THC vs CBD – What’s the Difference?

For those unfamiliar with the cannabis space and the various elements that comprise it, hearing acronyms such as THC vs CBD may not mean much, even if they do sound familiar.

That said, these compounds, also known as cannabinoids, are why cannabis flower is sought after and what contribute to its various properties and effects. 

With this in mind, learning the difference between THC vs CBD is one of the first steps for novice users to comprehend further the various cannabis products that would work best to suit their particular needs.

CBD and THC are two of over 100 different cannabinoids present in the medical marijuana plant. 

However, they are the most extensively noted and established by academic and recreational user populations.  They are also the most well-researched and medically reviewed.

This article will explore the differences between THC vs CBD, where they come from, how each interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), and how they work together.

THC

THC stands for the longer-form scientific name ‘delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol.’ This compound is responsible for several different reactions within the body once consumed. These effects may differ depending on the consumption method.

For instance, if users were to smoke THC, it would produce different effects than if they were to ingest it in an edible, more substantial, long-lasting effect.

THC is also the cannabinoid responsible for the psychoactive properties of cannabis, causing intoxication to occur. The higher level of THC users consume, the more intoxicated they will become. Examples of THC effects may include euphoria, a sense of well-being, relaxation, and heightened sensory experiences.

Where does THC Come From?

where does THC come from

When comparing THC vs CBD, both cannabinoids are present in cannabis flower

THC is present in small glands known as trichomes, which come in three distinct variations: stalked, sessile, and bulbous.

The final categorization, bulbous trichomes, serve as smaller storage cavities for cannabinoids, including THC. 

Cannabis growers and cultivators pay special attention to these trichomes and their changing colours, which indicate the stage of maturation and determine the optimal time for harvesting.

When the majority of trichomes turn from clear to a more milky or cloudy white colour, this indicates that they have reached peak THC levels and will thus supply the most potent psychoactive effects.

THC and the Endocannabinoid System

Compared to CBD, how THC interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system, also known as the ECS, is much clearer and well-understood.

However, before it can have any real effect on the body, the THC must undergo a process called decarboxylation. Decarboxylation adds heat to cannabis to convert the various compounds and chemicals inside. 

The term describes the specific chemical reaction that occurs with the introduction of heat, serving to transform tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) into tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).  This reaction causes the tetrahydrocannabinolic-acid to release carbon dioxide and eliminates a carboxyl group, thus creating THC.

The decarboxylation process is crucial because it ‘activates’ the THC present in cannabis, leading to its psychoactive effects.

In terms of how this relates to the ECS, THC is structurally similar to a naturally occurring endogenous cannabinoid (also known as endocannabinoids, for short) within the body called anandamide.

Anandamide is commonly referred to as the ‘bliss’ molecule. It receives this moniker because several studies indicate that anandamide exerts an overall balancing effect on the brain’s reward circuitry. It is a lipid mediator that acts on the body’s CB1 receptors.

For reference, the body has both CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors. CB1 receptors are located in the brain and throughout the body.

CB2 receptors are mainly localized to the immune and gastrointestinal systems. That said, there are CB2 receptors found in the brain. They are just not as densely populated as CB1 receptors.

The body typically releases anandamide after exercising and other particular scenarios where the body is exerted. When this release is called for, these molecules migrate to the CB1 receptors and produce various effects.

One such example of these effects would be the ‘runner’s high‘ effect, which prompts endocannabinoid signalling to provide pain relief, appetite stimulation and sedation.

Since THC is structurally similar to this endocannabinoid, it serves a similar role in the ECS. Like anandamide, THC also targets CB1 receptors in the brain and throughout the body to supply its various effects.

Similar to a naturally occurring runner’s high, the same sentiment applies to the effects of THC. That said, this is where dosage level plays a significant role.

It is also important to note that THC can bind with both CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors. This versatility allows it to extend a wide range of perceived effects on the body and the psyche. 

Such effects may include pain reduction and appetite stimulation through THC facilitating the production of the hunger hormone ghrelin.

However, more significant THC levels can also produce alleged adverse effects, such as anxiety and paranoia.

Opposingly, outside of sharing the common umbrella term of cannabinoid, CBD’s structure and effects differ significantly from THC.

CBD

CBD stands for the longer-form scientific name cannabidiol. It is known for supplying toned down, more subtle effects on the mind and body. 

Most importantly, arguably the most significant difference between CBD and THC is that CBD does not possess the same psychoactive properties that THC does.

In fact, according to a report from the World Health Organization, “In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential…To date, there is no evidence of public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.

That said, cannabis affects all users differently. With this in mind, it is still imperative to start low and go slow when ingesting CBD products or products that contain CBD.

Where Does CBD Come From?

thc vs cbd source

Raw cannabis flower by itself contains only trace amounts of THC and CBD. In its most natural state, the cannabis plant contains slightly different elements that are more acidic in nature. These compounds contain a stabilizing carboxyl group.

In this way, instead of THC or CBD, the compounds present are tetrahydrocannabinolic-acid (THCA) and cannabinolic-acid (CBDA), along with the dozens of other similarly named minor cannabinoids. It’s the ‘A’ at the end of these names that indicates these cannabinoids’ acidity.

Much like how decarboxylation is necessary to convert THCA to its psychoactive form THC, it is also a requisite for creating CBD. 

Like THCA, cannabidiol originates from its precursor, cannabinolic-acid, being exposed to heat, subsequently causing the removal of its carboxyl group and converting it to CBD.

That said, the effects of decarboxylating CBD are less prominent due to it not producing psychoactive side effects like THC. However, they are nevertheless crucial to unlocking the various proposed potential medical benefits that CBD offers.

