The Difference between CBD and THC: What You Want to Know

CBD THC Difference

THC is a drug that gets people high. CBD is a substance you give to epileptic adults and children to stop their seizures. Or at least, that is the most common perception of these two drugs. However, they are much closer than you might imagine and different in fascinating ways. So, what is the difference between CBD and THC?

Both CBD and THC are cannabinoids. These are chemicals that interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system. Cannabinoids were initially identified in the cannabis sativa plant, which contains over 60 different active ingredients. The endocannabinoid system naturally interacts with cannabinoids. However, since being named, the definitions of cannabinoid and endocannabinoid have been broadened extensively. For example, some serotonin receptors are endocannabinoid receptors too. It can get quite confusing, but all you need to know is that CBD and THC are the two most abundant cannabinoids found in cannabis – and the most studied and understood.

Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – How it Works

The best known and most extensively studied cannabinoid, THC, is a fatty acid that binds to the cannabinoid type 1 receptor (CB1R) with a strong affinity. Receptors are proteins that lock onto signaling molecules like THC and then trigger a process. In the case of CB1R in the brain, this endocannabinoid system receptor is attached to the post-synaptic end of a neural “junction”, where it regulates cAMP messenger molecule signals by inhibiting the production of a protein called adenyl cyclase.

Normally, CB1R is activated by anandamide, the body’s own CB1R agonist. Named after the Sanskrit word for “bliss”, anandamide does not bind to CB1R as strongly as THC. This different affinity means that THC shoulders anandamide out the way and binds with CB1R. Its different shape adds to the difference that this increased activation makes. The effect is a change in signaling across wide parts of the brain (and in other parts of the body), resulting in the psychoactive effects that people experience when they take cannabis.

THC also binds mu and beta-opioid receptors and to a lesser extent CB2R, which is an important part of the immune system regulation. Different concentrations alter its effects, and the whole process is not well understood.

Cannabidiol (CBD) – How it Works

Cannabidiol is a very similar molecule to THC. They both start out as the same precursor molecule and are only 2 enzymatic steps away from each other. In fact, CBD can be transformed easily into THC with a process called cyclization. Although they are very similar in structure, they have very different effects. Although the difference between CBD and THC in terms of structure is small, the difference between CBD and THC in terms of effects is striking.

CBD does not bind to CB1R in the same way as THC. It is a “negative allosteric modulator”, meaning it has a very weak affinity for CB1R, but through interactions with other molecular pathways, it can change how cannabinoids like THC interact with their target cannabinoids.

Cannabidiol has this effect for both CB1R and CB2R, so it can change how the body responds to injury and infection via the CB2R in the immune system and can change how THC and anandamide works in the brain, altering their effects and the psychoactivity of THC.

Alongside CB1R and CB2R, CBD also interacts with 5-HT1A and 5-HT2A, both serotonin receptors that are very important in anxiety. Scientists have shown that this interaction is the cause of CBD’s remarkable anxiolytic effects.

Vanillin receptor TRPV1 is a target of CBD. This is a heat sensing channel protein that is famous for being the target of capsaicin, the spice chemical that makes things taste hot. CBD seems to be able to alter nociception, or the perception of pain, through binding TRPV1.

There is no observable psychoactivity from CBD because it does not bind to CB1R directly. This is why a lot of people prefer to take CBD, as the psychoactivity from THC is not what they want in a medicine.

The Difference between CBD and THC – Effects

The fact that THC gets you high and CBD does not is the most obvious example of the difference in the effects of these two drugs. But, as you may have already guessed, the differences between the structures of CBD and THC make them interact differently throughout the body.

The Immune System

The endocannabinoid system is extensively expressed throughout the immune system. In particular, via CB2R’s expression on T-cells, which are important immune cells responsible for mopping up pathogens and coordinating the immune response.

A large part of the immune response that CB2R mediates is inflammation. When the body is under attack (or thinks it is), it floods the area with immune cells to attack the invaders – chemicals called cytokines – which signal cells to start inflaming and increases the blood flow to the affected area.

This results in redness, swelling, and pain. CBD is a very powerful anti-inflammatory because it changes how other signalling molecules bind CB2R. By changing this process, CBD can reduce inflammation significantly by reducing cytokine cascades, causing T-cells to pop, (they do this anyway, it’s OK), reducing the inflammation in sensory neurons, which are the main source of inflammatory pain.

For autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, and potentially even dementia, this tuning down of inflammation can make the conditions much more tolerable. Cannabis has been used in this way for at least 4 thousand years, probably longer, and it now turns out that it is the result of CBD.

THC does bind CB2R, but not much, and does not have a clear effect.


CBD is an effective antiemetic in a specific range because it indirectly activates 5-HT1A receptors. THC has the same but stronger effect by binding CB1R. They seem to work better in combination.

Anxiety and Psychosis

Chronic CB1R activation has been linked with a higher risk of developing schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder. Cannabis has been shown to increase the risk of developing this disorder, and it appears to be the result of a desensitization, or change in the way CB1R works, by THC.

The neurotransmitter anandamide is found to be lower in the brains of schizophrenics, and the antipsychotic effects of CBD are thought to be mediated by activating 5-HT1A, which can increase anandamide concentrations to normal healthy levels.

It is interesting that THC can cause schizophrenia and CBD seems to be able to ameliorate its effects. This suggests that cannabis that is high in CBD as well as in THC could be a safer form of the drug. However, people who have a family history or genetic disposition towards psychosis should totally avoid cannabis.

5-HT1A is also the target of CBD for its anxiolytic effects, which are considerable. Increasing serotonin signaling is what SSRIs do, and while CBD has a similar effect, it is more tolerable and safe.

Other Effects

There are many different effects that CBD and THC can bring, including PTSD memory extinction, appetite regulation, motivation (through those opioid receptors), HIV, pain perception, depression, and more.

Safety Differences

CBD has a very positive safety profile. THC is riskier because of its psychoactive effects and the increased risk of schizophrenia and psychosis.

CBD seems to make THC more tolerable and less dangerous, so a combination might be the safest choice.

Check out the rest of this site for more comprehensive information.

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