With all of the information and misinformation about this plant, we’ve decided to tackle one of the biggest questions in cannabis: What’s the difference between CBD and THC?
It’s confusing enough having to differentiate between terms like Cannabis, Hemp, and Marijuana (more on that later), but having a grasp on the difference between CBD vs. THC can make the conversation around cannabis and health so much easier.
Once you understand how THC and CBD work, what their unique benefits are, and what side effects may come from using them alone or together, it’s much easier to figure out how to incorporate them into a healthy cannabis lifestyle or a journey of cannabis and health.
In this post, we’re going to dive deep into the differences between THC and CBD and then I’ll leave you with my personal experience from incorporating both of these cannabinoids into my journey of overcoming chronic pain, anxiety, and PTSD.
The great showdown: THC vs. CBD
For many years, especially during global cannabis prohibition, THC was the star of the cannabis show.
Because THC has the most pronounced effects (namely the feeling of being high), breeders became more and more focused on increasing the amount of THC in the plant, leading to higher and higher amounts of THC in cannabis.
THC was first isolated in 1964 by Raphael Mechoulam, who most often gets all of the credit for finding THC, but it was first discovered by Roger Adams in the 1940s.
Even though CBD had also been discovered in the 1940s and research on it had begun in the ’50s and '60s, interest in the compound was largely relegated to the scientific community.
Because CBD’s effects are much more subtle, breeders didn’t really have a reason to focus on it. Moreover, CBD dampens the experience and some of the intoxicating effects of THC, so when the goal was to have the “strongest” cannabis, breeders were unwittingly avoiding strains with a higher CBD content.
This led to CBD almost being bred out of American cannabis.
Fast forward to today. Largely due to increasing success from people using CBD in hard-to-treat medical issues like epilepsy, CBD came front and center in the conversation about cannabis and prohibition.
In 2018 in the US, CBD derived from hemp (a legal term used for any cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3% THC) was placed into a grey area of legality via the Farm Bill.
Since then, CBD has become widely available throughout the United States in many forms. You’ll find CBD almost everywhere -including gas stations- and in products ranging from CBD oil, CBD salve, and dog treats.
Cannabis that has a THC content of over 0.3% can be found in states with medical and adult-use laws. It has been legalized in other nations like Canada and Mexico but is still federally prohibited in the United States.
This has led to a lot of confusion around banking, integrating this plant medicine into the medical system, and continued incarceration.
What does THC stand for?
First thing’s first. What do THC and CBD even mean, and what are they?
THC stands for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ-9-THC). Sometimes it’s called Delta 9.
This molecule is a phytocannabinoid, which means that it is a cannabinoid that comes from the cannabis plant.
The effects of THC have brought stoner stigma and stereotyping to users of this plant. While some believe that THC has no medicinal value and only serves to get you “high”, science is beginning to reveal some distinct benefits of THC.
What does CBD stand for?
CBD stands for cannabidiol. Like THC it is classified as a phytocannabinoid because it comes from the cannabis plant.
People like to use the word “hemp” when they talk about CBD, but it’s important to remember that hemp, in the way it’s most commonly used, is a legal term here in the US, not a plant classification.
The term “hemp” just means the plant material tests under 0.3% THC. Most “hemp” plants look, smell, and grow exactly the same as high THC cannabis plants, but they create a high concentration of the CBD molecule.
Industrial hemp, typically grown for seed and fiber usually has a very small amount of CBD and is not the best source of plant material to make CBD oil.
When making or buying CBD oil, make sure to use high CBD flower or CBG flower (I like Sacred Smoke). If you’re buying pre-made CBD oil from a company, check to make sure that the oil has been processed from female plants, not the industrial hemp mix of male and female that is typically used for things like seed and fiber.
The plants would look like this:
How do THC and CBD work in the human body
This is where things get pretty complex. To understand how THC and CBD work in the human body, you’ll need a primer on the Endocannabinoid System. Check out this post to learn more about the endocannabinoid system works and how THC and CBD interact with the body.
What’s the difference between THC and CBD?
There is a lot of overlap between these two cannabinoids, and later we’ll talk about how they work together, but for now, here’s what the research shows in terms of the distinct benefits for CBD and THC.
