THC vs CBD: The Building Blocks of Cannabis
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THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), the three-letter acronyms currently dominating the cannabis world.
Today, we are talking about the most important subject in cannabis. These cannabinoids define so many aspects of cannabis.
They are what differentiate hemp, marijuana and CBD oils from one another. They determine whether your cannabis product is legal or not, whether you’ll experience a high, or what therapeutic effects you can expect.
What is THC and CBD?
THC and CBD are part of a group of chemical compounds called phytocannabinoids found in all cannabis plants.
Phytocannabinoids are one of three main compounds in cannabis that produce an observable therapeutic effect on the body. The other two compounds are terpenes and flavonoids.
We’ve identified over 100 different phytocannabinoids in cannabis. But THC and CBD stand out because cannabis contains significantly more of them. Naturally, they were discovered and research before the other phytocannabinoids—which we still don’t know much about.
CBD and THC both produce fascinating effects in your body. As such, the THC/CBD ratio has come to arbitrarily define cannabis plants into categories like recreational marijuana, medical marijuana, hemp, and industrial hemp.
The Chemical Structure of THC and CBD
Both THC and CBD start as the same phytocannabinoid CBG (cannabigerol) which is sparking great interest itself. On a molecular level, THC and CBD are very similar with both of them containing 30 hydrogen atoms, 21 carbon atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms each.
What separates them? There is a difference between one of their oxygen atoms.
THC has a cyclic ring with a single unbounded oxygen atom, where CBD has a hydroxyl group with a bonded oxygen atom — and this creates some significant changes in the body as you're about to see.
How Cannabinoids Work
To better understand the difference between THC vs CBD, let’s take a look into how phytocannabinoids affect us.
Phytocannabinoids interact with a select group of g protein-coupled receptors throughout your body. These include CB1, CB2, 5-HT1A, TRPV1, PPAR and GRP55 receptors. Think of a receptor as a dimmable switch, and when it's turned on or off, it tells the cell it's located on to carry out a specific function and to what degree.
Phytocannabinoids interact with receptors that are involved in regulating and balancing internal functions that help with homeostasis. Some of these functions include regulating our immune response, increasing and decreasing our appetite, and changing our perception of pain.
So why do phytocannabinoid interact with certain receptors?
Well, while structurally different, phytocannabinoids share a fascinating relationship with special neurotransmitters our brain creates called endocannabinoids.
“Phyto” = plant, “endo” = endogenous or something that occurs within an organism, tissue or cell. We produce two types of endocannabinoids—anandamide and 2-AG—which have the job of interacting with your CB1 and CB2 receptors.
All together they create a system called the ECS (endocannabinoid system or endogenous cannabinoid system).
Phytocannabinoids affect endocannabinoids and their receptors in two big ways:
Now, endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids can interact with non-cannabinoid receptors as we saw, but so can other compounds like capsaicin found in chili peppers and the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Think of endocannabinoids and the receptors they trigger as the regulatory system that regulates and protects other more important regulatory systems like the nervous or immune system. Now that we know how phytocannabinoids work let's look at how THC and CBD can affect our receptors in different ways.
THC & THE BODY
How THC Affects the Body
THC interacts with CB1 and CB2 receptors, but it’s the former receptors that give THC its notoriety. The endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-AG are responsible for turning CB1 receptors on by binding to them, but THC can undertake that role and bind to them as well.
However, THC does this a little too well and binds to CB1 receptors aggressively. By over-activating CB1 receptors, THC makes the normal physiological functions they trigger feel more pronounced, and this gives us the sensation of feeling high and euphoric.
There are only a few other phytocannabinoids that can activate CB1 receptors and trigger a high. However, they occur at much lower levels, and research is still out on their effects. CB1 receptors are predominantly found in the brain and trigger functions that can elevate our mood, affect motor control, lower our perception to pain, and inhibit gastrointestinal activity.
Because THC triggers these receptors to a higher degree than endocannabinoids can, THC has a stronger therapeutic effect on the body than a phytocannabinoid that doesn't — like CBD.
At the same time, this is what gives THC its classic side effects like paranoia and dry mouth. All things considered, THC ultimately doesn’t bind to CB1 receptors that well, unlike synthetic cannabinoids like K2/Spice which bind way more intensely, which is why people can overdose from synthetic marijuana, but can’t with naturally produced THC.
The Pros and Cons of THC
The biggest pro of THC is its biggest negative, and that’s the high and side effects it causes. While it can provide a greater degree of help for many medical conditions, there is concern about its effects on the brain, especially, adolescent brains.
