CBD and THC. Of all the 100-plus cannabinoids that have been discovered to date, these two are the most well-known. But for very different reasons.
Delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is notorious for the ‘high’ it provides when smoked or ingested. Non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD), on the other hand, has received huge attention over recent years thanks to its health-promoting properties. But that’s not the full extent of the differences between CBD and THC.
Read on to discover the important differences between these two famous cannabinoids.
What are cannabinoids?
Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are both naturally-occurring compounds found in the cannabis plant. They are in a class of diverse chemical compounds known as phytocannabinoids. The prefix ‘phyto’ meaning plant in Greek.
These compounds have physiological effects by interacting cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2 receptors) in our brains and nervous system. These receptors make up the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is present in all mammals.
While CBD and THC are the two most prevalent cannabinoids in the cannabis plant - as well as the most well-known and well-researched - there are more. Many more. In fact, scientists have so far isolated 113 different cannabinoids.
Here’s a quick rundown of the major cannabinoids, excluding CBD and THC. This list is far from complete.
- CBGA (Cannabigerolic acid - precursor to a number of cannabinoids, including THCA and CBDA)
- THCA (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid - precursor to THC)
- CBDA (Cannabidiolic acid - precursor to CBD)
- CBCA (Cannabichromenenic acid - precursor to CBC)
- CBGVA (Cannabigerovarinic acid)
- THCVA (Tetrahydrocanabivarinic acid)
- CBDVA (Cannabidivarinic acid)
- CBCVA (Cannabichromevarinic acid)
CBD vs THC: The basics
CBD was first isolated in 1940 whilst THC was isolated in 1964. Both are naturally occurring in the cannabis plant. At their most basic level, the biggest difference between THC and CBD is their vastly different physiological effect. Namely, THC gets you ‘high’ while CBD does not.
There’s more to it than that, however. Here we will cover how the two cannabinoids differ structurally, in their physiological effects, their medical uses, and their legal status. We will also look at how they interact with each other.
CBD vs THC: Structural differences
On a molecular level, CBD and THC are very similar. In fact, they both share the exact same molecular formula, C21H30O2 (consisting of twenty-one carbon atoms, thirty hydrogen atoms and two oxygen atoms). Their molecular mass is also almost identical - approximately 314.4 g/mol.
Both CBD and THC are also synthesized within the plant through very similar pathways. That is, they are both share a precursor in Cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). Through different types of biosynthesis, CBDGA creates THCA and CBDA. These cannabinoids then create THC and CBD, respectively, via decarboxylation (which is done via heating - hence why cannabis is traditionally smoked).
The main molecular difference between CBD and THC, however, is apparent in their atomic structure. Both cannabinoids are known as cyclic compounds, which means that one or more series of atoms in the compound are connected to form a ring. The difference is that CBD has an open ring with a hydroxyl group, while THC has a cyclic (closed) ring.
While it may seem insignificant, it is this small difference that results in the seemingly opposing effects of these two cannabinoids.
CBD vs THC: Physiological effects
As briefly mentioned earlier in the article, CBD and THC both interact with receptors (CBD1 and CB2) in the body that are part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). It is via these interactions that they exert their particular effects.
The ECS is responsible for a wide range of bodily processes, including the regulation of sleep, appetite, mood, pain, digestion, fertility, among many others. The overarching purpose of the ECS is to keep the body in homeostasis, or balance. Needless to say, a properly functioning ECS is vital to good health.
The ways in which CBD and THC interact with the ECS varies greatly, however. THC has been shown to directly bind with both CB1 and CB2 receptors. Although it has a higher affinity for CB1 receptors. It is via this pathway that the psychotropic effects of THC are produced.
CBD, on the other hand, has little affinity for either of the two cannabinoid receptors. Instead, it seems to affect how other cannabinoids such as THC interact with the cannabinoid receptors. It is therefore classed as an indirect antagonist of cannabinoid agonists.
Still following? Good.
You see, CBD actually suppresses the binding affinity of CB1 agonists, like THC, to the CB1 receptor. Thus, it modulates the effects of CB1 agonists such as THC. Along with this, CBD has been found to interact with a number of non-cannabinoid receptors. These include serotonin receptors 5-HT1A , vanilloid receptors TRPV-1, and nuclear receptors.
Please be aware that this is merely scratching the surface of how CBD and THC work. The pathways they affect are plentiful and far more complicated than we could explain in just one article. Take this as an overview of the basic mechanisms at play.
CBD vs THC: How they interact with each other
As we just alluded to, CBD effects the way THC works within the body. By reducing THC’s ability to bind to and stimulate the CB1 receptor, CBD seems to ‘turn down’ the psychotropic effects of THC.
In this way, CBD can counteract the negative effects of THC consumption such as anxiety, paranoia and short-term memory impairment. This is why many people are now using CBD products or high-CBD strains of cannabis to manage the usually intense ‘high’ caused by THC.
There is also some evidence suggesting that CBD-rich products with a small amount of THC can, in fact, offer valuable therapeutic benefits without a so-called ‘high’. By uncoupling these two effects, cannabis medicines become a lot more accessible to many patients.
CBD vs THC: Medical uses
However, now that legalization is sweeping the world, many people are rediscovering cannabis’ powerful therapeutic properties.
There's a long list of potential clinical uses of THC. To date, the FDA has approved only two drugs containing THC and a synthetic cannabinoid that emulates the activity of THC.
And, just like CBD, there is a vast amount of scientific and anecdotal evidence supporting the use of THC as a medicine.
CBD vs THC: Legal status
Here is where another big difference between CBD and THC lies. Put simply, in much of the world, CBD (depending on its source) is legal, while THC is not.
In the U.S., not listed under the Controlled Substances Act so it is legally available providing it is derived from imported, legally-grown hemp (which is low-THC cannabis traditionally grown for industrial purposes).
THC, meanwhile, is listed in the Controlled Substances Act and, therefore, is prohibited under federal law. However, at last count, 29 U.S. states and Washington D.C. have passed various laws that allow high-THC cannabis to be used medicinally. Nine of those states and Washington D.C. have gone a step further and legalized the recreational use of high-THC cannabis.
In Europe, CBD is legal in every country. They are some way behind the U.S. in terms of high-THC cannabis legalization, however, with only a handful allowing medicinal use. Nowhere in Europe is high-THC cannabis legal to consume recreationally, although it is tolerated in the Netherlands and the cannabis clubs of Spain.
So there you have it. While CBD and THC are the two cannabis compounds that get the most attention, they provide rather different effects. Having said that, both offer profound therapeutic value in their own right.
Therefore, the next time someone claims THC to be recreational and CBD to be medicinal, you will be able to correct them and give each cannabinoid its due. After all, the cannabis plant is complex and we are only just getting to grips with how it works within the human body.
No doubt that the future of cannabis research will reveal a lot more secrets and uses, not only of CBD and THC but for the hundreds of other cannabinoids in this special plant.
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