THC is most distinct from CBD because it’s the molecule that gets you high. But that’s not all that THC can do. While we’re still working with very limited research, here’s what science says about the benefits of THC.
THC and Pain
Worldwide, chronic pain is becoming one of the most common chronic health issues in the world. With over 1.9 billion people around the world suffering from recurring tension headaches, and back and neck pain becoming the largest cause of disability on the planet, this one needs a solution.
One of the most common causes for people to seek out medical cannabis is for pain and for many people, THC can be incredibly helpful.
In a small study, medical cannabis users reported a 64% decrease in opiate use and a 45% increase in quality of life. In research from the early 1990s, they found that THC has twenty times the anti-inflammatory potency of aspirin and twice that of hydrocortisone (Evans 1991). In 2017, researchers found that CBG could be even more effective at treating pain. So it’s clear that cannabinoids can be incredibly effective.
It’s important here to remember that there’s a physiological reason for the decrease in pain and it’s not that people are just so stoned they don’t notice or care about their pain anymore. THC could potentially block neural pathways that communicate pain sensations to the brain and can decrease inflammation, leading to a reduction in pain.
Even though many find that THC helps with pain, for some people, THC can aggravate or enhance the awareness of their pain (this could be due to the biphasic nature of cannabis).
One study found that very low doses of THC were helpful. If you find that THC enhances your pain or if you’re experiencing negative side effects, lowering the initial dose of THC and incorporating CBD and CBG could be helpful.
THC for Nausea and Appetite
One of THC’s superpowers is its ability to calm the stomach and bring on the munchies.
While considered a negative side effect for many, THC can be very helpful in helping people eat when going through things like chemotherapy or if they experience chronic digestive issues that cause nausea.
Again, this one has an interesting flip side. Long-term, high THC cannabis users are beginning to experience a condition called Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome that causes nausea and vomiting brought on by using cannabis.
While many believe that the syndrome may be caused by the application of Neem Oil and its derivatives to the plant, the connection to THC has continued to linger.
Neem oil is widely applied to cannabis plants as an organic pesticide and fungicide and is deemed by the EPA to be unsafe to inhale. To be on the safe side, consuming the minimum effective dose, taking t-breaks, and only consuming tested or your own home-grown plant material is recommended until we know more.
THC and PTSD
For many people – myself included – using THC can impact PTSD treatment in astounding ways.
When some people experience a traumatic event (or events), the brain changes profoundly.
Brain imaging from people who have symptomatic PTSD shows that changes in the amygdala (the fear center), the hippocampus (the long-term memory center), and the medial prefrontal cortex (the decision-maker) can lead to a whole host of issues.
I'm not a neuroscientist, but I did watch a lot of Beakman's World growing up, and this is the way I like to think of it.
The hippocampus (in charge of memory) can’t quite place when the traumatic event happened, so for a person with symptomatic PTSD, it truly feels like the trauma is still going on, especially during a triggering event.
Then, the amygdala activates fear, even when nothing seems to be happening to the outside world.
And then your prefrontal cortex gets hypervigilant and goes into overdrive trying to solve a situation that is no longer happening.
And voila… you’ve got yourself a recipe for flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, constant hyperarousal, or an inability to look other people in the eye (another common symptom of PTSD).
Trying to dampen these experiences lead many people with PTSD symptoms to seek dangerous numbing or high-intensity activities. To top that off, the lack of understanding and stigma around trauma can lead to isolation and further exacerbate the problem.
Enter THC. THC seems to work holistically to help with PTSD symptoms.
THC impacts memory (turns out that forgetting your car keys and forgetting trauma are related).
It also interacts with the endocannabinoid receptors in the amygdala, potentially reducing the experience of fear. This could be what has allowed people who have used THC for PTSD to move the traumatic incident more firmly into the past, allowing them to forget a little more and fear a little less.
THC can also help people with PTSD reconnect with their communities and loved ones, experience a reduction of PTSD-related anxiety, and to be able to actually physically relax.
Some physicians now believe that cannabis containing THC is an important part of treating PTSD. This small study showed that incorporating oral THC as an additional therapy for people with treatment-resistant PTSD had great results.
There were few reported side effects and most of the study’s participants experienced improvement from incorporating THC.
