CBD and THC Differences Explained


With an ever growing number of medical physicians turning to cannabinoids as a holistic alternative for ailments such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, anxiety and depression, chronic and general pain management, weight control, symptoms of cancer treatment and many other conditions, CBD and THC have been brought to the forefront of public attention. Although both are derived from the cannabis family of plants, different strains yield different quantities of each compound. CBD and THC are slightly different in composition (one molecule) as well, causing each to have very different effects on our body.

Cannabidiol, or CBD, was the first cannabinoid to be discovered in 1940, when Dr. Roger Adams and a team of researchers from the University of Illinois were able to extract a dark green oil from cannabis plants. The team was not able to identify the chemical structure of CBD and it took researchers until 1963 to break down its composition. In 1964, Raphael Mechoulam discovered and identified tetrahydrocannabinol, THC. Until recently, research had focused mainly on THC but the recent legalization of cannabis and cannabis-related derivatives has pushed CBD to the forefront.

The two main plants that are currently being used to produce THC and CBD are the marijuana and the industrial hemp plant, respectively. The marijuana plant has many different strains but the main purpose of strain development is to increase the amount of THC the plant will render. Most current strains of the marijuana plant contain between 15 and 40% THC. In contrast, the industrial hemp plant is bred to be very high in CBD with a very low, often below .03%, level of THC. The main difference in the actual compounds is that THC is a psychoactive cannabinoid that causes many noticeable psychological and physiological effects including euphoria, hallucinations and anxiety when ingested. CBD, on the other hand, is not a psychoactive cannabinoid and does not cause psychoactive reactions in the brain. In fact, CBD acts to hinder THC’s ability to produce psychotropic reactions.

To look at CBD vs. THC in terms of its effects on the endocannabinoid system we must have an understanding of how the ECS controls chemical processes in our body. CBD and THC are produced in plants, which classifies them as phytocannabinoids. Inside our body, specifically in the endocannabinoid system or ECS, exist the two endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). These endocannabinoids are an integral part of the endocannabinoid system as they bind to cannabinoid receptors and essentially send signals back and forth between the receptor ends. CB1 receptors are concentrated in the central nervous system, with their highest density in the brain. CB1 moderates things like mood, motor function, memory and pain perception. Endocannabinoids are found in other locations throughout the body and play a role in digestion, hormone production, cardiovascular health and pregnancy. When CBD is introduced to the system, it is able to bond to anandamide and 2-AG and actually penetrate the surface of ECM receptors themselves. Their main goal is to increase or decrease the rate of neurotransmissions from the receptor to the brain and bring the receptor back to a state of homeostasis by calming overactive receptors and exciting non-responsive ones.

CBD works in conjunction with CB2 receptors in much the same way. CB2 receptors are located mainly in the immune system helping the body maintain balance in systems that control asthma, arthritis, digestive issues, autoimmune disorders and inflammatory bowel disease. This is a short list, as CB2 receptors are active in many other processes. The goal of CBD at these receptors is similar to its role in the brain and central nervous system, leveling out the activity of overactive receptors.

THC has medicinal effects throughout the body but interacts with the CB1 and CB2 receptors differently than CBD. Both CBD and THC are able to bind to the CB2 receptors but CBD only attaches to the neurotransmitters anandamide and 2AG and uses them as a vehicle to penetrate the receptor, while THC is able to bind directly to the surface of the receptor itself. In some cases, THC activates pathways in the central nervous system, essentially stopping pain signals from getting to the brain. In this interaction, THC is not moderating the pathway but simply turning it on. In FDA trials conducted in 2013, individuals experiencing neuropathic pain were given 1.29% doses of THC. Those trial members given THC instead of placebo, reported a 30% reduction in pain intensity, on average.

Both CBD and THC have been used by cancer patients for years and their effectiveness is bolstered by the drug Marinol, approved and released by the FDA in the early 80’s. Marinol is a synthetic cannabinoid produced to match the pain fighting effects of CBD and THC, however it does not provide the entourage effect that comes from the inclusion of other compounds found in whole plant marijuana (THC) or industrial hemp (CBD). There are other cannabinoids that have shown an ability to fight cancer cells but THC and CBD are the most effective. Through a process called apoptosis, THC sends signals to the cancer tumour that forces it to essentially destroy itself. THC also impedes a tumour’s ability to form blood vessels of its own and doesn’t allow the cancer cells to leave the tumour and move throughout the body. This is one area where THC excels above all other cannabinoids but CBD has also been shown to ease nausea and increase appetite in cancer patients during treatment without creating adverse psychoactive effects.

CBD and THC have both been used to reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity, reduce the risk of cancer, reduce cholesterol, protect against and help heal skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, improve brain health, ease complications due to multiple sclerosis, provide relief from inflammation as well as aid with many other physiological disorders and ailments. On a psychological level they have both shown to provide improvement in those suffering from mood disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

The list provided is only a small cross section of diseases and ailments that have been studied with these cannabinoids to date. Due to the differences between CBD and THC and the wide range of applications for each, CBD vs. THC can be a confusing topic. Which to use depends on the ailment the sufferer is trying to treat and their tolerance of THC’s  psychotropic effects. Ultimately both can be extremely useful. When taken together, CBD’s ability to suppress THC’s psychotropic effects allows the sufferer to see benefits from each of the compound’s unique characteristics without too great of a psychoactive interruption.

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