So Much More Than THC …
For a long time, there was just THC. That was pretty much the extent of what most people knew about cannabis. And that marijuana got you high. And that it was illegal.
Now, CBD is everywhere, cannabis laws are rapidly changing (in individual states, at federal levels, and around the globe), and suddenly there’s this thing called “cannabinoid science.”
All the CBD hype is enough to make your head spin, not to mention the influx of new terminology. Words like “phytocannabinoid”, “flavonoid”, and “entourage effect” can make you feel like you’re struggling to keep up with the latest slang.
Don’t sweat it … they’re nothing more than vocabulary words. Fortunately for us, they’re popping up everywhere because of the increased awareness and scientific evidence proving that cannabinoids have powerful therapeutic effects.
Cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries. Modern science, however, has been restricted in its efforts to prove these already known cannabinoid benefits.
The Starting Line-Up: THC and CBD
Of all the cannabinoids (and there are more than 100), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are currently the most well-known, both popularly and scientifically.
Therefore, understanding the similarities and differences between these two all-stars is a good introduction for anyone just diving into the world of cannabinoids. By comparing the two, we can see just how unique the therapeutic profiles of individual cannabinoids can be, while also getting a peek at how cannabinoids and other cannabis plant nutrients work together to optimize health benefits.
First, Some Fast Facts About Cannabinoids
Wrapping your head around cannabinoids is easier once you have a few basic concepts down, such as:
- What are cannabinoids? Cannabinoids are a diverse group of chemical compounds that have a variety of therapeutic effects.
- Where do cannabinoids come from? Cannabinoids occur naturally in cannabis plants (phytocannabinoids), naturally in all mammals (endocannabinoids), and not-so-naturally in the lab (synthetic cannabinoids).
- What do cannabinoids do? Cannabinoids activate our endocannabinoid system (ECS) to keep our health and wellbeing in balance.
- What is the ECS? Think of it as a network of receptors in your body involved in the function of the immune system, the central nervous system, and various organs. It’s responsible for regulating appetite, pain sensation, mood, memory, sleep, neuroprotection, and homeostasis (your inner balance and wellbeing).
When you address something out-of-whack in the ECS, you get at the problem, not just the symptom.
- What’s the difference between marijuana and hemp? These are two different types of cannabis plants. Marijuana can get you high, and industrial hemp cannot. While marijuana can have varying levels of THC and CBD, depending on the strain, industrial hemp only contains .3 percent or less THC, which is not an intoxicating amount.
- Does Quality Matter? CBD is not regulated. This means it is of the UTMOST importance to buy a quality product. Not only could a non-vetted product be a waste of your money, it could harm you. We’ll provide you with some pointers on how to avoid that.
Why Are They Called Cannabinoids?
Interestingly, they’re called cannabinoids because chemists discovered them in the cannabis plant before they discovered them in humans.
Research into the pharmacology of phytocannabinoids began around the 1940s, decades after discovering the presence of cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. But it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the first endocannabinoid, anandamide, was discovered. Surprisingly, it was THC that led chemists to this breakthrough.
Why, they wondered, did a receptor in the human brain exist for THC, as if made for it? This led them to suppose there was a similar endogenous chemical in the human body. After a few years, they went on to discover anandamide, and, consequently, the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The Most Obvious Difference Between THC and CBD: Intoxication
The thing that people often get hung up on, is that CBD is cannabis, and if it’s cannabis, then it must get you high. And why wouldn’t most people think that?
We, the general public, have never been educated about cannabis. For the most part, we were only ever taught negative propaganda about the plant, and almost a century of prohibition has greatly restricted scientists from studying it.
Currently, the ECS is only taught in 13 percent of medical programs—even though chemists discovered it nearly 30 years ago. (Check out this informative interview with one of the chemists who broke ground on the ECS, Raphael Mechoulam.)
So, to make things clear, THC is intoxicating (you’ll also hear it described as “psychoactive”) and CBD is not intoxicating (nonpsychoactive), whether it is isolate, broad spectrum, or full spectrum (we’ll break these terms down shortly).
Another thing that causes confusion, is that sometimes CBD contains THC. What? But we just said THC is intoxicating. How can CBD contain THC, and still be non-intoxicating?
The answer is simple: industrial hemp.
The terms “cannabis”, “marijuana”, and “hemp” (referring to industrial hemp) have long been used interchangeably in our vocabulary. But they are not swappable terms. They are related, but not the same.
CBD that is legal to buy and sell in the U.S. (see legal section below) can only be derived from industrial hemp. (This, of course, does not include CBD from medical marijuana. We’re talking about the CBD you can purchase online or from hoofing it into a brick-and-mortar.)
So now we have to talk about the difference between cannabis, marijuana, and industrial hemp. Hang in there, it’s pretty straight forward. Simply put: marijuana and hemp are two different types of cannabis plants. The main and most significant difference is that hemp contains only .3 percent or less THC. That amount cannot get anyone high. Not even your pet.
