CBD vs THC: Differences in Properties, Benefits, and Effects

Published June 11, 2022
Hand holding a CBD oil Dropper beside bottle

CBD and THC are cannabinoids derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, commonly called cannabis. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that interact with the brain and can have a drug-like effect throughout the body, including in the central nervous system and the immune system.

While there are over 100 cannabinoids that have been identified by researchers, CBD and THC are the most commonly known and widely studied. If you're interested in using products that contain one of these substances, it is important to understand the differences between CBD and THC, along with their potential health benefits and side effects.

What Is THC?

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC is the most prominent substance in cannabis or marijuana. THC is responsible for the psychoactive effects or the "high" that people experience when they consume cannabis.

Chemical Structure

According to the National Institutes of Health, the chemical structure of THC is similar to the structure of a chemical made naturally in the brain called anandamide. Anandamide is a neurotransmitter that sends messages between neurons in areas that affect pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, movement, coordination, and sensory and time perception.

Because the chemical structure of anandamide and THC are similar, the body can recognize THC and activate the brain to cause mental and physical effects. The system in the brain that processes these neurotransmitters is called the endocannabinoid system. It is involved in the normal functioning of the nervous system.

Psychoactive and Addictive Properties

When the endocannabinoid system is altered with THC, it can affect the body's reward systems, memory formation, attention, and focus. The areas of the brain that regulate balance, posture, coordination, and reaction time are also affected. These psychoactive properties can make it hard for people to function normally when they ingest THC.

THC also stimulates the brain's reward system by releasing higher-than-normal levels of dopamine, a pleasure hormone. According to the NIH, this surge of dopamine may cause marijuana to be addictive. Statistics compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that marijuana is the most commonly used addictive drug after tobacco and alcohol.

Availability

There are different ways that people ingest THC. Some people smoke marijuana or use a vaping device. But it can also be mixed into foods (called edibles) or consumed in the form of a resin (called dabbing). Each of these methods carries health risks to varying degrees.

The medical use of marijuana is becoming more common. Thirty-seven states, four territories, and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. People who buy medical marijuana must have a prescription.

Recreational cannabis is more heavily regulated. As of November 29, 2021, 18 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have laws regulating non-medical cannabis use by adults. But laws are changing rapidly.

In most states where marijuana use has been decriminalized, THC products are sold out of government-regulated cannabis dispensaries.

What Is CBD?

CBD, also called cannabidiol, is the second most prevalent active ingredient in cannabis. CBD is generally derived from the hemp plant although CBD is also found in marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are closely related, but hemp contains less than 0.3% THC. Cannabidiol can also be manufactured in a lab.

Chemical Structure

Cannabidiol has a chemical structure similar to THC, but CBD sends messages to the endocannabinoid system to achieve homeostasis, a state of balance or regulation in the body. As a result, studies have shown that CBD has almost no effect on normal physiological processes.

Psychoactive and Addictive Properties

Unlike THC, cannabidiol does not get you high. In fact, CBD is believed to counteract the psychoactive properties of THC, and some studies even suggest that CBD may have protective properties by counteracting the adverse effects of THC.

A 2017 report by the World Health Organization examined the potential addictive properties of cannabidiol and found that is unlikely to be addictive. The report also suggests that CBD may be useful in treating opioid, cocaine, and stimulant addiction, and may even be helpful in marijuana and tobacco addiction.

Availability

There is one FDA-approved CBD product that is available by prescription to treat three specific medical conditions. But you don't need a prescription to buy most cannabidiol products. CBD is sold in various forms and for many different applications. You'll find CBD gummies, lotions, sports creams, and a myriad of other products. You'll also find CBD products for your dog, CBD beverages, and even a CBD bra.

The legality of CBD is constantly changing and varies based on where you live. According to federal law, cannabis plants and derivatives that contain no more than 0.3% THC are no longer considered controlled substances. But that doesn't mean that CBD products aren't regulated.

The U.S.Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has food and labeling laws that impact how CBD can be sold. According to the FDA, it is illegal to market CBD by adding it to a food or labeling it as a dietary supplement. But some states, like California, have enacted laws that contradict those federal guidelines, making it confusing for consumers interested in buying CBD products.

According to a guideline for physicians published by the Mayo Clinic, there are three states (Idaho, South Dakota, and Nebraska) where CBD and hemp oils are illegal to sell or consume. For all other states, CBD is legal as long as the THC content is below the 0.3% threshold.

The physician's guide also points out that people who use CBD products may test positive for marijuana on drug screening tests.

THC vs. CBD: Health Benefits and Side Effects

Just like there is no shortage of CBD products, there is no shortage of health claims related to CBD and THC. Many of these claims are made by product manufacturers. Researchers are still investigating the medical and health effects of cannabis products. So far, this is what the evidence suggests.

Health Benefits

There is overwhelming anecdotal evidence that CBD products can help treat many conditions, such as muscle soreness, stress, headaches, and more. But personal reports aren't enough to support the use of CBD or THC in the scientific community. Strong clinical evidence still needs to be found.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is some moderate-quality evidence to support the use of prescription THC for chronic pain and muscle spasms. Research into these benefits is ongoing but still inconclusive. There is low-quality evidence to support its use for nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, weight gain in HIV infection, sleep disorders, or Tourette syndrome.

Regarding CBD or hemp oil, studies have yielded mixed results for its use in the treatment of migraines, inflammatory conditions, depression, and anxiety. Rodent studies have suggested that CBD may help treat chronic pain and addiction. However, researchers suggest that more studies are needed.

Side Effects

Harvard health experts suggest that CBD products are likely safe for most adults and that the safest way to take them is in the form of a tablet, chewable, or tincture. They add, however, that CBD may cause symptoms such as nausea, irritability, and fatigue.

They also advise that you check with your healthcare provider before using any CBD product as it may interfere with certain medications, such as warfarin (a blood thinner), levothyroxine (a thyroid medication), or amiodarone (for regulating heart rhythm).

Side effects of THC may be more serious. In the short term, consuming THC can cause a loss of focus or attention, impaired coordination, slower reaction time, and difficulty thinking.

Over the long term, THC use can affect brain development, especially if marijuana use starts in adolescence. The NIH also warns that regular use can lead to breathing problems, increased heart rate, intense nausea and vomiting, and problems with child development during and after pregnancy.

Should You Take CBD or THC?

Now that marijuana use has become more common, and CBD products are widely available, you may be interested in trying them. But even if they are legal in your community, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are safe for you. It's always smart to check with your healthcare provider to be sure that the product you're considering doesn't interact with a health condition or medication that you might be taking.

Then, you'll want to be sure that you find a high-quality product. If you're buying CBD, the Mayo Clinic Clinicians Guide suggests buying CBD products from Europe, where guidelines are more stringent regarding THC levels. If a product is manufactured in the U.S., you can look for a Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) certification from the FDA or a National Science Foundation (NSF) International certification.

Lastly, never take a CBD or THC product with alcohol. And remember that there is still quite a bit that we don't know about the effects of these substances. Be aware of any unusual side effects and stop taking a product if you notice any adverse events. Talk with your healthcare provider before continuing its use.

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CBD vs THC: Differences in Properties, Benefits, and Effects