Because the amygdala (the fear center) can be overly activated by THC and can increase the experience of fear and paranoia, people with PTSD who are interested in using high THC cannabis as an addition to their current treatment plan need to work closely with their therapist and doctor and to be committed to starting with low doses, increasing the dose slowly, and tracking what works.
CBD also has been shown in limited research to potentially help people who are navigating PTSD, and could add benefit as well (see the section below about how CBD and THC are better together 🤓)
THC Increases Awareness and Enhances Sensation
While THC is often villainized in the health and wellness community and in society at large because it can – in fact – get you high, most users do not find this to be a negative part of their cannabis use.
Even though a small percentage of people develop some level of dependency on the plant and tend to use it to escape, zone out, or disassociate from life, millions of others use it to enhance their awareness, increase levels of joy, facilitate connection, and to enhance their senses.
While these are not well-studied phenomena, most consider it an added benefit and one of the core reasons why they use cannabis that contains some level of THC.
CBD hasn’t demonstrated any dependence or tolerance-related issues and has a high safety profile according to the World Health Organization. But this compound is still very powerful and CBD (and can interact with certain prescribed drugs… more on that later). Here are a few of the many distinct benefits that research is revealing about CBD.
CBD is Non-Intoxicating
Before we dive into the potential benefits of CBD on a few common health issues, let’s cover one of the reasons CBD has taken off in popularity. Not only is it non-intoxicating, but it can also reduce any negative side-effects of THC when the two compounds are taken together.
CBD can help reduce dysphoria, motor control impairment, and the occasional paranoia or anxiety that come from taking too much THC.
Many people find that incorporating CBD – while it does reduce the feeling of being “high” – is much more enjoyable than THC alone. This combination makes using cannabis more sustainable for chronic conditions, especially for daytime use.
While CBD can elevate mood and reduce anxiety, making it technically “psychoactive”, for most people it doesn’t cause intoxication or impairment, physically or mentally.
CBD and Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in the world. In the US, over 18% of the population is affected by some form of anxiety disorder including general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, OCD, and specific phobia-related anxiety. Less than 38% of people with an anxiety disorder are currently seeking treatment.
One of the most popular uses of CBD is for anxiety. And there’s no wonder why. Your endocannabinoid system plays a huge role in regulating emotional behavior, including stress response and anxiety. CBD has been shown to combat anxiety in several different ways.
CBD has also been shown to reduce Social Anxiety Disorder, and help alleviate anxiety around public speaking.
In a 2011 study, researchers found that: “Pretreatment of SAD patients with CBD significantly reduced anxiety, cognitive impairment, and discomfort in their speech performance (S) and significantly decreased alert in their anticipatory speech […] These preliminary results indicate that a single dose of CBD can reduce the anxiety-enhancing effect provoked by SPST in SAD patients, indicating that this cannabinoid inhibits the fear of speaking in public, one of the main symptoms of the disorder.”
CBD and Addiction
A far cry from the argument that cannabis is a gateway drug, CBD is getting a lot of attention for its potential as an exit drug from things like opiates and nicotine.
According to a 2019 double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study, “Acute CBD administration, in contrast to placebo, significantly reduced both craving and anxiety induced by the presentation of salient drug cues compared with neutral cues. CBD also showed significant protracted effects on these measures 7 days after the final short-term (3-day) CBD exposure. In addition, CBD reduced the drug cue-induced physiological measures of heart rate and salivary cortisol levels. There were no significant effects on cognition, and there were no serious adverse effects.”
CBD and Seizures
As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons we have access to CBD is because people found that CBD was helping with treatment-resistant seizures. In one study, 43% of the children with seizure disorders had a reduction of seizure frequency by 50% or more and out of 61 children, 3 became seizure-free from using large doses of CBD.
Because the doses were so large in the study, side effects from CBD increased and more research has to be done. But for so many with seizures, CBD is proving to be life-changing.
CBD and THC Side Effects
While CBD and THC have a robust safety record, there are things to consider before incorporating THC and/or CBD into your health and wellness routine. When we compare THC vs. CBD side effects, it's clear that they're both distinct and have different side effects.
If you are taking prescription medications, it’s important to first consult a pharmacist or doctor before starting a cannabis regimen. Cannabis can cause drug interactions with certain medications, so it’s important to be transparent with your physician about your cannabis use if you’re taking medications.
