Cannabis contains over 100 compounds called “cannabinoids.” Those are the main chemicals responsible for its medicinal benefits. Chief among them are THC and CBD, the two cannabinoids that have been the most extensively researched.
Although they have a very similar molecular structure, the effects of CBD and THC on the body are totally different. While THC is associated with the more recreational aspect of cannabis because it makes you “high,” CBD is mostly used as a medicinal compound for treating health conditions. However, the truth may be a little bit more complex than that.
In this article, we’re examining the difference between CBD and THC. We’ll be discussing their effects on the body and mind, their side effects, and everything else you need to know in order to understand the difference between them.
On a molecular level, CBD and THC are very similar to one another. At first glance, they look identical. In fact, they have the same molecular formula: C21H30O2.
However, the way their atoms are arranged is slightly different. This means they don’t bind to receptors in our bodies in the same way. And what this also means is that although they act on the same system, the endocannabinoid system, their impact on our bodies and minds is very different.
Every person, and in fact every mammal, has an endocannabinoid system. This internal system regulates things like appetite, pain, inflammation and even mood. When we introduce cannabinoids into our bodies, they change the way that the endocannabinoid system works. This can manifest in different ways. For example, it means some cannabinoids have anti-inflammatory effects and some can alter our mood.
One of the biggest differences between CBD and THC is the way they affect our endocannabinoid system. Because of differences on a molecular level, CBD and THC bind to CB1 receptors of that system differently.
When THC binds with CB1 receptors, it sends a signal through the endocannabinoid system that creates a “high,” or a sense of euphoria and relaxation.
On the other hand, when CBD binds with that same receptor, it sends a different signal that can actually stop you from feeling high.
As a result, the effect of consuming THC is an almost immediate high. But when you take CBD, you will likely not feel any effects. After a couple of minutes or hours, you may begin to feel more relaxed and less anxious. However, those effects tend to be very subtle, which is why we usually say that THC is psychoactive, while CBD isn’t.
Benefits for physical health
Cannabis has been used as a medicinal plant for hundreds of years. Today, we are starting to isolate certain cannabinoids (like THC and CBD) in order to identify which compound is responsible for which effects.
When people talk about THC, they often refer to it as the psychoactive compound of cannabis. While this is true, it also ignores the ways in which THC is responsible for some of the health benefits of that plant. For example, THC is a powerful painkiller that can also be useful against cramps and muscle spasms. Some of its other benefits include:
- Decreasing nausea
- Increasing appetite
- Treating glaucoma
Over the past couple of years, CBD has become known for its wide range of health benefits. Most famously, this compound can be an effective treatment for people who suffer from different types of treatment-resistant epileptic disorders. It would be hard to make a list of all the other conditions that can be treated with CBD. Indeed, many are still being discovered today. Here are just a few of the things that CBD can help with:
- Inflammatory pain
- Neuropathic pain
- Crohn’s disease and IBS
- High blood pressure
Effects on mental health
As well as having benefits for physical health, CBD and THC can also help with a number of mental health conditions.
For example, CBD has been shown to provide effective relief from anxiety in a number of clinical trials. In a 2019 study, people who were given a single dose of CBD experienced a lot less stress when performing a public speaking test in comparison with the placebo control group. Recent studies also suggest that CBD may have antidepressant properties and help raise levels of serotonin in the brain. Research on the use of that compound for mental health is just getting started. But there are already some studies suggesting that CBD can provide relief from:
- Anxiety and depression
- Panic disorders
- Social phobia
- Sleep disorders
- Substance abuse
With THC, things are a little bit more complicated. For example, while CBD can provide relief for people with psychosis, THC can actually make things worse. Similarly, while CBD in any dose tends to make people more relaxed, THC can create anxiety, especially when consumed in larger quantities.
So, does that mean that THC is bad for mental health? Not really. In fact, it may even have some benefits. For example, small quantities of THC are generally useful in relieving anxiety.
Nevertheless, we don’t recommend taking THC for people who already suffer from an anxiety disorder. This molecule should also be avoided by anyone with a history of psychosis, or with genetic predispositions for psychosis.
In general, both CBD and THC have good safety profiles.
Studies on the safety of CBD have found that it only has a few side effects, including:
- Changes in appetite
- Slight changes in mood
Those are adverse reactions that have been observed only in a few people. This is why it’s generally recommended to start with a low dose if you want to start taking CBD; it will allow you to assess whether your body tolerates it well.
CBD can also interact with the absorption of some other prescription medicines. In general, drugs that come with a “grapefruit warning” should also not be taken alongside CBD. If you have any doubts about the possible interaction between CBD and medication you’re taking, it’s best to consult a physician before you try CBD.
The safety profile of THC is considered good as well, although there are a couple of things to watch out for. As mentioned previously, THC should be avoided by people who have psychosis or are predisposed to it. Some studies also suggest that consumption of large amounts of THC in children and teenagers is linked to greater odds of developing psychiatric disorders.
When taken by adults, THC is not dangerous, although it can have unpleasant side effects. For example, it makes some people clumsy and slower to react. Some additional side effects include:
- Dry eyes
- Dry mouth
- Temporary memory loss
Is CBD legal?
Unlike THC, CBD has been widely legalized in recent years. CBD products that contain trace amounts of THC are now legal in most Western countries. In the United States, they are legal on a federal level but may be prohibited by certain states. CBD products are not approved by the FDA.
Understanding the differences between CBD and THC can be difficult. After all, these two cannabinoid compounds have a very similar structure. But to say their effects are different would be an understatement. While both have a wide range of benefits for mental and physical health, their effects on the body and mind are completely different. We hope this article has helped you wrap your head around some crucial differences between these two substances. And remember, just because two molecules look alike, that doesn’t mean they’ll affect you in the same way!