- Therapeutically stronger and particularly great for pain, low appetite, and insomnia
- Small amounts can greatly improve CBD-based products without causing a high
- Large amounts cause a high that many enjoy
- Psychoactive / Intoxicating
- Laws are more restrictive/illegal in most places
- Stronger side effects like anxiety, paranoia, and hunger
- May interfere with brain development
- THC metabolites are what drug tests look for to confirm a positive for marijuana
How CBD Affects the Body
Unlike THC, CBD does not activate CB1 receptors in any significant way so it can’t cause a high. In fact, it appears CBD can’t even directly activate the other cannabinoid receptor, CB2. However, CBD is the phytocannabinoid that builds up natural endocannabinoid levels by temporarily binding and inhibiting FAAH enzymes, which stops them from recycling anandamide.
This helps trigger the same receptors that THC does, so we get similar therapeutic effects from CBD. However, they don't feel as pronounced. Now, strangely enough, CBD can bind to the same receptors endocannabinoids can that are found outside the ECS like serotonin 5-HT1A receptors and TRPV1 receptors — THC cannot do this. Both of these receptors modulate anxiety, pain perception, appetite and sleep.
Research indicates that CBD always activates non-cannabinoid receptors to the same or less degree as endocannabinoids, so CBD effects remain intangible even if your mood improves after taking it.
For example, let’s say we’re feeling abnormally anxious. By activating these receptors CBD can lower our anxiety, making it feel much more manageable. If we aren’t feeling anxious, and the receptors are activated, we may feel happier and stronger, similar to how exercising can elevate the mood.
Exercising directly increases anandamide levels just like CBD, and we now believe they are responsible for the phenomenon aptly called runner’s high, and we even call anandamide the bliss molecule because of this.
Can CBD Improve Your Health?
Since CBD is only replicating natural physiological functions in the body among a similar pharmacology path as endocannabinoids, it has varying degrees of effectiveness where it can really help one person, but do little to nothing for another.
Research is showing that the degree CBD can help you, likely depends on if you have an endocannabinoid deficiency which it may be very beneficial for.
Director of Research and Development of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, Dr. Ethan Russo, has spent decades researching phytocannabinoids' ability to help with an endocannabinoid deficiency and how it can have a big impact on our health. In his most 2016 study, Dr. Russo explains how an endocannabinoid system can lead to poor health across the body.
If endocannabinoid function were decreased, it follows that a lowered pain threshold would be operative, along with derangements of digestion, mood, and sleep among the almost universal physiological systems subserved by the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The Prod and Cons of CBD
The biggest advantages to CBD is that it doesn’t make you high, and it appears safe for children where THC is questionable. But if you’re an adult and don’t mind the high from THC, you may find CBD doesn’t help anywhere near to the same extent depending on your medical condition.
- Non-intoxicating; won’t create a high
- More natural physiological effects
- Can help correct endocannabinoid deficiency
- Better than THC for inflammation, anxiety and controlling appetite
- Legal in more places
- Milder side effects compared to THC
- Not tested for on drug tests
- In most cases, it’s not as therapeutically potent as THC
- Can still cause side effects such as liver enzyme inhibition
How THC and CBD Affect Each Other
Most phytocannabinoids have unique effects allowing them to interact with each other just as much as they do with the endocannabinoids and the receptors in our body. We call this the entourage effect, and as we are coming to find out, the way phytocannabinoids interact with each other gives us much better results than isolating them.
When THC is isolated from all the other phytocannabinoids, a lot of people will experience paranoia, feel too high and the high generally feels uneven. When CBD is isolated, people find the effects can be one-dimensional requiring them take a higher dose than they would compared to CBD that includes the other phytocannabinoids and terpenes.
When THC and CBD are taken together, they actually duke it out a bit in the body and change how the other affects us. When taken alone, THC can bind to CB1 receptors too aggressively, creating unpleasant sensations such as paranoia, dry mouth and insatiable appetite.
CBD can directly counteract that by binding to a different location on CB1 receptors than THC, changing the receptors’ shape weakening THC’s ability to attach. The more CBD there is to THC, the less THC can activate CB1 receptors reducing its ability to cause people to feel "high".
This means you can have THC in a CBD product without it causing a high. In fact, many experts now say you want THC in CBD oil because low amounts can still reduce pain, muscle convulsions, etc. in ways other cannabinoids can’t. One of those experts is neuroscientist Nick Jikomes, who explored the topic in “We Asked a Scientist: What’s the Right Dose of CBD?”
