CBD vs. THC: The Similarities & Differences

Written By: Lex Pelger

Apr 21, 2021

CBD vs. THC: The Similarities & Differences

CBD vs THC: The Similarities & Differences 

It’s funny. THC and CBD share the exact same number of atoms: 21 carbons, 30 hydrogens and a pair of oxygens. But one gets you high and the other balances you out. The difference is that THC has three rings and CBD has two. For some reason, this changes everything. The psychoactive effects of THC led to ‘marihuana’ being illegal, while the calming effects of CBD caused hemp to be the hottest thing in dietary supplements. Both draw on the ten thousand years of human history with the cannabis plant and despite their differences, these cannabinoid cousins have together, changed the world. 

What are they? 

THC and CBD are phytocannabinoids, the two most prevalent cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant. Cannabis is the main source of cannabinoids in the plant kingdom, though other plants produce them as well. The other two types of cannabinoids are the endocannabinoids – cannabinoids, produced as neurotransmitters, or signal molecules, in all animals (except insects) – and synthetic cannabinoids made in lab, mostly as probes to better explore the endocannabinoid system in animals. 

But we only found our endocannabinoids because the phytocannabinoids from the plant first showed us the way. The scientific mystery to solve was: how did THC get people high in such a variety of ways? It seems like everyone was altered differently, some get goofy, some get sleepy, some get paranoid, many get happy, and people have different reactions to the same batch on a different day. That’s not how most drugs work. With things like opium, stimulants or depressants, they bind to just one or two receptors and cause predictable changes. But cannabis caused a wide array of effects in people.  

First, scientists had to find the molecule causing the mental effects. Despite chemist's, starting in the 1860's, best attemps to break down cannabis, it took until the 1940s when Dr. Roger Adams isolated CBD from the plant and synthesized THC. Cannabinoids are a more difficult job because they’re lipids – fats – and they don’t dissolve in water like alkaloids. They’re slippery molecules that are hard to pin down. That’s why it took until 1964 when Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, called the father of the endocannabinoid system, to describe the full chemical structures of both these cannabinoids. That discovery set off an explosion in the cannabis research field, because it allowed scientists to study the effects of isolated molecules on humans, instead of relying on the variable cannabinoid content of cannabis. 

Identifying the Effects of CBD and THC 

During the next decades of research, we learned that THC increases heart rate, slows reaction times and can cause dry mouth and red eyes. When taken at high levels, it can lead people into anxiety and psychosis, if they have an underlying predisposition to breaks from reality. Positively though, THC is helpful for many types of pain, reducing muscle spasticity, improving sleep, reducing nausea, and improving appetite after chemotherapy. THC also can help people reduce their anxiety, a sign of its often paradoxical effects. A little bit of THC helps, while a lot can make things worse. 

The attention of the health community focused on CBD recently, because it displays similar positive effects to THC, but without the euphoric effects. CBD can have potential adverse health effects – but are rare and disappear after the discontinuation of use. The effects of CBD can include an upset GI tract, fatigue or appetite changes. The safety of high levels of isolated CBD has been well-studied since Epidiolex's approval, a CBD drug to help with certain rare types of epilepsy. The World Health Organization agreed in their sweeping recent report. The positives of CBD include: a more balanced mind, stress resilience, healthy inflammation response, ease of occasional anxiousness, for the occasional pain from overuse, support of the guts (which are linked), and a healthy sleep cycle. 

And this is only a short list. CBD and THC make a sweeping amount of changes around the body and brain – but how do they do it? 

A Solution to the Mystery – the Beginning 

history of hemp timeline

Since the ‘60s, scientists understood that THC caused the mental effects and CBD caused much of the healing. But despite lots of funding and interest, the answer eluded researchers. By the end of the ‘80s, they had divided into opposing camps: one set of scientists believed that the cannabinoid effects were mediated by receptors (similar to how opioids work via the endorphin receptors or stimulants via the dopamine receptors), and another group who believed the cannabinoids changed the lipid membranes surrounding the cells. This latter series made sense because the cannabinoids made so many changes occur, maybe it was because they affected how the lipid membrane works and transmits its messages from outside the cell.  

The debate raged on until Dr. Allyn Howlett finally made a ground breaking discovery. Using a synthetic cannabinoid with a radioactive label from a Pfizer lab, she applied it to a pig brain, and examined with an X-ray where it went. With those images, she could prove that the cannabinoids bind to a receptor on the cell's surface. She called it CB1. It turned out to be one of the most widespread receptors in the mammalian brain. 

Soon after, was the discovery of the CB2 receptor . It was found on every organ of the body, and seemed to interact with the immune system. But if the receptors existed, there must be something there to bind to them? Humans would not have been producing cannabinoid receptors just in case we happened to stumble across the hemp plant as we migrated out of Africa. The presence of receptors necessitated something to bind them. 

This research took more years of work – but eventually, Dr. Mechoulam and his team discovered the first endocannabinoid neurotransmitter and they named it anandamide (after the Sanskrit word for bliss). In most animals, including us, it’s found in almost every tissue of the body. Anandamide affects memory formation, sleep patterns, metabolism and gut health, pregnancy, motivation and addiction, and the transmission of pain. After the discovery of more endocannabinoids, like 2-AG, scientists realized that the endocannabinoid system is a system of widespread importance, with links to almost every physiological process in the body. Especially it’s close interactions with the neuronal system, hormonal system, and immune system – three of the most mysterious, widespread and important systems we posses. 

