CBD vs THC: What’s the difference?

If you’ve spent any time investigating the growing cannabis product market, you will have undoubtedly come across the terms CBD and THC. They’re everywhere. Sellers, educational articles, and even scientific research papers use these abbreviations instead of the actual names of the chemicals that they represent. 

CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol, a compound found in high quantities in cannabis plants, such as hemp. You can learn more about CBD here.

THC is short for tetrahydrocannabinol and is found in high concentrations in marijuana grown for smoking, though not in regular commercial hemp. 

While it’s true that the names of the two compounds both contain the term “cannabidiol,” the differences between them are stark. THC and CBD interact with the body in markedly contrasting ways. 

CBD and THC both contain the same atoms in the same ratio: 30 hydrogen atoms, 21 carbon atoms and 2 oxygen atoms. The difference comes in the way that they are arranged. This small change in chemical layout is why THC binds with the body’s cannabinoid receptors in a way that produces a high while CBD does not

What Is THC?

As discussed, THC is a chemical made by the cannabis plant which can induce a high.

Cannabis plants make THC to protect themselves from threats in their environment. Cannabis doesn’t need THC to survive (which is why you can grow hemp plants which contain hardly any of the stuff), but it proved helpful at times in its evolutionary history.

What’s interesting about THC is that it looks almost chemically identical to the body’s own cannabinoids – and that’s the key to why it creates the sensations that it does. 

When a person feels pain or stressed, the body releases endogenous cannabinoids – THC-like compounds which help to get rid of the unwanted sensations. These cannabinoids bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors, relieving negative symptoms and improving how the individual feels. 

The reason THC is such a powerful and widely used compound is that it can bind to those same receptors. It dulls pain, anxiety and other sensations while ramping up others (like hunger). 

It’s a kind of a biological fluke that THC just so happens to bind with the body’s own cannabinoid receptors. The cannabis plant evolved the compound separately, and then only later did humans later discover that it mimics the chemicals that our brains manufacture to help us manage pain.

Does CBD Have THC?

CBD and THC are, as discussed, two different compounds. They share the same atoms but arrange them differently. CBD does not necessarily have to come with THC, but regular marijuana often contains both in substantial quantities.

In theory, manufacturers should be able to isolate CBD from THC through selective breeding and refining techniques. Researchers, however, have found evidence that most CBD products contain trace quantities of THC. Marcel Bonn-Miller at the University of Pennsylvania and co-authors published a paper in the November 2017 issue of JAMA demonstrating that many commercially available CBD products contain both.

Sidenote: How do we combat this?

We utilise a broad spectrum CO2 extraction method to remove THC from our CBD products. From our own freely available lab test results we found THC could not be found. However, if you are cautious about having tracing amounts of THC in your system read our guide here on how long CBD stays in your stem.

The levels of THC were small – not sufficient in many cases to produce a high – but the fact that they were there led the authors to argue that labelling needed to change. Manufacturers of CBD products should, in their view, caution consumers. Companies may put effort into removing THC from their products, but they need to warn customers that there’s a strong chance that trace amounts remain. 

The paper also revealed the need for higher labelling standards and regulatory oversight throughout the industry. Some products which claimed to contain CBD often contained less than one per cent of the advertised dose.

How much THC does CBD oil contain?

It all very much depends on the supplier and product that you choose. Some products are exceptionally low in THC, while others are much higher. 

Data from Bonn-Miller (2017) suggest that around 20 per cent of samples contained THC concentrations up to 6.43 mg/dL. This level, according to the researchers, is sufficient to induce intoxication, particularly among children. 

The researchers went on to suggest that regulatory agencies should conduct a higher degree of monitoring to ensure that manufacturers are creating products which achieve the claims on the bottle.

CBD vs THC for Anxiety

Historically, the majority of researchers investigated whether marijuana could help improve symptoms of anxiety, not isolated CBD oil. However, with the emergence of CBD products and the legalisation of cannabis across a variety of countries, that’s changing. There’s now an urgent need for more research into the therapeutic benefits of this remarkable compound. 

So far, the science is somewhat limited, but there are several studies which point to the conclusion that CBD may be beneficial for anxiety. A study led by Jose Crippa from the Departments of Neurosciences and Behavior, Division of Psychiatry, University of São Paulo found that patients with generalised anxiety disorder improved their symptoms after taking a drug containing cannabidiol. 

A review by Esther Blessing at New York University School of Medicine and co-authors published in Neurotherapeutics found strong pre-clinical evidence that cannabidiol is a potential treatment for anxiety disorders. 

Why no big clinical trials so far?

Large scale clinical trials are expensive. You need to assemble a large group of people, ensure that they endure experimental conditions, and provide a team of support staff to make sure that each participant follows the protocol. Because of the expense, researchers often try to build pre-clinical evidence, or evidence from labs and animal studies, to make a case for the financial outlay. In this case, Blessing and the other authors argued that we are now at that stage with cannabidiol. There’s no knock-out study proving the benefits in people yet, but all the other evidence is pointing in that direction. 

The effects of THC on anxiety are less clear cut. Cannabis smokers believed that smoking marijuana helped with their anxiety in the past. However, this could have been because of CBD, not THC. Harvard Health Publishing points out that cannabinoids, like THC, can increase your resting heart rate and cause high blood pressure, a leading cause of death around the world. THC can also make you feel faint and dizzy, leading to blurred vision and other symptoms which can contribute to anxiety. 

The link between THC and anxiety may involve a couple of steps. THC might not cause a direct anxiety-provoking effect in the brain, but it could lead to symptoms, which then cause an adverse psychological reaction. 

Managing anxiety through CBD products, therefore, is likely more beneficial than going down the traditional pot-smoking route. You avoid the risk of an anxious high while targeting the real underlying cause of your symptoms. 

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