It is more widely known today that the marijuana plant contains hundreds of cannabinoids, which are simply natural chemical compounds of the plant—the two most abundant of which are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Over the years, these three-letter acronyms have buzzed in the industry and sparked research to better understand the medicinal benefits of marijuana. In the end, however, many patients still have the same question: What’s the difference between THC and CBD?
Well, it starts at the molecular level.
THC and CBD have the same molecular structure: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms. And although these structures are the same, each is built differently. This variance accounts for the different effects you may feel when you consume THC and CBD.
As cannabinoids, THC and CBD react with your body’s innate endocannabinoid system, a vital network of receptors that enable homeostasis or essentially, the processes that ensure your overall wellbeing.
Fun Fact: The endocannabinoid system was ‘fully’ discovered in humans in 1992 while studying the effects of THC on the mind and body—and hence, named “the endocannabinoid system” after the cannabis plant.
THC and CBD will commonly react with “CB1” and “CB2” receptors in your endocannabinoid system. This interaction releases neurotransmitters or chemicals that communicate messages between your body’s cells and influence a variety of functions like pain perception, appetite, mood, and sleep.
It’s complicated of course, but essentially, THC is more likely to interact with CB1 receptors, which are more prominent in your central nervous system—your brain and spinal cord—and due to the proximity to your mind, THC can lead to more psychoactive effects. On the other hand, CBD is more likely to interact with CB2 receptors, which are found throughout your body and can lead to less or more often no psycho-activity. In addition, CBD can block THC from binding to CB1 receptors and further reduce psycho-activity or the euphoric feelings associated with a traditional “high”.
Then there’s the effects.
Based on scientific studies and anecdotal records, both THC and CBD have therapeutic properties that aid in the treatment of numerous conditions. For instance, THC has shown to be effective at relieving pain, reducing nausea and vomiting, suppressing muscle spasms, slowing the deterioration of the nervous system, reducing eye pressure, and acting as an antidepressant. Likewise, CBD has shown to be effective at inhibiting cancer cell growth, reducing blood sugar, relieving anxiety, slowing bacterial growth, and reducing inflammation.
These examples are just a few of the recognized health benefits of THC and CBD. With more research, new benefits are sure to be discovered.
Protects Nervous System
Relieves Crohn’s Disease
Relieves Rheumatoid Arthritis
Note: These effects are not universal or definitive; your experience may vary.
And sometimes, two is better than one.
There are multiple medical conditions that can be treated with both THC and CBD like chronic pain, depression, muscle spasms, and nausea. While you can choose to treat any of these conditions with only THC or CBD, the entourage effect—sometimes called the ensemble effect—occurs when they’re coupled together. The entourage effect happens when multiple cannabinoids and terpenes cooperate to enhance the therapeutic effects of each compound. Think of it like a hearty meal. Your dining experience will be much more satisfying with side dishes, garnishes, and other bits rather than a single, unseasoned steak.
With that in mind, be sure to look at the THC to CBD ratio as well as prominent terpenes in your medical marijuana. In general, you’ll find products with the following ratios:
High THC, low CBD (e.g., 10-30% THC, trace amounts of CBD)
Balanced (1:1) CBD to THC, (e.g., 5-15% THC and CBD)
High CBD, low THC (e.g., 5-20% CBD, THC under 5%)
And if you’d like to learn more about terpenes, check out our blog post that goes into more detail. You might also consider keeping a record of this data as you try different products and consumption methods. This may help you uncover and better understand what ratios or combinations work best for you. We’ve created patient journal pages exactly for this purpose, which you are welcome to print out and use.
Just remember to do your research.
Due to decades of growing and curating plants to particular preferences, along with a lack of knowledge about the therapeutic benefits of CBD, much of today’s marijuana market includes products with high levels of THC. Up until recently, CBD was largely overlooked. The turning point or CBD’s claim to fame was its ability to treat a rare and debilitating form of pediatric epilepsy called Dravet’s Syndrome. Then, as part of the Farm Bill in December 2018, Congress made hemp (a cannabis plant with less than 0.3% THC) a legal agricultural commodity, from which CBD oil can be extracted and sold in some states.
As the popularity and availability of CBD products increase, it’s important to note that not all products work as advertised and are more often than not, unregulated goods. Be sure to look at the ingredients of the product, as well as the company making it, particularly if the product is purchased outside a state-regulated, medical marijuana dispensary. Luckily, we have some exciting things planned involving strains with higher levels of CBD, which you won’t have to second-guess—stay tuned!
There’s still much more to be studied about marijuana and its role in our mental and physical health. For instance, consider the fact there are 120 known cannabinoids and we’ve only just begun to understand two of them and how each can affect us. As you start or continue your journey with medical marijuana, let us know what you discover.