THC vs. CBD: What’s the Difference?

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Cannabis, also known as marijuana and weed amongst many other names, is a psychoactive drug that is cultivated from a variety of cannabis plants. If you walk into a dispensary or search online, you will find a wide variety of products derived from cannabis, and not all of these products are intended to get the consumer “high.” So how can this be?

Manufacturers are using the compounds found in cannabis to produce products with a wide variety of applications through manipulating the quantities of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) in these products.

Understanding how these different components in cannabis work is crucial for manufacturers and growers to craft not only stronger marijuana for dispensaries, but solutions for countless chronic health conditions that millions of people suffer from today.

So what are THC and CBD, and how can you use cannabis products to improve the quality of your life?

What exactly are CBD and THC?



THC and CBD are the two most researched cannabinoids in cannabis.

They belong to a class of over one hundred diverse chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant whose wide range of health and psychoactive effects are thanks to reactions on cannabinoid receptors found in our bodies.

The traditional high obtained from marijuana is thanks largely to THC, which has a psychoactive effect on our brains. THC is found in the flowering tops and leaves of the cannabis plant, also known as the bud.

CBD is a structural isomer of THC, meaning that it has the same chemical composition, however the atoms are arranged differently. CBD, found primarily in the stalk and seeds of the cannabis plant, offers many health benefits without the psychoactive effects of THC.

Interestingly, marijuana that has a strong “high” effect does not have as high of CBD content. Research has found that, while the CBD:THC ratio varies greatly from one strain of cannabis to another, the total quantity of CBD and THC combined remains roughly the same. As cannabis breeders have worked hard to increase the psychoactive potency of these plants, they have consequently reduced the CBD content.

As we have learned the scope of possible effects that come from CBD specifically, the importance of this chemical compound has become widely accepted – now there are plant breeders concentrating on the CBD, rather than the THC, content of the cannabis they grow.

How do THC and CBD Work?

The wide variety of effects we experience from marijuana are largely thanks to cannabinoids and how they interact with our endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Discovered in the 1990s, the ECS is composed of a series of neuromodulatory lipids known as endocannabinoids and their receptors. These receptors are located throughout our bodies and the bodies of other mammals. The ECS acts to bridge our body and mind, with receptors found in the brain, immune cells, organs, connective tissues, and glands.

The ENC is involved in a wide variety of physical and mental processes, including immune system function, sedation, pain management, appetite, mood, motor function, and memory.

Our bodies produce endocannabinoids, most famously anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), which act on these receptors to exert their effects on our health and wellbeing.

The cannabinoids found in cannabis, known as phytocannabinoids, exert their effects in part by mimicking these endocannabinoids produced by our bodies. THC, for example, is thought to mimic AEA.

The endocannabinoid system contains 2 types of receptors: cannabinoid type 1 (CB1) and type 2 (CB2) receptors.

CN1 receptors are found in the highest concentrations in neuron terminals throughout our brains, while CN2 receptors are primarily found in immune tissues and cells.

THC has a high affinity for CN1 receptors, which is thought to be why THC has a strong impact on our neurocognition, leaving those who consume THC feeling “high.”

CBD, when compared to THC, has a relatively low affinity towards both cannabinoid receptors, yet has been shown to counteract some of the psychoactive effects of THC (2). ‘

CBD exerts this antagonistic effect on THC mainly by boosting the levels of the endocannabinoids that our bodies produce, which act to block THC from activating the receptors.

What are the Effects of THC and CBD?

Based on numerous animal studies and very limited human studies, THC and CBD, through their effect on the ECS, have been found to act to reduce the sensations of pain, play a role in the inflammatory response, boost immune system function, and alter mood, appetite, memory, and energy levels.

Applications of THC

Thanks to the affinity of THC to the CN1 receptors in our brains, the majority of applications for THC are tied to the function of these specific brain regions. The highest density of these receptors are involved in sedation, appetite, motor abilities, short-term memory, and execution.

