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THC versus CBD: What are the Main Differences?

For much of human history cannabis has been a loyal plant ally, providing civilizations across the globe with food from its high-protein seeds; fiber for clothing, tools and building materials; and medicine from its leaves and flowers. However, in the early 20th century, cultivation and sale of marijuana and hemp was essentially legislated into obscurity.

The recent reversal of these draconian laws has allowed cannabis to flourish once again. The health-conscious public is looking toward cannabis for its health promoting benefits. Here, we describe the two main constituents of cannabis: cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). What are CBD and THC? What do they do and what are some of their similarities and differences?



What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are lipid-based molecules that activate nerve receptors in your brain and body and are thought to be present in all vertebrates. There are two main classes of cannabinoids:

  • Endocannabinoids, which your body manufactures
  • Phytocannabinoids, which are produced by some plants, particularly Cannabis plants.

Interestingly, cannabinoids were originally discovered in Cannabis plants decades before they were found in the human brain.

While there are only two major endocannabinoids, known as anandamide and 2-AG, the plant kingdom produces hundreds of different cannabinoids, with more than 120 (…and counting) known phytocannabinoids present in cannabis[1]. However, for the sake of simplicity, in common usage, phytocannabinoids are usually referred to simply as cannabinoids. CBD and THC are, by far, the most predominant cannabinoids found in cannabis plants.

Endocannabinoids Phytocannabinoids
Produced by? Humans and other vertebrate animals Plants –  mostly Cannabis species.
How many are there? Two: anandamide and 2AG 120+


What Are the Similarities and Differences Between CBD and THC?

CBD, cannabidiolum, (−)-cannabidiol[3]
The structure of cannabidiol, also known as CBD
THC- (6aR,10aR)-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, (−)-trans-Δ⁹-tetrahydrocannabinol
The structure of tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC

The structure of tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THCCBD and THC share an almost identical chemical structure. Both contain 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms and 2 oxygen atoms arranged in the same way except for a couple of slight differences.

The two molecules also have some similar effects and some notably different effects:

CBD VS THC – the Comparison

Psychoactive/Intoxicating No Yes
Pain Reducing Yes Yes
Anti-Inflammatory Yes Yes
Relieves Anxiety and Depression Yes Yes
Improves Sleep Yes Yes
Protects Nerves Yes Yes
Lowers Blood Pressure Yes No
May Help Prevent Diabetes Yes No
Quells Nausea and Vomiting Yes Yes
Protects Nerves Yes Yes
Relaxes Muscles Yes Yes


CBD, THC and the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

The endocannabinoid system is an intricate signaling system that exists throughout your bain and body. The primary function of the ECS is to maintain a state of balance and harmony so that you can function at your best at all times. In physiology this state is referred to as homeostasis.

In order to accomplish a job this big, the ECS needs to have a presence in all major body systems and, as a result, it is among your body’s most widespread signaling systems. Your appetite and metabolism, immune and endocrine systems, and even your ability to learn, sleep, and process emotions all rely intricately on the ECS[2].

Three types of molecules comprise the endocannabinoid system:

  • Cannabinoid receptors – There are two main cannabinoid receptors: CB1 receptors are located mainly in the central nervous system, i.e. the brain and spinal cord, but is also found in the liver, lungs and kidneys. CB2 receptors are distributed more evenly throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems, with particular concentration in the immune system.
  • Endocannabinoids – anandamide and 2-AG. These molecules are produced on-demand, within the surface membranes of cells. Endocannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors on a target cell and activate them, triggering a response in the cell.
  • Enzymes – break down endocannabinoids once they have been used.

What Are the Effects of CBD & THC on the ECS?

CBD has a weak affinity for cannabinoid receptors, while also influencing other receptors throughout the brain and body. Therefore, it exerts its effects on the ECS in a more indirect manner.

By contrast, THC has strong binding affinity for CB1 and CB2 exerts direct effects on the ECS. Probably the most notable difference between these two cannabinoids is that THC has an intoxicating, psychoactive effect while CBD (as well as most of the other cannabinoids) does not. This is thought to be due to differences in the way the two molecules bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors.

How Do THC & CBD Influence the Body and Why?

