What's The Real Difference Between CBD & THC? Here Are All Your Cannabinoid Questions, Answered

Photo by Oleg Zharsky

There's no doubt about it: Cannabis is going mainstream. Everywhere you look there's a new CBD beauty or self-care product on the market, a CBD-based drug was just approved by the FDA to treat rare seizure disorders, and more and more states are voting in favor of recreational and/or medical marijuana. People are curious about the compounds (called cannabinoids) found in this plant—which has been used for its medicinal purposes for centuries—and how they might benefit their health, especially when it comes to reducing the use of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications.

Despite its growing fame and recognition, there's still a lot of misinformation about cannabis, hemp, CBD oil, and the industry in general, which doesn't help its progress. As the health editor at mindbodygreen and the author of the forthcoming book CBD Oil: Everyday Secrets, I know firsthand how important it is to get the facts straight so that more people can start getting access to and benefiting from cannabis. Here's your new go-to guide to CBD, THC, and beyond.

The differences between the cannabinoids.

To begin, it's important to know that when we talk about CBD, hemp oil, marijuana, and THC, we're really talking about the cannabis plant and its derivates. Because while there are important legal differences between hemp and marijuana, when it comes to the science, hemp and marijuana are actually just two versions of the cannabis plant. This causes a lot of confusion (and it is, admittedly, confusing!), but it's important to know that when we say cannabis, it applies to both marijuana and hemp.

Cannabinoid is a name that describes a ground of similar compounds that are found in the body (called endocannabinoids), found naturally in plants (called phytocannabinoids), and even made in a lab (in this case they're called synthetic cannabinoids). Cannabinoids interact with a larger system in the body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is often described as a major regulatory system. The ECS is responsible for the side effects (good and bad) of using cannabis—whether that be in the form of hemp oil, CBD oil, or smoking marijuana. The endocannabinoid system is composed of the endocannabinoids that the body produces naturally and also a family of receptors called cannabinoid receptors. The two cannabinoid receptors to know about are CB1 and CB2, and they explain in large part why cannabis has so many healing properties and also why THC causes intoxication while CBD does not.

Photo: @Nastasic

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CBD versus THC.

Speaking of CBD and THC, it's important to know the difference between these two distinct compounds that interact with the body in very different ways. THC directly binds to CB1 receptors in the body, which are mainly found in the brain and nervous system. Once you know this, it's no big surprise to learn that this CB1 receptor activation is responsible for the "high" from smoking cannabis and that CBD does not directly bind with that receptor. Instead, CBD interacts with other receptors and pathways in the body that explain many of its specific health benefits.

CBD and THC have been described as "sister molecules" and one of the most interesting aspects of cannabinoid science is the "entourage effect," which says that cannabinoids are more effective together than they are alone in isolated preparations. This is part of the reason why when you're looking for cannabis products, experts recommend full-spectrum products (which include some of the other cannabinoids and terpenes of the plant) and to steer clear of isolates, which only contain the single compound and are generally less effective and more difficult to dose.

CBN, THCA, CBDA, and other cannabinoids.

CBD and THC get a lot of the fame, but there are actually a bunch of cannabinoids worth learning about. Cannabinol (CBN), which was actually the first cannabinoid to be discovered, is often used specifically for sleep. In addition, two compounds called tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) cannabidiolic acid (CBDA)—known as the "parent" molecules of CBD and THC—seem to have their own set of healing properties and are both non-psychoactive. Other cannabinoids include cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC), and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), which are all of interest to doctors and researchers for their specific health benefits. Unfortunately, many of these cannabinoids have barely been studied.

The benefits of cannabinoids.

Cannabinoids have a wide range of health benefits, ranging from THC's pain-relieving qualities to CBD's anti-anxiety properties. Other areas of research include cannabinoid therapy for PTSD, seizures, depression and anxiety, cancer and cancer-treatment-related symptoms, pain, and addiction (especially to opioids). Most of these areas of research are in the preliminary stages, although a CBD-derived pharmaceutical drug was just approved by the FDA for seizure disorders, and THC-based drugs have been available for pain and a few other conditions for quite some time.

As research continues, we'll better understand cannabis and the health benefits of specific cannabinoids. Unfortunately, though, the way current laws are set up, it's extremely difficult to get approval to study cannabis and even more difficult and time-intensive to get high-quality plant materials to use in research. Hopefully, as more patients ask their doctors about cannabis-based therapies and more states approve recreational and medicinal marijuana, that will change.

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CBD oil versus hemp oil.

Photo: Oleg Malyshev

The difference between CBD oil and hemp oil (not to be confused with hemp seed oil, which is made from the sterilized seeds of the plant and doesn't have significant cannabinoid content) can also be a source of confusion. Essentially, hemp oil is an extract from the whole plant and will contain a variety of cannabinoids—including CBD. In fact, many products that are marketed as CBD oil are actually CBD-rich hemp oils. CBD is available on its own (in a form commonly referred to as a CBD isolate), but hemp and cannabis experts don't typically recommend CBD isolates, as you miss out on the beneficial entourage effect.

So there you have it! You can now show off your newfound cannabinoid knowledge to all of your friends and help dispel common myths and misconceptions about the plant. Despite the modern-day stigma, cannabis and cannabinoids have been used for centuries as plant medicines and have a lot of potential to help people all over the world, which is just one more reason to stay up-to-date on the science and policy surrounding this pretty miraculous plant!

Have more questions about cannabinoids? Here's what doctors have to say about CBD oil.

And do you want to learn how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.

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