The Real Difference Between Body Highs and Head Highs
Weed is great but weed is also a mysterious creature. Why is it that sometimes, no matter how long you keep your greedy hands on your friend’s joint and take many deep and very serious inhales, you just can’t get high? Then other times, maybe even the very next day, after a half puff from a one-hitter, you’re sitting there in a cold-sweat and completely baked?
While smoking can yield unpredictable results, edibles are another complicated monster. Rest assured, if you’re planning to drink an entire bottle of weed lube, then you’ll absolutely be fucked up fast. Since that isn’t a predicament most of us will face, your biggest edible-related issue is likely waiting for it to kick in; this can turn into an intense test of self-control, where you’re tempted to overeat yourself into a stupor, later realizing you’ve been staring at a blank wall for hours.
Beyond this delicate recipe of finding the right way to attain a successful high, there are even different kinds of highs, with the most common being head and body highs. The two are very different, with head highs described to me by Lola* as “incredibly trippy and fun, everything becomes more vivid. Everything is interesting and TV is amazing,” and body highs described to me by Kara* as “extremely relaxing from my fingers to toes, it’s like my insides are glitter and my chronic back aches go away.”
While most people have experienced the two different highs, there’s surprisingly very little available literature about them, aside from weed forums where contributors are busy educating lurkers that indica means “in da couch.”
Broadly spoke to Dr. Aury Holtzman, a medical doctor based in Huntington Beach, California who specializes in marijuana and has evaluated over 11,000 patients to determine their medical marijuana needs, and asked him to explain the difference between those glorious head and body highs.
In order to understand why we get different kinds of highs, we need a cursory understanding of how our bodies get high in the first place. The human body has evolved to include an endocannabinoid system with various neurotransmitters and receptors. “It’s like a lock and key,” said Dr. Holtzman describing how neurotransmitters, the messenger chemicals in the brain, bind with receptors. Some neurotransmitters are believed to regulate specific processes—serotonin for mood, sleep and learning, and dopamine for the brain’s “reward system.”
In 1988, a cannabinoid receptor was discovered in the brain and its peripheries, suggesting that our brains already have a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter similar to those found in marijuana. That neurotransmitter native to the body is called anandamide and comes from the Sanskrit word for “bliss.” It plays a role in the body that impacts pain management, depression, appetite, memory, and fertility. Dr. Holtzman simplifies it by saying, “It tends to make people feel good.” Cannabinoids from cannabis plants bind with our natural brain receptors, activating the overall system and getting us high.
So, what happens in our bodies to make us experience different head and body highs?
One of the biggest factors is the way you ingest your weed. “When you smoke, the cannabinoids go straight into your lungs,” said Dr. Holtzman. “They go right into your blood supply, into your brain, across the blood-brain barrier and then you get the high.” It’s different when you eat that phat pot brownie. “[The cannabinoids] don’t go into your blood, they go to the liver and then the liver will convert the THC,” said Dr. Holtzman. “You get a slightly different effect on the receptor.” So basically, when cannabinoids go straight to your lungs, you’re more likely to feel a head high. When they go through your liver, it’s more of a body high.
Another thing that can affect your high is marijuana strain. Dr. Holtzman believes marijuana plants are very smart and over time they have evolved to contain different terpenes, which are essential oils that impact a plant’s smell and strain. “The head versus the body high is due to the different terpene levels,” explained Dr. Holtzman. Historically, there are two species of cannabis with different terpenes: indica and sativa. “Indica is known as the body high, with a focused calm feeling and sativas were known for the head high, used for more cerebral things,” said Dr. Holtzman. “When you think of sativa, you think of enhanced, raised elevated but the side effects of sativas can be too much anxiety or panic attacks.”
And while it may sound easy to determine your highs by your strains, it’s become tougher over the years as all weed plant strains have become hybridized. “There are very few plants that would be pure indica or sativa,” said Dr. Holtzman. “All these strains out there are hybrids but some give you more indica effects, other mores sativa effects.” So if you’re smoking an indica and experiencing more of a head high, there’s a chance that your strain is more hybrid than your dealer led you to believe.
So what do you do when you’ve smoked or eaten too much? Kara* told me that when she needs to not be high anymore, she exercises. “It makes me feel like I’m burning out all the THC in my system,” she said. I asked Dr. Holtzman if there is any validity to that and surprisingly, he said yes. “The exercise mobilizes your blood which helps you excrete [THC] faster.” Which explains why you might not feel that edible if you’re out skating or doing anything that isn’t lying immobile on your couch while listening to Fetty Wap on vinyl.
