Can Physical Exercise Cause Release of Fat-Stored Cannabinoids?

Man smoking cannabis and exercising
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Whether it’s because you’re worried about an upcoming screening test or simply looking to lower your tolerance, getting cannabis out of your system is no easy feat. Due to the lipid-soluble nature of cannabinoids, chronic users find that detectable levels of cannabis can remain in the body for up to three months following their last use. 

Many people believe that frequent exercise can help you “sweat it out,” but, surprisingly, research has found the opposite to be true.

First Glance:

  • Cannabis can remain detectable in the body for up to three months following use due to the lipid-soluble nature of the cannabinoid compounds and its length, two-phase metabolism process. 
  • Many people believe that exercise helps rid the body of cannabinoids faster, but research has shown that exercise can actually hinder detoxification efforts. 
  • Studies show that physical exercise moderately enhances lipolysis, the breakdown of fats, and actually increases the amount of cannabinoids available in the bloodstream. 
  • This effect is also seen in animals who undergo food deprivation or are injected with lipolysis-enhancing hormones. 
  • The most efficient and effective way to rid the body of fat-stored cannabinoids is to abstain from cannabis altogether.

So, Are You “Sweating Out” Cannabis?

Physical exercise actually increases the amount of cannabinoids in the bloodstream due to the heightened rate of fat metabolism that occurs while working out. 

Studies have also observed this effect following food deprivation and the injection of certain “fat burning” hormones. So instead of pedaling your heart out on that spin bike for hours on end, read below to learn more about how cannabis is stored and released and why exercise may not be the amazing weed detox method we think it is. 

Exercise promotes fat metabolism, causing cannabinoids to be released from lipid depots at a faster rate. And, the most effective strategy for lowering cannabinoid levels appears to be simple abstinence. Yet, the answer is no, you are not sweating out cannabis per se.

What are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids simply refer to the naturally occurring compounds found in the Cannabis sativa plant that are released into the body whenever you consume cannabis, two of which are the commonly known compounds delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Following the initial absorption, cannabinoids exert their influence on the body’s endocannabinoid system, resulting in the effects commonly associated with cannabis consumption. Cannabinoids are extremely lipophilic, meaning that these compounds tend to combine with or dissolve in lipids and other fats. As a result, cannabinoids are taken up and stored in areas of the body with higher fat concentrations such as the lungs, heart, liver, and brain. The more fat a person has available, the easier it is for the body to absorb the cannabis compounds. 

How are Cannabinoids Released from the Body?

After the cannabinoids have been stored and consumption has ceased, the body begins to release the compounds back into the bloodstream to be excreted later through urine and feces. However, this process takes quite a while in comparison to other substances. Transferring the cannabinoids from fat stores to the bloodstream is what researchers refer to as the rate-limiting step, meaning that this is the slowest step in the entire metabolic process. 

The way in which cannabis is metabolized also contributes to its slow release. Unlike many substances that metabolize once and are excreted shortly after, cannabis undergoes what is known as two-phase metabolism. Phase I transforms the compounds from lipophilic to more water-soluble so they can more easily enter the bloodstream, while Phase II renders the enzymes that break down the cannabinoids inactive. Only inactive enzymes can be excreted from the body via waste, making the process an extremely long one. 

Does Exercise Really Help with Quicker Cannabinoid Release?

This lengthy journey from absorption to excretion is why it can take up to three months for a chronic cannabis user to completely flush their system. For those who don’t want to wait that long, exercise and other detoxification methods may seem like a promising alternative. What research has found, however, is that physical exercise may exert the opposite effect than intended. 

A study published in 2013 aimed to investigate whether physical exercise or food deprivation resulted in changes in the cannabis concentration of urine from regular users. Participants completed a moderate-intensity workout in either a fed or fasted state, and their urine was subsequently tested. The results found that, contrary to popular belief, the levels of THC actually increased following exercise. Fasting, on the other hand, did not lead to significant changes. Those results are supported by this study from 2009 which tested whether fasting or lipolysis-enhancing hormones caused changes in cannabis concentration in rats, and researchers found that, in both conditions, THC levels in the bloodstream also increased

Interestingly, an additional study published in 2014 which again investigated the effects of exercise and fasting found similar results.

THC and Your BMI 

Body Mass Index research found that changes in THC levels after exercise ranged from 0% to 34% and increased with body fat. People with larger BMI showed a bigger increase [and] very thin people [had] no effect,” says Iain McGregor, professor of psychopharmacology. While there is much more research to be done, science has shown that cannabinoids such as THC, CBD, and others have the ability to influence our body in more ways than one. And in this case, they will indeed be released when you exercise and burn fat.

Why is this the Case?

Researchers believe this increase in cannabinoid levels following exercise can be attributed to the enhanced fat metabolism that occurs while working out. As a result, the body releases dormant cannabinoids from fat stores into the bloodstream, and this leads to what researchers refer to as “re-intoxication.” This effect is believed to quickly subside once you are finished exercising. 

You may also like: A stoner’s guide to running while high

Final Thoughts

While intense exercising may make you feel like you’re lowering your cannabinoid levels quicker, experts say you’re actually doing the opposite. 

For those who are looking to lower their tolerance or pass a screening test, running miles and miles the week before might be doing you more harm than good. It appears that the most effective and efficient way to completely detox from cannabis is to hop off the treadmill and simply abstain.