While THC and CBD have different pharmacological properties, they can both have similar physiological effects, probably acting through different mechanisms. For instance, both compounds can have analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects; they may act through different mechanisms, so having THC and CBD could potentially enhance an outcome surrounding pain relief.
THC vs CBD: Legality
When it comes to the legality of a cannabis product, the amount of THC it has is becoming the main distinction into whether the product is governed by more restrictive marijuana laws or less restrictive industrial hemp laws.
For example, as of 2018, The United States defines “marihuana” as any cannabis plant with over 0.3% THC. When it has 0.3% or less, it's defined as industrial hemp meaning it legal federally and any state can allow the sale of CBD if they choose.
While some states have legalized marijuana, it’s still considered illegal federally. Some places still consider CBD marijuana, but since CBD can’t get you high, laws are changing pretty fast make it legal.
How THC and CBD Define the Different Forms of Cannabis
Above, we mentioned that the biggest distinction between the different categories of cannabis is the amount of THC to CBD they contain. The terminology is fairly wonky, and cannabis plants have been so interbred that it can be challenging to determine the correct taxonomy of a cannabis strain.
Plus, research is showing that terpenes and other cannabinoids are playing a bigger role in the different effects we feel from strains than we initially thought, but let’s save that for another day.
Fortunately, correctly classifying all of the different forms of cannabis is making a comeback due to pressure from consumers and the law. This makes choosing the right cannabis strain for you much easier than in the past.
EXTREMELY HIGH THC CONCENTRATIONS
Wax, shatter, dabs, honey, butane hash oil and THC crystals all fall under this category and can easily contain four times more THC than our next highest form down below.
THC concentrations and isolates are only recommended for experienced users looking for the biggest highs because even they will often face the consequences of high THC.Depending on the extraction process, high THC concentrates may also be high in other phytocannabinoids and terpenes.
HIGH THC, LOW CBD STRAINS
Stains and products ranging between 15-30% THC and 0-3% CBD are considered your classic marijuana and are most often used recreationally. However, depending on your medical condition and feelings about getting high, they can be fantastic medical strains.
BALANCED THC/CBD STRAINS
When a cannabis strain has its THC and CBD ratio at or near the same amount, most people will consider it a strain better suited for medical use. There is enough CBD to greatly counteract much of THC's ability to produce adverse side effects but still experience a notable high and some euphoria.
LOW THC, HIGH CBD (HEMP)
These strains can be labeled as both marijuana or hemp, depending on how much THC is present. When a cannabis plant is unable to cause the euphoric high due to low THC amounts, most people will consider it a hemp strain, and this usually happens when it contains around 1-5% THC, but most places still legally consider it marijuana.
HIGH CBD/TRACES OF THC
In the U.S., when a cannabis plant contains only traces of THC—0.3% or less—cannabis plants are legally defined as industrial hemp and not marijuana. These are the plants where most legal CBD oil and other CBD products come from as they don’t have enough THC to get high no matter how much you take.
CBD ONLY ISOLATES
These products contain only cannabidiol (CBD) at concentrations of 90% and above with no other cannabinoid or terpene in sight. This is the form that was approved by the FDA in 2018, but it’s not the most common form of CBD oil by a good margin. On its own CBD effects are one-dimensional and quirky where it might help with anxiety but do nothing for pain and vice-versa. As well, dosing works on a bell curve, meaning you can overshoot your dosage for diminishing results.
Conclusion: Which is Better THC or CBD?
In truth, one isn’t better than the other, and it comes down to what you prefer. For the most part, despite taking different pharmacology routes in the body, THC and CBD have fairly similar physiological effects.
THC is much stronger therapeutically, but it makes you high and has more side effects.
All-and-all, most people will want to avoid just taking a high THC concentrate or CBD isolate, and instead should look for a cannabis product that includes both.
If you’re not sure which THC/CBD ratio is right for you, we have a great experiment you can try. Grab both a full spectrum CBD product (meaning it has all phytocannabinoids, terpenes, and traces of THC), as well as, a high THC concentrate/isolate.
You can use the THC concentrate or isolate to change the ratio of THC to CBD you take at a given time. It takes a little math, but not much, and we have a nice little article to help you out.
This is the easiest way to find your preferred ratio without buying several different products, and it gives you so much more control over your desired effects. If you already know you like high THC to CBD ratios, this experiment can still benefit you.
Taking CBD an hour before you take THC may help lock THC within the blood-brain barrier causing it to activate CB1 receptors for longer periods of time so you’ll experience a longer high. We know a lot of our readers will love that, and so do we, so go experiment, and leave us a comment on what you’re preferred THC/CBD ratio is and why.