Canna-Kitchen Witchery: Fat Is Your Friend
Last month we covered the basics of decarboxylation, the process required to transform our acidic cannabinoids into their “activated” (or at least psychoactive) form. This is a good place to start on our medicine-making journey. For our next step, I’m inviting you to venture back in time with me, to take a look at some of the earliest cannabis medicine ever concocted.
India, 1000 B.C. A man sits, pounding the leaves and flowering tops of cannabis sativa in a mortar and pestle, combining it with fresh milk. Once thoroughly combined, it will be flavored with aromatic spices, called bhang, and handed out to passersby celebrating the spring festival of Holi.
A neighboring woman grinds her flowers into ghee, a clarified butter, then rolls it with chopped dates, spices, and honey to create majoun, a sweet treat that was the inspiration for Alice B. Toklas’ infamous brownie recipe in the 1960s. In both cases, cannabis and fat come together to form a marriage made in heaven, lipids being one of the best mediums for extracting the medicinal compounds from the plant.
Both cannabinoids and terpenes are what we call lipophilic. They just really, really love fat (and who can blame them?). On the flip side of that, they are also hydrophobic — you will be hard pressed to get these compounds to fully extract in a water base (which is why cannabis tea isn’t really a thing). This has to do with the polarity of the molecules – basically, if something is nonpolar (which refers to the distribution of electrons on the molecule), it will be dissolved readily in other non-polar things like butter, oil, ethanol, and some more controversial solvents like butane. Most terpenes are non-polar as well, which is why essential oils bead up when you drop them in water (which is polar) but disappear when dissolved in a carrier oil.
That’s not to say you won’t get anything trying to extract your cannabis in a more polar substance such as water. The solubility of THC in water is 2.8mg/L, which means that you could only expect to extract 2.8mg of THC into an entire liter of water. To put that in perspective, you’d need about 21 2-liter soda bottles of water to extract all the THC from the average 1/8th of flower. Now, unless you’re very thirsty and an extreme lightweight, that’s a ridiculous proposition.
Both cannabinoids and terpenes are what we call lipophilic. They just really, really love fat (and who can blame them?).
Of course, other anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, such as the unique flavonoids cannflavin A and B, do extract readily in water, so there is certainly some benefit. In fact, in many places around the world people have consumed cannabis in tea form for various therapeutic purposes. However, non-polar substances such as lipids have long been known to be better solvents for a full spectrum extract, and are most definitely a more efficient use of your flower.
Plus, using fat as your solvent has many other advantages. Besides being an efficient extractor, it also help you absorb cannabinoids better! In a 2016 study, rats who were co-administered lipids alongside cannabinoids had 2.5 to 3 times more systemic exposure to the compounds compared to rats who did not receive lipids. So, infusing your cannabis into fat, or even just consuming fat at the same time you imbibe the herb could help increase its effectiveness pretty dramatically.
Energetically, fats are also very moistening to the body – this is important given that most traditions consider cannabis to be a very drying herb (cotton mouth being a very visceral manifestation of that). We should be mindful to balance out that dryness with moistening foods and herbs, especially if we’re already a little dry and/or will be consuming a lot of cannabis.
Finally, fats are just good for you in general. As a society we’re all still getting over the fatphobia that dominated nutrition advice for far too long. Our cells are made out of fat, and our nerve cells in particular are coated in it. If we don’t consume adequate amounts of dietary fat, our brain and nerve health can suffer as a result. The scare around saturated fat and high cholesterol and heart disease has been shown to be factually incorrect as well.
So, infusing your cannabis into fat, or even just consuming fat at the same time you imbibe the herb could help increase its effectiveness pretty dramatically.
A recent study found that intake of fat had no correlation with cardiovascular disease and mortality (and was actually protective against stroke), whereas high carbohydrate intake was associated with increased risk of mortality. Both saturated and unsaturated fats are needed, and luckily both are excellent extractors for cannabis.
I’d like to think that here in Vermont, where we have more cows than people, this cultural lipophobia is less of a thing, but I’m sure you all have heard how the dairy industry is suffering. Maybe we can all use our newfound freedom as of July 1 to make a healthy amount of cannabutter and give our local dairy farmers a leg up.
Fats are especially important for the proper functioning of our endocannabinoid system – in fact, endocannabinoid deficiency issues can be caused in part by inadequate intake or assimilation of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are actually the precursor building blocks for endocannabinoids in our bodies, and when consumed in the right rations (five times more Omega 3’s than 6’s is ideal) contribute to a balanced endocannabinoid system and lower overall inflammatory tone. Good sources of PUFAs? Interestingly enough, hemp seeds are high in these essential nutrients, as are many other seeds (chia, flax, etc.), as well as fish and grass-fed animal products. Another reason to use a lipid carrier for your cannabis extracts such as hempseed oil or some quality Vermont grass-fed butter.
So, now we know why fats are our friends – they are readily available, are excellent solvents for cannabis, enhance our assimilation of cannabinoids, and improve the tone of our endocannabinoid system and our cellular health more generally. Next time we’ll get into the nitty gritty of how to actually extract our cannabis into a lipid base, and how to choose which fat and which extraction method makes the most sense for you.
Until next time,
Stephanie is a certified clinical herbalist, having graduated from the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism‘s three-year Clinical Herbalist Training Program. In addition to her traditional herbal training, she also holds a Professional Certificate in Cannabis Science and Medicine from the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, and has over five years of experience in the cannabis industry, primarily as a medicine maker. Stephanie has long been fascinated by plants, particularly the cannabis plant, and how they bring together the realms of science, spirituality, healthcare, social justice and ecology. Her clinical practice CannaBotnanicals (cannabotanicals.net) offers herbal consults with an emphasis on holistic approaches to cannabis use, as well as custom infusions and a small product line.
 Politi, M., Peschel, W., Wilson, N., Zloh, M., Prieto, J. M., & Heinrich, M. (2008). Direct NMR analysis of cannabis water extracts and tinctures and semi-quantitative data on Δ9-THC and Δ9-THC-acid. Phytochemistry, 69(2), 562-570.
 Zgair, A., Wong, J. C., Lee, J. B., Mistry, J., Sivak, O., Wasan, K. M., … & Gershkovich, P. (2016). Dietary fats and pharmaceutical lipid excipients increase systemic exposure to orally administered cannabis and cannabis-based medicines. American journal of translational research, 8(8), 3448.
 Dehghan, M., Mente, A., Zhang, X., Swaminathan, S., Li, W., Mohan, V., … & Amma, L. I. (2017). Associations of fats and carbohydrate intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 18 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study. The Lancet, 390(10107), 2050-2062.
 Bosch-Bouju, C., & Layé, S. (2016). Dietary Omega-6/Omega-3 and Endocannabinoids: Implications for Brain Health and Diseases. In Cannabinoids in Health and Disease. InTech.