Medically reviewed by Jillian Kubala, MS, RD
Written by Sam Gunnels

You have probably heard of THC. That’s because it stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s euphoric high. It might not have been until recent years, however, that you’ve heard of another three-letter acronym derived from the cannabis plant: CBD.

Cannabidiol (CBD) products have been exploding in popularity as of late. That newfound fame owes a lot to the long list of reported health benefits associated with CBD oil. But what is CBD, exactly? And what makes this new cannabis kid on the block so different from medical marijuana plants and THC?

Quick Introduction

  • CBD and THC are both cannabinoids, but they are not the same compound
  • THC is illegal under federal law and has euphoric effects
  • CBD is broadly legal in the United States and has few negative side effects
  • Many people use CBD for pain relief, anxiety reduction, or improved sleep, but long-term studies on the effects of cannabis are limited

THC vs. CBD: A Brief Background

Despite CBD’s relative anonymity until recent times, both CBD and THC were first identified as individual components of the cannabis plant all the way back in 1940. More specifically, the pair were grouped together under a class of compounds called cannabinoids.

Like most botanical compounds not essential to the growth and metabolism of a plant, cannabinoids are believed to have evolved as natural pesticides and environmental defense mechanisms. And like all cannabinoids, CBD and THC affect the body’s endocannabinoid system, interacting with specialized receptors that control the way your brain transmits messages between your body’s cells.

It’s long been known that both CBD and THC share the same molecular formula, C21H30O2. In layman’s terms, that means simply that both compounds contain 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. But because of variations in the way these atoms are arranged between CBD and THC, these two cannabinoids end up having very different effects in the human body.

CBD and THC Impact the Body Differently

Both CBD and THC can be absorbed by the body in a number of similarly inventive ways. Either compound can be inhaled as a smoke or vapor, consumed in edible food products, swallowed as a supplement, or ingested in liquid form. It’s only after the chemicals are in your system that the differences really kick in:

  • THC shows a strong tendency to bind with specific cannabinoid receptors located in the brain called cannabinoid 1, or CB1 receptors. This is why marijuana, which contains a high THC content, produces its mind-altering effects. It’s also why many of the alleged medical benefits associated with THC–like relief from the anxiety stemming from a terminal illness–can be directly attributed to its cerebral impact.
  • CBD, by contrast, shows an ability to bind with cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. And this more generalized effect means that CBD’s direct impact on the brain isn’t nearly as powerful as that of THC. In fact, scientific evidence suggests that CBD actually blocks the ability of THC to bind with the brain’s CB1 receptors. If true, this could explain why CBD shows no psychoactive properties, but can claim a raft of therapeutic effects across virtually all of the body’s systems.

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Which Strains of Cannabis Contain CBD and which Contain THC?

Virtually all varieties of cannabis contain some CBD and some THC, but they tend to show up in varying proportions among different strains.

While marijuana boasts relatively high levels of THC, industrial hemp plants,  by definition, only contain the compound in extremely low amounts. Instead, since CBD and THC naturally occur in inverse proportions, low-THC hemp tends to be jam-packed with high amounts of CBD—the non-psychoactive, therapeutic cousin to THC. CBD products are typically made from hemp extracts that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight.

[Read about the differences between hemp and marijuana.]

What do these differences mean for consumers?

Both CBD and THC can be packaged and sold to consumers in a wide range of forms. From raw flower and edible gummies, to liquid tinctures and topical ointments, there are products available to meet every palette. Beyond this similar variety in forms, however, CBD and THC products have very different purposes.

  • In the U.S., most products containing CBD are derived from hemp sources. Because of this, they usually contain relatively low levels of THC and are well-tolerated by most individuals seeking their widely alleged health benefits, including children. A smaller proportion of CBD products are sourced from marijuana, however, and these tend to contain higher amounts of THC (there have even been reports of such products causing users to test positive for marijuana use).
  • In addition to being classed by their source, CBD products are also divided up into isolate and full-spectrum varieties. Full-spectrum CBD products are processed in such a way that they contain the entire profile of cannabinoids naturally occurring in the cannabis plant, including trace amounts of THC. Many users swear by the synergistic interaction of the cannabinoids in these products, claiming this “entourage effect” boosts the medicinal impacts of CBD on the body’s systems.
  • In contrast to full-spectrum products, CBD isolates contain pure CBD that has been extracted in separation from other cannabinoids. These products are reported to have a more focused effect on bodily systems. And since they contain no THC, isolates are definitely the best bet if you’re concerned about testing positive for marijuana but would still like to benefit from the therapeutic effects of CBD.
  • Unlike CBD products, products rich in THC are almost always sourced from marijuana and used chiefly to induce a psychoactive effect. Even when used for medical purposes, the effects of THC-rich products tend to induce a noticeably altered state of mind. That’s why THC is regulated more strictly than CBD, and THC-dominant products are usually only available for general purchase in states where marijuana is broadly legal. Even in these states, such products should never be given to minors, as they are widely prohibited for use by those under the age of 21 and can have negative impacts on developing brains.

[Learn more about CBD products.]

CBD vs. THC—what’s the upshot?

As you can see from this brief comparison of CBD and THC, though the two compounds share some overlap, their profiles are truly distinct and they are often used for very different purposes.

Remember to seek the advice of a medical professional before using cannabis products of any kind. And since laws regulating cannabis and its byproducts vary widely across the U.S., be sure to research your state’s laws on hemp, CBD, and marijuana before purchasing or using these products.

The chart below breaks down some of the most widely reported medicinal benefits of CBD compared to THC:

CBD THC
Psychoactive? Non-psychoactive; well-tolerated by most individuals, including children Strongly psychoactive; may cause side unwanted side effects, such as paranoia; not for use by minors
General Uses Anti-inflammatory
Anti-oxidant
Anti-emetic
Anti-convulsant
Anti-psychotic
Anti-tumoral
Neuro-protectant
Euphoria
Recreation
Inebreation
Relaxation
Appetite stimulant
Pain relief
Sedative

 

CBD and THC Have Different Benefits

Since CBD and THC are both derived from cannabis plants and share a similar molecular composition, they also have a similar list of benefits. However, CBD is unlikely to cause any of the negative side effects of THC. Since THC is psychoactive, it can sometimes worsen anxiety and paranoia, impair cognitive functioning, and promote lethargy. Because of this, many people prefer CBD for its relaxing effects without any of the high.

Medical marijuana that contains THC is prescribed to patients with various conditions, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Appetite loss
  • Cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia
  • Epilepsy
  • Glaucoma
  • Mental health conditions like schizophrenia and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Wasting syndrome (cachexia)

However, this kind of treatment is limited across the United States. CBD products, on the other hand, offer some therapeutic possibilities—with no prescription necessary. While scientific research and clinical studies on the benefits of CBD to treat specific medical conditions are limited , many people have found relief from symptoms such as:

CBD vs. THC: Which Should You Choose?

When it comes to cannabis, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some people may enjoy the mind-altering effects of THC, while others are more keen on the non-psychoactive effects of CBD. With that being said, THC is much more heavily regulated, and is still considered as a federally illegal substance. This means that it is difficult to obtain medical marijuana or other products containing THC if you don’t live in a state that has legalized recreational or medical marijuana use. But hemp derived CBD is legal across all 50 states, and is much easier to obtain for relaxation, stress relief, pain management, and various other health advantages.

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