This brings us back around to CBD isolate vs. full spectrum CBD—those terms we mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Here’s all you need to know:
- Full Spectrum CBD—You get the whole plant. The pure extracted oil of the hemp plant that contains unmodified cannabinoids and compounds. This includes an array of cannabinoids (including THC), vitamins and minerals, fatty acids, flavonoids, and terpenes.
Why go full spectrum? For the entourage effect, of course. The entourage effect is the name scientific experts have given the phenomenon that describes how cannabis compounds (cannabinoids, flavonoids, terpenes, and other plant nutrients) have a way of working together to enhance therapeutic benefits.
- Broad Spectrum CBD—Get the whole plant without the THC. Includes the whole plant extract with the THC removed OR CBD isolate that’s had other cannabinoids (not THC) added back in.
- CBD Isolate—CBD processed to remove all other cannabinoids, oils, plant materials, waxes, and chlorophyll.
So, to recap, unlike THC, legal CBD:
- is non-intoxicating …
- because it is derived from industrial hemp …
- which contains .3 percent or less THC …
- so even in full spectrum CBD, the amount of THC cannot get you high …
- but could affect the outcome of a drug test (for a breakdown on this subject, read this article by Dr. Capano over at Ananda Hemp).
How THC and CBD effect the ECS
Both CBD and THC activate the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) through specialized cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. Through their specific activity, these two cannabinoids augment the ECS with the goal of homeostasis (your body’s inner balance and wellbeing). However, THC and CBD have differing mechanisms of interacting with cannabinoid receptors, which continue to be studied and discovered.
But what we do know, so far, is that THC binds directly with both CB1 and CB2 receptors, with a particular attraction to CB1 receptors. This makes it an agonist—a chemical that binds to a receptor and activates that receptor to produce a biological response. An antagonist, therefore, blocks the action of the agonist.
Unlike THC, CBD has minimal interest in either cannabinoid receptor. Instead, it acts as an indirect antagonist of cannabinoid agonists. Plainly put, CBD works to block the CB1 and CB2 activity of THC, and even the endocannabinoid, anandamide. CBD has also been found to interact with other non-cannabinoid receptors, including 5-HT1A receptors and the vanilloid receptor TRPV-1.
The Unique Therapeutic Properties of THC and CBD
The following lists show the conditions and diseases for which CBD and THC, respectively, may provide benefits, treatment, or even prevention of. For many of these situations, anecdotal patient evidence has been overwhelming, which has prompted doctors, legislators, and researchers to change their minds and take a more serious look at the medicinal potential of cannabis. (Check out the story of Sanjay Gupta’s 180 here.)
Studies have been carried out for many of these conditions, both in the lab (on cells and animal models) and in human observational and clinical trials.
Although the ways they interact with the ECS vary, THC and CBD have many of the same therapeutic benefits. The two main differences to remember are:
- THC derived from marijuana (or synthetic THC like dronabinol and nabilone) can get you high, while hemp-derived CBD will not.
- THC and CBD act on the ECS differently and, therefore, exert their therapeutic properties differently, which can help researchers find ways to target the causes of diseases using cannabinoids as very specific weapons.
THC may have therapeutic effects on a variety of conditions, including:
- Neurodegenerative Diseases (Alzheimer’s disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, etc.)
- Autoimmune Diseases (Lupus, multiple sclerosis, etc.)
CBD may have therapeutic effects on a range of conditions, including:
- Neurodegenerative Diseases (Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and neurodegeneration due to alcoholism)
- Pain and Inflammation (chronic pain, arthritis, etc.)
These lists are by no means complete. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, one of the chemists who identified the ECS, said, “I can’t list all the physiological systems and conditions affected by cannabinoids because they are too many.”
The continued research of cannabis and cannabinoids is important, so much so that in 2017, The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine publishedThe Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. In this publication, the committee recommended that the U.S. waste no more time in filling the knowledge gaps surrounding cannabis and cannabinoids.
The Legal Differences Between THC and CBD
Marijuana and THC are both specifically listed in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act and, therefore, prohibited under federal law. Thirty-three U.S. states and Washington D.C. have passed their own medical marijuana policies, providing adherence to their respective restrictions. Ten of those states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana recreationally.
Thanks to the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills industrial hemp-derived CBD is legal to grow, sell, and purchase in the U.S.
If CBD is derived from marijuana, however, it is illegal unless obtained through a state-regulated medical marijuana program or in a state that permits recreational marijuana use.
While industrial hemp-derived CBD is legal, it is not currently regulated by the FDA. This means that the quality assurance of the product is left up to the manufacturers. Transparency of a cannabinoid product is very important for several reasons. Here’s just one very important reason: Industrial hemp is a bioaccumulator, which means that it will absorb heavy metals and chemicals from the soil. In some countries, like China, farmers will plant a crop of hemp to clean out their soil, and then sell the tainted hemp to be used for CBD.