So what happens when you mix the cannabinoids from the plant with the cannabinoids in ourselves? 

CBD, THC and the Endocannabinoid System 

Short answer: so much. The phytocannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoids in so many ways, that you could write a book the length of Moby-Dick about it. The longer answer comes from Dr. Vincenzo DiMarzo, one of the most prominent researchers in the field, called the cannabinoids a biochemical Swiss Army knife. We’ll cover a selection of the effects of CBD and THC here. 

The most notable effect of THC is activating the CB1 receptor. That’s what causes the feeling of being high. CBD does the opposite. At the CB1 receptor, it acts as a negative allosteric modulator. That means it doesn’t bind to the main activation site of the receptor – but in a little side pocket. There, it changes the receptor's shape slightly, and makes it harder for other molecules to bind there. This might be the reason that CBD has been reported to help people who have taken too much THC, and are having a rough time. CBD can be the ripcord you pull to release the anti-anxiety parachute that protects from being too high. 

However, that’s not to say that CBD doesn’t have other effects on the CB1 receptor. One of the most important – and underreported – effects of CBD is what it does to anandamide levels. The anandamide levels are controlled by an enzyme called FAAH. This FAAH enzyme breaks down anandamide to keep its levels balanced (you don’t want too much of a good thing, even the ‘neurotransmitter of bliss’). The presence of CBD makes the FAAH enzyme not work quite as well, and thus, the anandamide levels increase. And then the anandamide neurotransmitter activates the CB1 receptor, and doing all of the other balancing things that it does. 

But THC and CBD do not interact with the endocannabinoid system alone. What makes them so special is their promiscuity:  

  • at the serotonin receptors, CBD affects three of the subtypes and THC affects one of them 
  • CBD activates one of the main dopamine receptors, perhaps its link to changes in behavior 
  • At two of the opiod receptors, both THC and CBD act as negative allosteric modulators, which may underly their ability to alter the transmission of pain signals 
  • At glutimate receptors (the most common excitatory neurotransmitter) and GABA (the most common inhibitory neurotransmitter), CBD works them to create a neurological balance between too much brain signaling and not enough 
  • (as Steven Wright would say, it’s like putting a humidifier and a dehumidifier into the same room and letting them fight it out) 
  • And quite surprisingly, both CBD and THC activate the PPARγ receptor on the surface of the nucleus. These receptors control genetic transcription, and the presence of one of these cannabinoids can turn hundreds of genes on and off. Its actions like this that make the cannabinoids so complicated – and rewarding – to study 

Where do CBD and THC come from? 

cannbis plant where do thc and cbd come from

All of the phytocannabinoids come from the mother ship: CBG, or cannabigerol. She’s the first cannabinoid produced by the hemp plant, and all of the rest derive from her. As you can see, CBG can be transformed into THC or CBD. There is a single genetic switch that controls how much of either is produced. Human breeding has pushed some plants towards higher THC levels, for recreational and medicinal purposes, while other plants have been pushed towards CBD rich hemp, for industrial and medicinal purposes. The plant can only physically produce so many cannabinoids, and so the genetics of the plants used make a difference in the content of the final products. That’s why CV Sciences works closely with our farmers to harness the healthful power of CBD as well as the other minor cannabinoid, terpenes and fatty acids that go into any well-made CBD-rich hemp extract. 

What’s legal? 

As we said earlier, the psychoactivity of ‘marihuana’ led to the US government declaring cannabis rich in THC to be a Schedule 1 drug – a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Despite all scientific evidence, medical practices, and common sense, it remains in that category to this day. We predict the success of the state experiments with medical and recreational cannabis laws will create change at the federal level – but if you’ve paid attention to the War on Drugs long enough, you know changes occur at a glacial pace. Until that happens, here is a breakdown of all the states that have made CBD legal

For CBD, the 2018 Farm Bill was the gamechanger. This federal legislation expressly legalized hemp – defined as cannabis with less than 0.3% THC – as an agricultural crop, as well as allowing for the production of any byproducts including for fiber, oil, or CBD extracts. While a few companies, like CV Sciences, were operating before the 2018 Farm Bill, after that,began the CBD revolution. Thousands of CBD companies sprang up, often without the benefit of safety checks, like third-party testing of products, and following current Good Manufacturing Practices. There has been a new shift, as those other companies drop away, leaving ones in place like CV Sciences, who demonstrate their ability to conform to all of the demands of full FDA oversight to ensure consumer safety. 


From the science done, it seems that CBD and THC help each other to work better. Their similarities are as important as their differences. That’s why CV Sciences is proud to produce CBD-rich hemp extracts that contain the minor amounts of THC allowable by law. While it’s not enough to cause a psychoactive effect, we believe that it’s enough to help you feel more healthy. 

As a company, we invest in research to understand the effects of CBD and the other cannabinoids on humans and we’ll continue to lead the field in this because we believe in the healing power of hemp. Check out our products to start your CBD journey today.


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