THC & CBD: The Differences You Need to Know
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be a significant difference between the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). After all, they are both used as alternative medicine due to their many health benefits; they can both be found in exactly the same species of the plant - cannabis sativa; and both are increasing in popularity all over the world.
But the differences between these two cannabinoids run deep. These differences are extremely important, because they have started to open up the conversation about cannabis in ways that have never been possible before. The differences have also opened up the medical marijuana market to patients who were initially turned off by the stereotypical marijuana experience.
Let’s start with the basics. At the molecular level, what are the primary differences between THC and CBD? First, they are both a compound called phytocannabinoids. These are naturally produced by cannabis, and THC and CBD are just two out of the dozens of other cannabinoids found in the plant. Depending on the strain, different combinations and strengths of cannabinoids can be found. For example, the stereotypical medical marijuana is typically extremely high in THC, while industrial hemp (another form of cannabis) is very low in THC but high in CBD.
Cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system of all mammals, including humans. In humans, this system regulates many important biological and psychological processes, including memory, appetite, pain regulation, immune system function, and mood regulation, just to name a few. Plant produced cannabinoids like THC and CBD interact with this system, mimicking many of the endocannabinoids produced by our own bodies. Each cannabinoid interacts in its own personal way with the endocannabinoid system, with some cannabinoids plugging into the cannabinoid receptors, some antagonize the receptors, others only indirectly interact with the system, while still others influence the activity of other cannabinoids. It’s a complex relationship that researchers are only beginning to understand.
In terms of the two cannabinoids we are focusing on, THC and CBD, they influence the system in quite different ways. For example, THC is like a key that fits perfectly into a cannabinoid receptor called CB-1. This receptor is primarily found in the brain and manages pain response, mood and appetite among other processes. Because THC locks into this receptor, it is able to strongly activate it. But if we look at the activity of CBD, it tends to only indirectly stimulate the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors; influencing receptor activation as well as influencing the receptors’ interaction with other cannabinoids.
The different ways that THC and CBD interact with our endocannabinoid system is what leads to the profound difference in their psychoactivity. As most people know, the experience of THC can range anywhere from mild euphoria to severe psychoactivity. For rare cases, it can even trigger periods of psychosis. What many don’t realize however, is that CBD (along with all other cannabinoids) is completely non-psychoactive, and there is no risk for any mind-altering experiences when used. What scientists are beginning to understand about CBD, is that it seems to only influence the activity of receptors but not lock with any. In fact, it has actually been shown to antagonize the CB-1 receptor in a way that unlocks the connection with THC, thereby reducing the experience of a THC high. Even a tiny percentage of CBD, in comparison to THC, can reduce the length and severity of the stoned experience.
This difference, between the psychoactivity of THC and CBD, is key to understanding the differences between these substances in terms of their legal status. As it currently stands, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level (however many states have started to open up the legal status of both recreational and medical grades of marijuana). Until relatively recently, all cannabis was thought to produce a sensation of being high and therefore it was all considered a Schedule I Drug under the instruction of the DEA. However, this has all changed with the development of CBD heavy strains which contain little to no THC at all. Suddenly, this starts to put into question how both substances can be regulated under the same regulation when they have such drastically different effects.
As this conversation starts to play out at the federal and international levels, thankfully there are other legal avenues for CBD oil to be produced. First, the production of hemp is legal within the United States thanks in part to the Agricultural Act of 2014, which made it legal for certain producers to grow, sell, and produce hemp based products. Industrial hemp can legally contain only 0.3% THC, and is a strain that has been bred for different characteristics, such as its stalk and fibers, than a high THC content. Because it also contains significant levels of CBD, it is a great source for local production of CBD based products. Secondly, hemp products are allowed to be imported from other international sources.
Through decades of robust study, the research demonstrates that THC seems to have the below set of health benefits:
- Appetite stimulation in chemotherapy patients
- Reduction is nausea and vomiting
- Treatment of pain associated with glaucoma
- Reduction in inflammation
- Treatment of chronic pain
The more recent research into CBD is showing a slightly different set of characteristics, beyond those of THC and more focused on mood and psychological health benefit:
- Ability to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Relief from tremors and seizures
- Mood stabilizer
- Treatment for psychosis
While all cannabinoids have some health benefit when taken alone, cannabinoids are most powerful when taken together. This is due to something called the entourage effect, which theorizes that cannabinoids are much more powerful when allowed to work together then divided into their parts. With this in mind, finding sources of cannabis products that use whole plant medicine is important.