While CBD is a vital component of medical marijuana, it is actually directly derived from the hemp plant, a close relative of cannabis plants. Human beings have utilized the hemp plant for a wide range of purposes for centuries, including creating textiles, clothing, food, paper and more.

While hemp and medical marijuana are two distinct varieties of cannabis plants, hemp plants are particularly known for their high CBD content.

Full-Spectrum CBD

Full-spectrum CBD products contain small amounts of all components of the marijuana plant. 

In other words, full-spectrum CBD may contain trace amounts of THC. However, legal full-spectrum products typically have less than 0.3% THC. That said, users can find full-spectrum products that contain more.

These items are created through an extraction process that uses pressure, temperature and chemical solvents, or a combination of all three, to derive the most desirable natural properties from the hemp plant. This concentrated form of CBD and other compounds is typically used to create a full-spectrum CBD oil.

Broad-Spectrum CBD 

Broad-spectrum CBD does not contain THC. However, it does possess other components of the cannabis plant. In this sense, broad-spectrum CBD is not strictly CBD on its own. Additionally, some broad-spectrum CBD may contain trace quantities of THC.

These CBD oil products are created using several different methods, including steam distillation, solvent extraction, carbon dioxide extraction and lipid extraction.

CBD Isolate

As its name suggests, CBD isolate is strictly pure CBD with nothing else and no other cannabinoid or organic compounds found in the product other than CBD. In this sense, CBD isolate contains 0.3% THC or lower. More often than not, the levels are lower.

The extraction method used for creating CBD isolate is not complicated. However, it is complex in the amount of scientific work necessary to ensure its purity. Two of the most common methods for creating CBD isolate are carbon dioxide or ethanol-based extraction.

How Does CBD Interact with the Endocannabinoid System?

It isn’t possible to answer this question with absolute conviction as even the most educated experts aren’t entirely certain precisely how CBD interacts with the ECS.

That said, there are some discernible characteristics of CBD observed, including its role in generating or increasing the number of endocannabinoids in the body. The function is unlike THC, which instead mimics the behaviour of these endocannabinoids.

Additionally, there is evidence to support the theory that CBD also helps maintain the strength of endocannabinoids, making it more difficult for the body to break them down. 

This role is beneficial as it could help the endocannabinoid system preserve these endocannabinoid functions in regulating essential bodily functions.

Unlike THC, which mimics anandamide, CBD is more similar to the endocannabinoid 2-Arachidonoylglycerol, commonly referred to as 2-AG. 2-AG plays a substantial role in regulating the circulatory system via direct and/or indirect effects on the blood vessels and heart through their metabolites.

In this way, CBD impacts CB2 more than CB1 receptors. That said, CBD is not identical to 2-AG and does not actually bond to either receptor. 

Instead, CBD impacts these receptors more indirectly. That said, the extensive presence of CB2 receptors leads to significant potential for CBD’s impacts on the body.

As we said previously, CBD does not share the same psychoactive qualities as THC that cause intoxication or impairment.

However, several other prospects surrounding CBD and its interactions with CB2 receptors and other targets exist to suggest numerous other influences, including potential effects such as:

THC vs CBD – What are the Key Differences?

  • THC is psychoactive. CBD is not.
  • THC directly binds to CB1 receptors. CBD interacts more closely with CB2 receptors but does not directly bind to either.
  • THC is derived from the cannabis plant. CBD is derived from hemp.
  • CBD has little to no known adverse side effects. THC use’s common side effects may include dry mouth (cottonmouth), red eyes, delayed response times, issues with coordination, and increased heart rate.

How do THC and CBD Work Together?

While they possess what some may perceive as contrasting qualities, CBD and THC can also potentially effectively work together. For instance, when consumed simultaneously, CBD may help counteract some of the intoxicating properties caused by THC, namely its psychoactive qualities.

While medically-reviewed research surrounding the effects of THC vs CBD working together is still in its infancy, some studies postulate that the combination in balanced proportions can help users experience less anxiety.

In this context, since THC binds well with the CB1 receptor and CBD interacts with the CB2 receptor, if a user ingests too much THC to the point where it produces adverse side effects such as anxiety or paranoia, CBD may serve as a mediator to reduce and negate these adverse effects.

This fact is part of why more novice users may wish to opt for a blend of the two to minimize the risk of THC intoxication or a cannabis overdose, which, while not fatal, is still an incredibly unpleasant entirely avoidable, experience.

That said, CBD also shows promise in aiding to enhance the analgesic and anticancer properties of THC. Together they also show potential to stimulate a process called neurogenesis, which is the generation of new cells in the nervous system, among others. 

As we discussed previously, there are multiple types of CBD products. Full-spectrum products include all cannabinoids, broad-spectrum include trace amounts of THC to none at all, and CBD isolate is CBD in its purest possible form.

In the context of full-spectrum products, what draws users to these products is a collective phenomenon known as the ‘entourage effect.’ 

When multiple compounds, in this case, the cannabinoids, terpenes, and other chemicals present in cannabis, are integrated, their combined effects may be modified or enhanced.

More specifically, the entourage effect is theorized to occur due to the interactions between the cannabinoids themselves as well as the essential oils present in cannabis, otherwise known as terpenes and cannabinoids. However, more research needs to be done in order for this theory to be conclusive. 

THC vs CBD – The Tip of the Cannabis Iceberg

CBD and THC are two of over 100 different cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant. Still, while they fall under the same umbrella term, they also possess unique and distinct qualities that serve to set them apart from one another.

For as many supposed answers researchers seem to uncover, even more questions arise in their place regarding the complex and multifaceted cannabis plant and the many chemicals and compounds it houses.

That said, even surrounding these two specific cannabinoids, in particular, there is still a bountiful plethora of unresolved queries left to be explored. 

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