Animal and human studies have found THC to be linked to a number of important functions that may have a benefit to our health, including (17):

  1. Reduction in chronic pain symptoms
  2. Improved sense of well-being and mood
  3. Slight reduction in chemotherapy-induced emesis
  4. Stimulates appetite
  5. Reduces muscle spasms
  6. Exhibits sedative properties
  7. Reduction of high intraocular pressure, a risk factor of glaucoma

Applications of CBD

Multiple animal studies and limited human studies on CBD have found CBD to have a variety of benefits without the undesired psychoactive effects of THC.

Due to the lack of these psychoactive effects, CBD is on the forefront of research for treatment of a wide variety of conditions. Research on the applications of CBD has been growing rapidly since the legalization of marijuana began.

These published scientific studies have found CBD to be promising for those suffering from a number of conditions. CBD has been found to:

  1. Prevent the pain and nerve damage associated with arthritis in rats (3)
  2. Inhibit cancer cell proliferation in preclinical models of human breast cancer (6)
  3. Reduce feelings of anxiety and stress in human and animal models (7,15)
  4. May help to reduce symptoms for those with ADHD in rats (16)
  5. Help with digestive issues though reducing intestinal inflammation and reducing symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease per preclinical studies, and is currently being studied for the treatment of colitis and Crohn’s disease (9,10,11)
  6. Possibly exhibit positive effects for those suffering a wide variety of neurological conditions. CBD is being researched for its effects on Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and dementia (12,13)

These are only a handful of hundreds of published, peer-reviewed studies that shed light on how to possibly use cannabinoids and the ECS for the benefit of those suffering from a wide variety of common medical conditions.

Side Effects

Cannabis is overall a safe medicine, however side effects can occur. These side effects are mainly due to the THC, not the CBD, in cannabis.

Possible side effects for THC include increased anxiety or mood disorder symptoms, dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, mental and physical impairment, and fainting.

If far too much THC is consumed, effects can include delusions, vomiting, and agitation. THC can also increase heart rate, which can be a risk for those with cardiac conditions, including high blood pressure.

Because of these side effects of THC, many physical and mental tasks are impaired through the consumption of THC, including operating heavy vehicles and social interaction.

The side effects of CBD are still being studied, however there appears to be little to no risk with CBD consumption. The lack of psychological side effects is one of the many promising aspects of CBD.

A 2011 review found large doses of CBD to have no effect on body temperature, heart rate, digestion, embryonic development, food intake, and blood pressure.

While further research is needed to more thoroughly understand the possible side effects of CBD and THC, they are both overall considered to be safe for most people.

Legal Status

The legal status of CBD is something that is often debated and undergoing frequent changes. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) takes the stance that CBD is a schedule 1 drug, however most states allow CBD to be sold.

While the DEA has stated their stance, hemp, a plant which contains CBD, can be legally imported and exported. Because of this loophole, you can find companies selling hemp products both in individual states as well as throughout the country.

CBD oil can be extracted from hemp plants, leading to a wide variety of products available even in states where marijuana is still illegal.

THC laws vary from state-to-state, so you will want to review the laws for your state before purchasing.

Even in states where THC is legal, THC is federally illegal, causing difficulties for growers and distributors of marijuana.

As more states are legalizing cannabis, a wider array of CBD and THC options are becoming available for both medicinal and recreational uses. This increase in legality is also paving the way for researchers to have the freedom to finally understand how these compound work and who they can benefit most.


Dosing is highly dependent on the individual and condition being treated. For some conditions, you will want a combination of both CBD and THC, while for other conditions CBD alone will suffice.

It is best to start with a few small doses over the day rather than one large dose. Start with a low dose and use the same dose for several days in a row. If you do not notice an improvement in your symptoms, slowly increase the dose and monitor your reaction. Repeat this process until you find the best dose for you.

As a nutritional supplement, start with between 10-25 mg per day. If you are looking to relieve the symptoms of certain conditions, such as anxiety or headaches, a higher dose may be necessary to achieve the optimal results.

If you are unsure how much to take, it is best to speak with your doctor about the appropriate dose for your individual situation.

