CBD Vs. THC: The Science Behind The Most Popular Cannabinoids

Whenever pot is discussed, two acronyms — tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD — are usually mentioned in the same breath. The following is a look at how the substances differ.

The Science

Cannabis sativa, an annual herbaceous flowering plant, has numerous uses thanks to the multiple natural compounds present.

Cannabinoid, or phytocannabinoid, is the broader term used to refer to the more than 100 different chemical compounds in cannabis plants.

Incidentally, cannabinoids can also be produced in the body (endocannabinoids) or synthetically manufactured (synthetic cannabinoids).

These compounds act on the cannabinoid receptors in cells — CB1 in the brain and CB2 in the body — that alter neurotransmitter release in the brain.

THC and CBD are the two major phytocannabinoids. Among the different varieties of the cannabis family, a particular variety has a higher proportion of the mind-altering chemical THC: 5-20 percent compared to sub-5 percent levels of CBD.

Cannabis used for human consumption is usually obtained from the flower or bud. Some varieties may have a balance in the CBD-THC ratio, while others may have a higher proportion of THC relative to CBD.

Some of the other cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant are:

  • Tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THCV.
  • Cannabidivarin, or CBDV.
  • Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid A, or THCA.

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CBD occurs in the cannabis plant in the form of cannabidiolic acid, or CBDA, which yields CBD when heated.

Given CBD's low affinity for the cannabinoid receptors CB1, it lacks euphoric side effects. In other words, CBD does not produce a high.

It is being evaluated as a potential treatment option for conditions such as schizophrenia.

In 2018, the FDA approved GW Pharmaceuticals PLC- ADR GWPH's plant-derived CBD with the brand name Epidiolex for treating seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome, two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, in patients two years or older.

How CBD Works

CBD has several mechanisms of action, including acting upon the CB1 and CB2 receptors indirectly. It mostly binds to the CB2 receptors found in the peripheral organs and skin.

It also interacts with other receptors such as serotonin, vanilloid, GPR55 and PPARs.


THC is a major cannabinoid derived either from the cannabis plant or produced synthetically that is primarily responsible for marijuana's psychotropic properties. It is known for its recreational as well as therapeutic uses.

Marijuana sold in dispensaries has an average THC content of 21 percent, according to Origins Cannabis.

The synthetic THC drug Dronabinol, sold under the brand names Marinol, Syndros and Cesamet, has been approved by the FDA for treating nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

How THC Works

THC's chemical structure is similar to the endocannabinoid anandamide, which transmits chemical messages between nerve cells. Due to the similarity of the structure, the brain is tricked into believing THC is an anandamide. Just like anandamide, THC binds with the cannabinoid receptor CB1 like a key in a lock, forcing the body to release dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends signals between nerve cells and regulates movement, attention, learning and emotional responses. It helps us to see rewards and to initiate actions to move toward them.

The Entourage Effect

The entourage effect is the result produced by the synergistic interaction of compounds such as cannabinoids, flavonoids, terpenes and fatty acids found in cannabis instead of one compound at a time.

CBD, if taken with a high-THC medication used to treat nausea and improve appetite, could reduce the side effects of THC, which can include paranoia. This is because CBD is an antagonist to CB1 receptors and suppresses the qualities of THC that activate these receptors.

Terpenes are found in the cannabis plant and are responsible for smell; when combined with CBD, terpenes can work synergistically to treat pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections.

Related Links:

How Topicals Are Bringing CBD To Mass Retail Customers

Cowen: CBD Market Could Reach $16B By 2025

Learn more about cannabinoids in our Spanish website El Planteo.

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