THC side effects
One of the most notable long-term side effects to be aware of is that THC can cause physical and psychological dependency in a small percentage of the population, and using the cannabinoid regularly can build tolerance over time.
Here are some other acute common side effects from using high THC cannabis:
- Dry eyes
- Red eyes
- Elevated heart rate
- Impaired sleep (THC may negatively impact REM cycles)
- Impaired motor coordination
- Elevated anxiety
Taking regular T-breaks, microdosing with THC, and incorporating other cannabinoids like CBD and CBG can be very helpful in limiting some of the short-term and long-term side effects of THC.
We need to be aware that this is a powerful compound and, though rare, THC can impact some people in more extreme ways. According to Dr. Adie Rae, extreme side effects include psychosis (including hallucinations or delusions), cardiac distress or injury, and seizures. People with mental health issues need to be very cautious in using THC and should work with their therapist or doctor when incorporating cannabis into their treatment.
While rare, serious side effects typically come from overconsuming THC in high doses and concentrations. Eating cannabis and ingesting concentrates are associated with more severe side effects.
CBD side effects
The most common side-effect of CBD is drowsiness which can typically be eliminated by reducing the dose. CBD can impact some medications more than THC, so even though it may seem counterintuitive, those on medications need to be more cautious about incorporating CBD. Other CBD side effects can include:
- Dry mouth
- Changes in appetite and mood
- Diarrhea (typically from larger doses)
While side effects are rarer and less pronounced with CBD, it’s very important that you buy tested CBD flower or oil from a company you trust so you’re not being exposed to chemicals that could cause more severe side effects. I like Sacred Smoke Herbals.
There is a possibility that using CBD (especially in its isolated form) can increase liver enzymes, so people with liver issues should talk to their doctor before using CBD.
Better Together? What happens when you combine THC and CBD?
While we can talk a lot about the differences between THC and CBD, research is finding that they’re better when combined.
A 2010 brain cancer study by California scientists found that CBD “enhances the inhibitory effects of THC on human glioblastoma cell proliferation and survival.” This means that CBD makes THC even more potent as an anticancer substance.
For Alzheimer's, one research review found, “results implied that the CBD components of cannabis might be useful to treat and prevent AD because CBD components could suppress the main causal factors of AD. Moreover, it was suggested that using CBD and THC together could be more useful than using CBD or THC alone.”
In another study, 47% of people with hard-to-treat fibromyalgia were able to get off their prescription pain medication completely by using a combination of THC and CBD.
From what we know about the entourage effect, we can argue that the great diversity of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds are what makes cannabis such an effective plant medicine.
Weed Facts: Takeaways from the Science
THC and CBD are clearly very different critters. They work differently in the human body and have very distinct effects. But the more we find out about this incredible plant is that its power isn’t contained in one cannabinoid, one terpene, or one strain.
The entourage effect shows us that this plant is best when it’s used in a way that’s balanced and includes a full spectrum of cannabinoids and cannabis compounds.
When using cannabis as plant medicine, it may prove important for us to preserve and incorporate as many of the plant's components as possible.
My Personal Experience with THC and CBD
As part of my personal cannabis journey over the past 15 years, I’ve found that changing the balance of the cannabinoids without ever leaving anything out completely has given me the best effects and has allowed me to change my cannabis use depending on what I’m experiencing.
Over the years, I’ve used cannabis differently for acute PTSD symptoms (very low THC and high CBD), then I did for pain (a 1:1 balanced ratio worked best for me), then I do for laughing too hard at a stand-up show (a low dose of high THC, low CBD). And when I started incorporating CBG and topical cannabis in the forms of CBD Salve and Cannabis Massage Oil, things felt even better.
Remember that cannabis isn’t a magic pill. While both THC and CBD do have many science-backed benefits, what works for one person may not work for another.
It’s important to track what’s working (and what’s not working) for you and to be open to adjustments or trying something completely new.
This is especially true as you begin to feel better because lower doses of both THC and CBD may be necessary as your endocannabinoid system starts to come back into balance. It’s also necessary to adjust your cannabis use if you are presented with a new health issue, challenge, or the circumstances of your life change.
Well, well… you made it all the way down here! Tell me, what did you learn? What questions do you have? Did you find new info that could help us improve this post? Let me know below!