For years, CBD has been touted by major publications, CBD manufacturers, and some scientists as non-psychoactive. Even the Guardian published an article in 2018 with that seemingly ubiquitous phrase “CBD is non-psychoactive.” That phrase shows up so often and in so many varied places that it must be true, right? That may not be the case.
We know that CBD doesn’t get us high, but is it correct to say that it’s non-psychoactive? To find out, let’s first define what psychoactive means.
What Does Psychoactive Mean?
When used in conjunction with CBD, psychoactive seems to be synonymous with intoxicating. You’ll often see CBD described as non-psychoactive when talking about its cannabinoid cousin, THC. THC is described as psychoactive since it gets you high, but the word psychoactive actually has a more nuanced definition.
Psychoactive or psychotropic drugs are chemicals that interact with our central nervous system and brain to change our mental state. Intoxicating compounds like THC, an ingredient derived from marijuana, definitely fit in this category, but what about CBD? CBD doesn’t get you high, but does it still fit the definition? Let’s take a look at how CBD works to find out.
How Does CBD Work?
One of the key ways our bodies maintain homeostasis is through the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a system of neurotransmitters responsible for regulating things like mood, appetite, and sleep. It uses chemicals known as endocannabinoids, kind of like carrier pigeons. The endocannabinoids bind to CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors, which are located through the brain and central nervous systems and send signals to the body.
When we consume cannabinoids like THC and CBD, they interact with our ECS in a similar way. THC mimics an endocannabinoid called anandamide, which helps regulate mood. Anandamide actually gets its name from an ancient Sanskrit word meaning joy or bliss. THC binds perfectly to CB1 receptors, and the result is a feeling of euphoria or mood elevation. It’s this euphoric feeling that makes THC such a popular recreational drug.
CBD works a little differently. It still interacts with the ECS, but it doesn’t bind to the cannabinoid receptors as well as THC does. CBD loosely stimulates the CB1 and CB2 receptors, and in some cases, CBD simply blocks the receptors, preventing them from interacting with other neurotransmitters. When CBD blocks these receptors, it triggers the body to create more cannabinoid receptors, which can result in more natural anandamide and elevated mood. This interaction with the ECS is the crux of the potential CBD benefits like chronic pain mitigation, sleep regulation, and anxiety management, in which this active ingredient shows promise.
The difference in CBD and THC’s ECS interaction is also part of the basis for the entourage effect. CBD can only regulate the CB1 receptors when in the presence of a cannabinoid that binds to them like THC. CBD can then actually influence the way the CB1 receptors respond to the THC, reducing unwanted side-effects of THC and helping facilitate an all-around more pleasant experience.
So is CBD Psychoactive or Not?
Earlier, we clarified the definition of psychoactive as meaning a chemical that interacts with the central nervous system and changes the consumer’s mental state. We now know that CBD does, in fact, interact with our central nervous system by way of the endocannabinoid system. We also know that interaction can have a tangible effect on our mood or mental state.
So, by this definition, CBD is clearly a psychoactive compound.
Why is There so Much Confusion?
CBD is still in its infancy as a mainstream wellness product due to its potential health benefits. It’s important to make a distinction between THC and CBD, especially when communicating with a large audience that will likely have people unfamiliar with the compounds. People tend to see CBD products or hemp and instantly associate it with marijuana. Because of this, it makes sense to explicitly separate these compounds.
However, the phrase non-psychoactive isn’t entirely accurate. Some outlets have begun shifting to the longer, “Not psychoactive like THC,” but non-intoxicating is probably the most precise way to make the distinction.