Although cannabis contains up to 104 different cannabinoids, the two that receive the most attention are THC and CBD. These two cannabinoids make up the bulk of bioactive compounds in most modern strains of cannabis, and maximizing their concentration is the main goal of growers and breeders. 

The psychoactive component of marijuana is THC – the one that makes you feel “stoned”. CBD on the other hand is virtually non-psychoactive, doesn’t produce a stoned effect, and has different medicinal effects in the body. As we’ll discover in this article, some botanists argue that THC tames the effect of CBD. 

THC and CBD aren’t just different molecularly, they also differ in the way they affect the body. In this article, we’ll explore the two cannabinoids and how they work as well as how they work together to produce marijuana’s famous effects. 

The structural differences between THC and CBD

Although THC and CBD have the same chemical formula, the way the atoms are arranged is entirely different. This is why they behave differently at cannabinoid receptors (which we’ll explore in more detail later in this article). 

You can think of this difference between THC and CBD as the difference in keys. Keys are made up of the same material, but their shape is different, allowing them to unlock different doors. THC and CBD unlock different potentials and chemical cascades at cannabinoid receptors because their shapes are different, despite being made up of the same number of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

THC and CBD affect cannabinoid receptors differently

As we just mentioned, the different chemical structures of THC and CBD allow them to interact differently with cannabinoid receptors. If THC and CBD are the keys, cannabinoid receptors are the locks on the door. These structures are proteins found on the outside of various cells of the central nervous system, the peripheral nervous system, and the immune system. Together with endogenous cannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors make up the human endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Interestingly, the discovery of the ECS is attributed to the discovery and isolation of THC. When Raphael Mechoulam isolated the two different cannabinoids, he realized that there must be an endogenous compound very similar to these that trigger receptors in the body. In this way, cannabinoid receptors were discovered, and not long afterwards, the complexity and existence of the ECS was realized. 

There are two cannabinoid receptors – CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptor is found mainly in the central and peripheral nervous systems whereas the CB2 receptor is found primarily in the immune system. As a result of this distribution, the CB1 receptor mediates the psychoactive effects of THC and the CB2 receptor mediates anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive responses. 

The activation of these cannabinoid receptors by cannabinoids such as THC and CBD is highly complex and outside the scope of this article (even scientists are still trying to understand its complexity). However, as a basic rule of thumb, THC tends to have a higher binding affinity to cannabinoid receptors – especially the CB1 receptor. Basically, it switches on this receptor. CBD on the other hand has a lesser binding affinity to receptors, and its behavior at them is completely different. Interestingly, CBD is capable of antagonizing receptor agonists (such as THC), meaning it dampens the biological effect of these receptor agonists. This is why some scientists and cannabis users say that strains containing higher amounts of CBD actually “tame” the effects of THC. 

Synergy and the entourage effect

Following on from the concept that CBD might actually dampen the effects of THC, it becomes obvious that neither of these cannabinoids exists or behaves in a vacuum. That’s to say that the overall effect of a single marijuana flower on a user is the result of the combined effects of all the compounds present in it. THC affects CBD and the other way around, and the overall outcome is unique to each and every cannabis flower.

This phenomenon was coined “the entourage effect” by scientists, and it describes the unique effect of natural medicine specimens based on their differing chemical makeup. Cannabis contains a lot more than THC and CBD, and in fact contains hundreds of different biologically active compounds such as terpenes and flavonoids. The effects of all of these compounds together is synergistic and produces the entourage effect. 

In this way, we can identify the different effects of THC and CBD to a degree – but the truth is that there will be variations in the effects of each cannabinoid depending on what else is present in a bud or a tincture or an extract. So it’s important to remember that while it’s nice to understand each cannabinoid as a separate entity, it’s also vital to understand that they ultimately work together to produce their medicinal effects. 

Do THC and CBD feel different?

The answer is a resounding yes! THC and CBD feel entirely different to use because of the exact reasons that we’ve mentioned above. Going back to the lock and key model, THC unlocks different doors to CBD, creating an entirely different psychological, physiological, and medical effect. 

