For the better part of the last 30 years, cannabis breeders have mainly been concerned with creating strains of cannabis that contain high concentrations of THC. This is because THC is typically what consumers are looking for, as this cannabinoid is responsible for the euphoric high of cannabis. And even though CBD was isolated in the 1940s and later identified in the 1960s, it did not gain popularity in the cannabis community until the last few years.
Ultimately, CBD and THC are just two of more than 100 known cannabinoids in the marijuana and hemp plants. With that being said, they are the two most prevalent and most adored cannabinoids, coming with a range of health benefits and effects. They are fundamentally different from each other, both in chemical structure and the effect on the user. In this article, we have a look at both cannabinoids and what makes them different from one another.
THC, CBD and the endocannabinoid system
In order to understand the major differences between THC and CBD, we need to talk about how they interact with the human body. Although these two cannabinoids come from the very same source, they travel in very different directions once they are consumed by a person.
The human endocannabinoid system is a complex network of cannabinoid receptors, dotted all over the human body. There are cannabinoid receptors in the stomach, intestines, lungs, skin, central nervous system and immune system. The endocannabinoid system is mainly responsible for maintaining the homeostasis of all other physiological functions of the body. In this way, it plays a role in just about everything your body does. And when cannabis is consumed, the endocannabinoid system is directly affected.
THC loves cannabinoid receptors
When THC enters the body, it overwhelms the endocannabinoid system by attaching itself to the many cannabinoid receptors located all over the brain and body. This means that THC has a strong affinity for cannabinoid receptors. When this happens, the chemical signalling between neurons and endogenous cannabinoids is interfered with, causing a cascade of events to take place.
CBD has no affinity for cannabinoid receptors
CBD, on the other hand, has no real affinity for cannabinoid receptors. This does not mean it doesn’t interact with the endocannabinoid system. It just does so in a more peripheral way. Rather than acting directly on cannabinoid receptor sites, CBD inhibits enzymes that are involved in breaking down natural, endogenous cannabinoids. The scientific name for this kind of behavior is a non-competitive allosteric modulator. CBD therefore affects the endocannabinoid system in a more subtle and peripheral manner.
THC is psychoactive and CBD is non-psychoactive
One of the greatest consequences of THC’s affinity for cannabinoid receptors is that the effect of consuming THC is psychoactive. This is why sensations of euphoria, short-term memory loss, drowsiness, creative thinking and sometimes even anxiety are reported by those who use high THC cannabis. In fact, this effect is why humans have loved and used cannabis for so long.
CBD, on the other hand is non-psychoactive. In fact, CBD is actually anti-psychotic (but we’ll talk more about that later). Consuming CBD does not cause the same kind of cerebral effects as THC because it has no psychoactive properties. It causes a myriad of other effects in the body, including relaxation and decreased inflammation, but doesn’t make a person feel high.
As you can imagine, the non-psychoactive quality of CBD makes it a preferable option to many who are THC sensitive, such as children and elderly people. Those who choose to use medical CBD can still receive the therapeutic benefits without the sense of intoxication.
Different medical reasons to use THC or CBD
Most medical marijuana patients will use a form of whole cannabis, meaning it contains both THC and CBD. This is because both cannabinoids offer a plethora of therapeutic benefit, often overlapping in their effects. However, because of the psychoactive nature of THC, certain medical marijuana patients will opt for a CBD-only medicine. And again, depending on the nature of the pathology, sometimes a THC-only medicine is necessary.
Medical benefits of CBD include:
- Antipsychotic (CBD has been heavily researched for its ability to reduce psychotic symptoms, including those that are induced by THC)
- Anti-tumor agent
- Relief from chronic pain
THC, while having many of the benefits of CBD, also has unique medicinal properties:
- Antiemetic (reduces nausea)
- Increase appetite
- Pain relief
- Assists with withdrawal symptoms associated with drug cessation
As you can see, many of the therapeutic characteristics of THC and CBD overlap. At the same time, both have unique medical properties that may or may not be appropriate to every person who is using them. This also means that neither cannabinoid is better than the other. Rather, each one is used for different reasons to elicit different effects.
The entourage effect
You may have heard of a phenomenon commonly referred to as the entourage effect by the cannabis and medical community. This is a term used to describe the combined effect of all the cannabinoids, terpenoids and flavonoids present in a single specimen of cannabis. The cannabis industry is extremely proficient at extracting cannabinoids and producing single-cannabinoid medicines such as CBD isolate. However, herbalists would argue that this interferes with the healing power of the plant, as there is no combined effect of all present compounds.
The theory of the entourage effect rests in the principle that all of the compounds in marijuana work better as a team than as single players. The idea is that no single cannabinoid can have as much power or potential as the entire phytochemical profile of the cannabis plant. In short, the sum is greater than its parts.
While there is much debate of THC vs. CBD, there simply doesn’t need to be. Both cannabinoids actually regulate each other when consumed by humans, with THC being psychoactive and CBD being antipsychotic. When all the notes are combined, they strike a magic chord which cannot be replicated by one alone.
Cannabis is bigger than THC and CBD
Despite how much we’ve spoken about THC and CBD in this article, it doesn’t even begin to describe the complexity of cannabis. There are over 400 different compounds in the marijuana plant, over 100 of which are cannabinoids. In addition to cannabinoids, marijuana also contains terpenes, terpenoids, flavonoids and essential fatty acids. It is a phytochemical factory, where each chemical has its own array of medicinal applications.
The complexity of cannabis is what inspires so much curiosity and what motivates so many researchers to continue to study this plant. It seems that no matter how much research is conducted, we continue to uncover mysteries about cannabis, cannabinoids and even the endocannabinoid system. We even owe the discovery of the endocannabinoid system to the research of cannabinoids!
There is no war between THC and CBD. Both are cannabinoids prevalent in marijuana, and both have differing effects. As well as being a recreational substance, cannabis is also a medical powerhouse, offering both pleasure and therapeutic value to almost anyone who cares to try it.