Win a Year of Free CBD in 2018

  1. Aizpurua-Olaizola, O., Soydaner, U., Öztürk, E., Schibano, D., Simsir, Y., Navarro, P., . . . Usobiaga, A. (2016). Evolution of the Cannabinoid and Terpene Content during the Growth of Cannabis sativa Plants from Different Chemotypes. Journal of Natural Products,79(2), 324-331
  2. Sachs, J., Mcglade, E., & Yurgelun-Todd, D. (2015). Safety and Toxicology of Cannabinoids. Neurotherapeutics,12(4), 735-746.
  3. Philpott, H. T., Oʼbrien, M., & Mcdougall, J. J. (2017). Attenuation of early phase inflammation by cannabidiol prevents pain and nerve damage in rat osteoarthritis. Pain,158(12), 2442-2451.
  4. Alger, B. (2013). Getting High on Endocannabinoid System. Cerebrum, 2013 Nov-Dec, 2013: 14.
  5. Bergamaschi, M. M., Queiroz, R. H., Zuardi, A. W., & Crippa, J. A. (2011). Safety and Side Effects of Cannabidiol, a Cannabis sativa Constituent. Current Drug Safety,6(4), 237-249.
  6. Mcallister, S. D., Murase, R., Christian, R. T., Lau, D., Zielinski, A. J., Allison, J., . . . Desprez, P. (2010). Pathways mediating the effects of cannabidiol on the reduction of breast cancer cell proliferation, invasion, and metastasis. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment,129(1), 37-47.
  7. Bergamaschi, M. M., Queiroz, R. H., Chagas, M. H., Oliveira, D. C., Martinis, B. S., Kapczinski, F., . . . Crippa, J. A. (2011). Cannabidiol Reduces the Anxiety Induced by Simulated Public Speaking in Treatment-Naïve Social Phobia Patients. Neuropsychopharmacology,36(6), 1219-1226.
  8. Zanelati, T., Biojone, C., Moreira, F., Guimarães, F., & Joca, S. (2009). Antidepressant-like effects of cannabidiol in mice: possible involvement of 5-HT1A receptors. British Journal of Pharmacology,159(1), 122-128.
  9. Filippis, D. D., Esposito, G., Cirillo, C., Cipriano, M., Winter, B. Y., Scuderi, C., . . . Iuvone, T. (2011). Cannabidiol Reduces Intestinal Inflammation through the Control of Neuroimmune Axis. PLoS ONE,6(12).
  10. Esposito, G., Filippis, D.D., Cirillo, C., Iuvone, T., Capoccia, E., Scuderi, C., Steardo, A., Cuomo, R., Steardo, L. (2013). Cannabidiol in inflammatory bowel diseases: a brief overview. Phytotherapy Research, 27(5):633-6.
  11. Borrelli, F., Aviello, G., Romano, B., Orlando, P., Capasso, R., Maiello, F., . . . Izzo, A. A. (2009). Cannabidiol, a safe and non-psychotropic ingredient of the marijuana plant Cannabis sativa, is protective in a murine model of colitis. Journal of Molecular Medicine,87(11), 1111-1121.
  12. Iuvone, T., Esposito, G., Esposito, R., Santamaria, R., Rosa, M. D., & Izzo, A. A. (2004). Neuroprotective effect of cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component from Cannabis sativa, on beta-amyloid-induced toxicity in PC12 cells. Journal of Neurochemistry,89(1), 134-141.
  13. Iuvone, T., Esposito, G., Filippis, D. D., Scuderi, C., & Steardo, L. (2009). Cannabidiol: A Promising Drug for Neurodegenerative Disorders? CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics,15(1), 65-75.
  14. A study has confirmed that cannabinoids are just as suitable as prophylaxis for migraine attacks as other pharmaceutical treatments. European Pharmaceutical Review. 29 June 2017. Accessed December 15, 2017.
  15. Campos, A. C., Ortega, Z., Palazuelos, J., Fogaça, M. V., Aguiar, D. C., Díaz-Alonso, J., . . . Guimarães, F. S. (2013). The anxiolytic effect of cannabidiol on chronically stressed mice depends on hippocampal neurogenesis: involvement of the endocannabinoid system. The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology,16(06), 1407-1419.
  16. Gururajan, A., Taylor, D.A., Malone, D.T. (2010) Cannabidiol and clozapine reverse MK-801-induced deficits in social interaction and hyperactivity in Sprague-Dawley rats. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 26(10), 1317-1332.
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