THC is extremely psychoactive – it makes a person feel high, it affects mood and cognition, can make a person forgetful and at the same time, deeply in love with music or art. CBD on the other hand has no marked psychoactive effects, but can make a person feel somewhat relaxed by working through different mechanisms. For example, CBD can dampen the effect of other cannabinoid receptor agonists and therefore temporarily switch off neuronal responses that lead to stress, anxiety, or insomnia. 

Different people tend to gravitate towards different cannabinoids – those who don’t like the stoned effect are typically much more tolerant of CBD, for example. And those who find the stoned effect therapeutic in and of itself might gravitate towards THC. 

THC and CBD have different medical effects

Because of everything we’ve discussed in this article so far – the different chemical structure, the varying degrees of CB receptor affinity, and even the different subjective effects of each cannabinoid – THC and CBD have wildly different medical applications. Modern medicine is still understanding the medical effects of these cannabinoids, both separately and combined. Let’s have a look at where each of these cannabinoids might be indicated.

Medicinal effects of THC

As THC is psychoactive, its medicinal effects are part and parcel of its psychoactivity. Several medical studies have elucidated that THC can be used for the treatment of:

  • Muscle spasms and spinal cord injuries
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Chronic pain
  • Neuropathic pain and spasticity relating to Parkinson’s disease
  • Nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Sleep disorder
  • Crohn’s disease

Because THC produces the stoned effect, those who choose to use it medicinally have to categorically accept that it’s going to make them high – and therefore possibly incapable of certain tasks such as driving, working, or getting things done. For many people this is not an issue, as aside from legal issues (being disallowed from driving while high), THC doesn’t seem to make a person incapable of socializing, reading, cooking, etc. This contrasts to other painkillers such as opioids, which can often debilitate a person and inhibit them from everyday activities. 

Medicinal effects of CBD

The body of research surrounding CBD and its effects is overall smaller than THC – but there are just as many anecdotal reports for CBD as its counterpart. Typically, CBD is the preferred cannabinoid by those using medical marijuana but who are sensitive to THC’s effects or want to avoid the stoned effect altogether. At this stage, the only clinically accepted reason to use CBD is for the treatment of highly specific epileptic disorders such as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. It is clinically proven to reduce seizures in these conditions and is the active ingredient in a pharmaceutical product called Epidiolex

Anecdotally, CBD users report a whole range of medical effects after using it such as:

  • Reduced physical pain
  • Decrease in stress and anxiety
  • Increased focus
  • Decrease in addictive behaviors
  • Improved energy throughout the day
  • As a topical application for muscular pain

CBD and THC belong together

The world of pharmaceutical medicine is obsessed with the isolation and refinement of different compounds. This is why modern drugs don’t at all resemble their origins (plants), but are highly refined versions of what’s in plants. What makes natural medicine such as weed different is that users get the “whole plant” version. The interaction of CBD and THC, as well as the combined interaction of all the other compounds present in a piece of weed, are the perfect example of whole plant medicine.

The reductionist approach to modern medicine is to understand each of the individual components of a plant, whereas the naturopathic approach is to understand the whole plant. In the eyes of the natural medicine practitioner, THC and CBD belong together because nature put them there! While there will be appropriate medical circumstances to “separate” the cannabinoids, the overwhelming majority of people will benefit from using the two as they exist in their natural concentrations – without being isolated, separated, or refined. 

So while there are marked differences in THC and CBD as we’ve discussed in this article, the magic of each cannabinoid is apparent when they are together. And the best medicinal results will usually come from the synergistic effect of the two combined. Our scientific understanding of each cannabinoid is extremely important, especially because modern medicine demands this in order to make a product medically viable. But it is also pertinent to understand that natural medicine works in mysterious ways, and it’s often the alchemy of all of its parts combined that make it truly medicinal. 

Sera has been a cannabis writer for over 8 years and is a natural medicine enthusiast. With a bachelor degree in naturopathy, she is passionate about all things plants, botany, and writing.