ if they inhale more deeply, or hold the smoke in while consuming?

Waiting To Exhale


Dear Waiting,

Thanks for the throwback! The answer to your question is, unfortunately, not so simple. The ‘high’ experienced from cannabis is dependent on a multitude of factors that include depth of inhalation, time spent holding the inhale, and how potent your strain is.

Let’s start with what is simple. I think we can all agree that holding smoke in your lungs, especially in large amounts, is uncomfortable. Anything but air, and our lungs intelligently begin to reject the foreign particles by making us cough, hack, or even gag.

This is why inhaling deeply and holding it for a while ultimately does little to increase your cannabinoid intake; really, it just deprives your body of much needed oxygen. Whatever was supposed to diffuse through your lung tissue and into the blood already did because cannabinoids take milliseconds to enter the blood stream after inhalation because they are fat-soluble. Small, fatty compounds have an easier time interacting with our bodies because of the nature of our cell-membranes.

You see, our cells have a type of security system – referred to as the cell-membrane – which is made up, for the most part, of fats and proteins. Cannabinoids have an easy time getting through the doors of this system because they are also fat-soluble. And when they make it to the lungs, the passage easily continues because of the anatomy of the lungs.

Lungs are not hollow organs. They are filled with broccoli-like structures called alveoli, which are as fine as tissue paper; they are only one cell thick, believe it or not! Their structure makes the exchange and absorption of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and cannabinoids, super simple since the lungs are constructed in this way to maximize their surface area. The larger the surface area, the more oxygen can diffuse into the blood.

Given this, it’s been assumed that the deeper you breathe, the more area of your lungs the cannabinoids go through; but the notion that it gets you more ‘high’ is not a wholly accurate assumption. Deep breathing means that you are filling your lungs with cannabinoids and covering more of the alveoli. But there’s another thing that’s happening – generally, you’re holding your breath.

The old ‘breathe deep, hold, and then exhale’ method when using a joint, pipe or bong, does have some validity, but not in the way it’s been generally understood. Your lungs can only absorb so much at once,  and the higher concentration of compounds in the cannabis strain you’re consuming, the faster it is absorbed. By inundating your lungs with smoke/vapor, you’ll feel the high much quicker, but that does not mean you’re getting more cannabinoids out of it at one time.

Secondly, holding your breath causes hypoxia of the brain (lack of oxygen). Your body reacts to this by increasing blood flow to the brain. The blood vessels dilate, which means their circumference increases. Currently, it is understood that cannabinoids are small and lipophilic (fat-loving) enough to cross the blood-brain-barrier by transmembrane diffusion; this means they can get through your system with a strong push.

Now, let’s put things together. Inhaling deeply causes a slightly higher concentration of cannabinoids to enter the blood stream, which goes and taps on the ‘gates’ of the blood-brain-barrier; cannabinoids have to get through the gate to have any effect on you. A greater amount of cannabinoids waiting means more pressure on the gates to open, so the tapping turns into a loud bang, so to speak. Couple this with a higher amount of blood flooding the area, and you’ve got a recipe for a seemingly more intense high. The duration of effects, though, will not necessarily be stronger. 

High regards,

Van der Pop does not endorse or condone the illegal consumption of cannabis.

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