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CBD vs. THC: What's the Difference?

CBD vs. THC: What's the Difference?

Have you ever wondered what the differences between CBD and THC are? Or if CBD gets you high? While you’re probably aware that they’re both some form of cannabis, these two chemical compounds can produce vastly different results. Before you engage in using either of them, it’s important to know what they are — and what they do. 

CBD has recently skyrocketed as a popular substance in the health and wellness space. The acronym stands for cannabidiol, which is one of the many chemical compounds (also known as cannabinoids) that are found in the hemp plant. 

Hemp is the cousin of the marijuana plant, which is where THC can be found. Standing for tetrahydrocannabinol, THC is the main active ingredient in marijuana and is best known for its psychoactive effects. While CBD and THC are both part of the same cannabis plant species, CBD does not have any psychoactive effects. 

To put it simply, THC can get you high, but CBD can’t. 

In this article, you’ll learn all of the differences between THC and CBD and the effects each of these chemicals can have on the body.

CBD vs. THC: Chemical structure

The distinctions between CBD and THC start within their chemical structures. 

Their molecular structures are essentially identical — they’re both made up of 30 hydrogen atoms, 21 carbon atoms, and two oxygen atoms — except for the fact that their atoms are arranged differently. Their unique arrangements are what make CBD and THC affect a system in your body called the endocannabinoid system. 

Every human has an endocannabinoid system in their body to help regulate sleep, appetite, memory, mood, reproduction, and fertility. The chemical structures of both CBD and THC are similar to that of your endocannabinoids. They interact with your cannabinoid receptors, causing either a psychoactive component (THC) or a relaxing, calming effect (CBD). 

When CBD or THC interacts with your cannabinoid receptors, the release of neurotransmitters in your brain is also impacted. Specifically, when it tries to send messages between cells for things like pain, stress, sleep or immune function. 

CBD vs. THC:  How they interact with the endocannabinoid system 

How CBD and THC uniquely interact with your endocannabinoid system is what accounts for the different effects they have on your body. As you now know, CBD is non-psychoactive and doesn’t give you the “high” that THC, a psychoactive compound, does. 

That’s because, upon entering your body, THC binds with the cannabinoid 1 (also referred to as CB1) receptors in your brain that are found in the central and peripheral nervous system. The bind between THC and CB1 is what produces the high. CBD, on the other hand, either barely binds to CB1 receptors or doesn’t bind to them at all, which makes for little to no "high" feeling. 

If you combine CBD and THC, CBD will weaken the bond between THC and CB1 and lessen the psychoactive effects. However, when taken together, CBD can reduce some of the adverse effects of THC, such as anxiety, short-term memory impairment, and even paranoia. 

CBD vs. THC: Medical benefits

As they have some differences regarding their structure, CBD and THC are also different in terms of the medical benefits they may have. 

CBD has grown in popularity over recent years and with it came a storm of various health claims, most of which have not been proven. However, there are some medical benefits to CBD that have been backed by different studies. 

One study tested the effects of a drug derived from CBD and found that it can reduce the frequency of seizures (when taken with other medications) in patients diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut, a rare form of epilepsy. CBD may also help treat different forms of chronic pain. In a study done by the European Journal of Pain, CBD was used to lower inflammation in animals with arthritis. However, more human studies need to be done.

Probably the most common claim of CBD is that it may help reduce anxiety. The journal, Neurotherapeutics, found evidence supporting CBD as “a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.” However, that evidence was only found when CBD was administered acutely. Researchers concluded that more studies need to be done to investigate chronic CBD dosing. 

One study also found that CBD may be a safe way to treat acne, and another study reported CBD oil may prevent “pro-acne” agents like inflammatory cytokines. 

THC, on the other hand, may help those with chronic pain, nerve pain, multiple sclerosis symptoms and may even lessen tremors for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease, according to Harvard Medical School. Studies by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health found that THC could reduce tic severity in Tourette syndrome patients and help treat nausea and vomiting resulting from cancer chemotherapy treatment. 

More research needs to be done to vet other health claims, such as helping with sleep problems, PTSD, and weight loss associated with HIV/AIDS. THC could support those trying to decrease the use of opioids, however, the NCCIH says those studies have only been done on animals. 

CBD vs. THC: Side effects

Not surprisingly, the side effects of CBD and THC are not the same. According to Healthline, CBD is well tolerated among most people and generally considered safe to use. However, there are some potential side effects, such as: 

  • Change in weight and appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea

CBD can also interact with several medications, so it’s best to talk to your doctor before you start using it.

When it comes to THC, there are some common temporary side effects, such as: 

  • Dry mouth 
  • Slowed reaction times
  • Memory loss
  • Increased heart rate
  • Red eyes
  • Coordination problems

While neither THC or CBD is a fatal compound, some evidence suggests that high use of THC (especially when the user started in adolescence) can cause long-term negative psychiatric effects like an increased risk of psychiatric disorders.

CBD vs. THC: How to take it

Now that you understand the differences between CBD and THC, it’s time to learn all of the various ways you can take it — and how fast you'll feel the effects. 

Edibles are one of the easiest ways to take CBD. They can come in a variety of forms and tastes. However, eating CBD can take up to two hours to start working and your body may only absorb 20-30% of it. It’s called the “first-pass effect.” 

Taking CBD through a sublingual — also known as tinctures — will help you feel the results faster because you absorb the compound under your tongue. THC is also available as a sublingual and has been found to have a higher concentration than CBD, meaning the effect might be more noticeable. 

There are many CBD topicals such as balms, ointments, salves, and lotions that may provide a concentrated relief to the area it’s applied too, according to a 2015 study. To make sure you get the best effect, it’s recommended to choose a product high in CBD. THC topicals are also a viable option, however, the compound has to pass through the first layer of skin to truly be absorbed. Transdermal patches of THC may be able to enhance the effect and could reduce chronic pain. 

Vaping and smoking are two very popular ways to enjoy CBD. Whether you’re using it in a vaporizer, vape pen or even a joint, smoking CBD is a fast way to feel the effects as it goes directly into your bloodstream. Research says that you absorb 35-56% of the CBD in under 10 minutes. Smoking and vaping are also common ways to take THC due to how quickly it enters the brain. 

The bottom line

While CBD and THC may come from the same plant species, they are two very different compounds that can be used for a variety of things. Not only do they interact with our bodies in unique ways, but they also produce unique effects. Both can have the potential to alleviate known health issues like anxiety, chronic pain, and in some cases even seizures, but more studies need to be done to substantiate those claims. 

Still, CBD and THC both produce relaxing and pleasurable effects when taken correctly. It’s worth it to weigh the pros and cons of each (and consider your personal medical history) before indulging in either. 

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