Cannabis is an incredible plant that’s overflowing with all sorts of exciting compounds. From fragrant terpenes to psychoactive cannabinoids, the dense flowering buds of the cannabis plant are a bona fide smorgasbord of therapeutic molecules.
Believe it or not, cannabis researchers have identified over 100 different cannabinoids. Such a large number may sound surprising to you, considering almost all of the community's attention gets focused on just two specific cannabinoids—THC and CBD.
Both THC and CBD can have potent effects when consumed by humans, which is why cultivators breed plants with high percentages of both compounds. However, the two cannabinoids are vastly different from one another.
How Does CBD Affect You Vs THC
The difference between THC and CBD often gets boiled down to one critical distinction—THC gets you high while CBD doesn’t. While this is true, it’s a tad simplistic of an explanation that doesn’t really address the nuanced differences between these two extremely popular cannabinoids.
Sometimes CBD gets referred to as non-psychoactive, though that really isn’t the case. The phrase “non-psychoactive” is essentially a shorthand indicator of the distinction mentioned above—that CBD doesn’t get you high. However, it’s untrue, and frankly, does a disservice to CBD. CBD is psychoactive; otherwise, what would be the point in taking it to begin with?
Both CBD and THC work in similar ways. They both interact with the same neurotransmitter receptors found throughout the human brain and nervous system. While CBD consumption doesn’t result in intoxication the same way THC consumption does, CBD’s interaction with these receptors can influence a whole host of bodily functions, such as memory retention, mood, appetite, and reproduction.
Any compound that interacts with the brain or nervous system results in a change in mood or perception is, by definition, psychoactive, which is why more and more CBD companies are replacing the phrase non-psychoactive with non-intoxicating.
What Makes THC And CBD Different
Which brings us to the question: if both compounds are psychoactive, come from the same plant, and interact with the same neurotransmitter receptors, why are the effects so different? Here’s where things get interesting and where the real fundamental differences between CBD and THC begin to reveal themselves.
The aforementioned neurotransmitter receptors aren’t just acted on by cannabinoids. The human body naturally produces its own chemical messengers called endocannabinoids which signal these receptors and help maintain homeostasis. The whole thing is known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and it was only discovered in the ‘90s.
Because this system has only recently been uncovered, there’s still a lot that researchers don’t yet know about it. Despite ECS research being in its infancy, we have been able to glean some key insights into the differences between THC and CBD.
THC closely mimics the way endocannabinoids behave by binding completely to the receptors. On the other hand, CBD doesn’t make such a tight connection. Instead, it acts as a weak antagonist, blocking the receptor from binding to either endocannabinoids or THC. Scientists speculate that this difference accounts for the huge difference between the two compound’s effects.
Combining CBD And THC—The Entourage Effect
Fortunately, THC vs CBD doesn’t have to be an either-or debate. In fact, taking the two together can actually be beneficial.
Neurologist and famed cannabis researcher Ethan Russo first coined the term entourage effect to describe the symbiotic relationship between different terpenes and cannabinoids. Russo found that the therapeutic effects of individual cannabis compounds were amplified by the presence of other cannabis compounds. For example, the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD were even more potent when combined with an anti-inflammatory terpene like myrcene.
The entourage effect may also help temper unwanted side effects. Too much THC can create feelings of anxiety and paranoia, but these unpleasant sensations can be mitigated when CBD acts as an antagonist blocking THC from triggering certain receptors.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the human body and cannabis THC vs CBD, but the information we have discovered could change the way future generations think about cannabinoids.