Among its many documented effects on the ECS, CBD has been found to reduce pain, alleviate anxiety and depression, reduce inflammation, protect nerves, prevent seizures, lower elevated blood pressure, and may help prevent diabetes[3]. Animal experiments also show that can alleviate nausea and vomiting[4].

THC has many of the same effects as CBD though most research attention has mainly focused on CBD due to its non-intoxicating quality, which makes CBD potentially more useful at therapeutic doses for a broader range of conditions. THC has been shown to reduce pain[5], quell nausea  and vomiting[6], protect nerves[7], improve sleep[8], reduce inflammation[9], and relax muscles[10]. And, THC also has anticonvulsant effects[11].


CBD, THC and the  Entourage Effect

While CBD and THC are, by far, the most active of all the phytocannabinoids, the entire array of phytocannabinoids work together synergistically in a process known as the entourage effect, so that mixing CBD and THC produces effects that are greater than either one by itself.

The entourage effect has been known for decades, with studies dating back to the 1970’s reporting that whole cannabis extracts are more potent than pure, isolated THC[12]. And, more recently, in a clinical study of epilepsy patients, a full spectrum CBD extract was found to be more effective at reducing seizures than purified CBD[13].

The dozens of other phytocannabinoids besides CBD and THC are present at mostly trace levels. They support the activity of CBD and THC as well as exert some effects of their own. And, in addition to the phytocannabinoids, cannabis contains a whole other family of bioactive compounds called terpenes that contribute to the entourage effect.

What Do We Know About the Other Phytocannabinoids?

Almost all of the cannabis research has focused on CBD and THC, so we don’t know very much about the individual phytocannabinoids, yet, but here are several that we have at least some data on:

  • Cannabichromene, or CBC, the third most prevalent cannabinoid, helps reduce pain by increasing levels of endocannabinoid molecules in an area of the brain that is responsible for suppressing outgoing pain messages to the body[14]. CBC also has anti-inflammatory[15].
  • Cannabigerol, or CBG, boosts activity of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter, and some researchers predict that it may be shown, through future research, to be useful as a muscle relaxant[16].
  • Cannabinol, or CBN, a non-psychoactive byproduct of THC, demonstrated analgesic effects in preliminary studies[17].
  • Cannabidivarin, or CBDV, has anticonvulsant effects[18].
  • Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) has been found to decrease fasting blood sugar levels and improve insulin production[19]. It is present in undetectable amounts in most cannabis strains, though it is currently not known with certainty whether THCV is or is not psychoactive.


What Are the Differences Between CBD Isolate Oil, Broad, and Full Spectrum CBD?

Hemp plants

Full spectrum CBD retains the full range of phytocannabinoids, terpenes, and other bioactive compounds. It is made from industrial hemp plants, which contain <0.3% THC, just enough THC to provide the entourage benefits but not enough to be considered psychoactive.

Broad Spectrum CBD contains all the cannabis plant’s terpenes, flavonoids, and lesser-known cannabinoids but has absolutely no discernable THC.

CBD isolate oil contains purified CBD with no traces of THC or other phytocannabinoids present. In order to produce CBD isolate, all of the oils, waxes and other components of the plant are carefully and completely removed, producing a pure, crystalline CBD powder.  CBD isolate oil can be used in addition to full spectrum CBD as a great way to boost the amount of CBD you are consuming while still getting the benefits of the entourage effect. CBD Isolate oil is also helpful for people who are subject to drug screening through their jobs and can’t take the risk of a positive THC result that could happen if they use full spectrum CBD oil.

Learn more about the various types of CBD



CBD and THC have captured the interest of both researchers and the health-seeking public for their numerous benefits to human health, some of which have been proven and some that are yet to be revealed. Aside from one notable difference, that being the ability of THC to produce an intoxicating effect, the two cannabis constituents seem to have many similar effects. Additionally dozens of “lesser” phytocannabinoids enhance the effects of CBD and THC through a synergistic process known as the entourage effect. Depending upon your individual requirements, CBD is available as either a purified isolate, broad-spectrum, or as a full-spectrum extract containing trace amounts of THC and other phytocannabinoids.



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