“While medicating with THC, it’s really important to stay hydrated and keep your electrolytes in balance,” adds Dr. Holtzman. So the next time you got too baked and need to go somewhere and not seriously weird everyone out, do some jumping jacks and chug some water before heading out.
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Weed can make you feel euphoric and buzzed, or it can just make you want to melt into the couch like that girl in those anti-drug commercials. We asked a doctor about what causes different highs.
Sativa vs. Indica: What to Expect Across Cannabis Types and Strains
The two main types of cannabis, sativa and indica, are used for a number of medicinal and recreational purposes.
Sativas are known for their “head high,” an invigorating, energizing effect that can help reduce anxiety or stress and increase creativity and focus.
Indicas are typically associated with full-body effects, such as increasing deep relaxation and reducing insomnia.
Although research examining these effects is limited, it appears these plants have more in common than previously thought.
In other words, the category, or type, of cannabis may not be the greatest indicator of the effects you’ll experience.
Here’s how to find the right plant for your needs, strains to consider, potential side effects, and more.
The often-applied rule of thumb is that sativas are more invigorating and energizing, while indicas are more relaxing and calming — but it isn’t really that simple.
Individual plants produce varying effects, even among the same type of cannabis. It all depends on the plant’s chemical composition and the growing technique used.
Instead of looking at the type alone — sativa or indica — look at the description the grower and dispensary provide.
Oftentimes, the plant types are broken down into specific strains, or breeds.
Strains are distinguished by their individual cannabinoid and terpene content. These compounds are what determine the strain’s overall effects.
Cannabis plants contain dozens of chemical compounds called cannabinoids.
These naturally occurring components are responsible for producing many of the effects — both negative and positive — of cannabis use.
Researchers still don’t understand what all of the cannabinoids do, but they have identified two main ones — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) — as well as several less common compounds.
- THC. THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis plants. It’s responsible for the “high” or state of euphoria associated with cannabis use. Levels of THC have been increasing as growers try to create hybrids with a greater concentration of the compound.
- CBD. CBD is non-psychoactive. It doesn’t cause a “high.” However, it may produce many physical benefits, such as reducing pain and nausea, preventing seizures, and easing migraine.
- CBN. Cannabinol (CBN) is used to ease symptoms and side effects of neurological conditions, including epilepsy, seizures, and uncontrollable muscle stiffness.
- THCA. Tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCA) is similar to THC, but it doesn’t cause any psychoactive effects. Its potential benefits include reducing inflammation from arthritis and autoimmune diseases. It may also help reduce symptoms of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and ALS.
- CBG. Cannabigerol (CBG) is thought to help reduce anxiety and symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
A great deal of attention is paid to the amount of THC and CBD in a given strain, but newer research suggests that terpenes may be just as impactful.
Terpenes are another naturally occurring compound in the cannabis plant.
The terpenes present directly affect the plant’s smell. They may also influence the effects produced by specific strains.
According to Leafly, common terpenes include:
- Bisabolol. With notes of chamomile and tea tree oil, the terpene bisabolol is thought to reduce inflammation and irritation. It may also have microbial and pain-reducing effects.
- Caryophyllene. The peppery, spicy molecule may reduce anxiety, ease symptoms of depression, and improve ulcers.
- Linalool. Linalool is said to help improve relaxation and boost mood with its floral notes.
- Myrcene. The most common terpene, this earthy, herbal molecule may help reduce anxiety and insomnia so you can sleep better.
- Ocimene. This terpene produces notes of basil, mango, and parsley. Its primary effects may include easing congestion and warding off viruses and bacteria.
- Pinene. As the name suggests, this terpene produces an intense pine aroma. It may help boost memory, reduce pain, and ease some of the not-so-pleasant symptoms of THC, such as nausea and coordination problems.
- Terpinolene. Cannabis with this compound may smell like apples, cumin, and conifers. It may have sedative, antibacterial, and antifungal properties.
- Limonene. Bright, zippy citrus notes come from this terpene. It’s said to improve mood and reduce stress.
- Humulene. This terpene is deeply earthy and woody, like hops or cloves. Cannabis strains with this molecule may reduce inflammation.
- Eucalyptol. With notes of eucalyptus and tea tree oil, this molecule is refreshing and invigorating. It may also reduce inflammation and fight bacteria.
Sativa and indica are the two main types of cannabis plants. The often-applied rule of thumb is that sativas are more invigorating and energizing, while indicas are more relaxing and calming — but this is an immense oversimplification. Here's how to find the right plant for your needs, strains to consider, and more.