CBD vs. THC: differences and similarities between the most popular phytocannabinoids

CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are two of the best known cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Although both compounds come from the same plant, they have important differences in their effects and properties.

Knowing the similarities and differences between the two cannabinoids will allow you to better understand how these compounds affect you and the distinctions that hemp and marijuana receive in terms of their legal regulation.

CBD and THC: Two compounds from one plant

The cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa L.) contains hundreds of different chemical compounds. Of these, the best known are the cannabinoids of which the most studied are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Both THC and CBD are similar in that both can interact with our endocannabinoid system, but because they do so in very different ways, one results in a psychoactive effect and the other does not. For the same reason, one is considered an illegal drug and the other is legal, among many other differences.

What is THC?

The THC or tetrahydrocannabidiol is the cannabinoid that generates the psychoactive effect, or high, of marijuana. Some therapeutic properties are attributed to it, but above all it is responsible for the effect used for recreational purposes and for the strong legal restrictions to which cannabis has been subjected during its history.

What is CBD?

CBD or cannabidiol is a cannabinoid found primarily in the hemp plant, and the second most abundant in marijuana, after THC. So far, CBD is the cannabinoid that has the most therapeutic properties and does not produce a psychoactive or intoxicating effect. In other words, CBD does not place .

What are the differences between CBD and THC?

CBD and THC are two different cannabinoids in many ways. They differ in the shape of their molecule – although their number of atoms is identical – they interact differently with the endocannabinoid system and, consequently, also have different effects.

Molecular differences between CBD and THC

If we talk about its molecular structure, both CBD and THC have the same molecular formula, that is, both are formed by 21 carbons, 30 hydrogens and 2 oxygens. What makes them different is the arrangement of all the atoms that make up the different CBD and THC molecules. Thus, CBD has a linear structure with a hydroxyl group (-OH) at the end, while THC has a cyclic ring in place of the hydroxyl group.

Although it may seem a minor chemical detail, this small difference in their molecular arrangement means that CBD and THC have a different affinity for cannabinoid receptors. cannabinoid receptors receptors and therefore interact differently with them, leading to different effects.

What are the differences between CBD and THC in terms of their effects?

THC and CBD interact differently with the receptors of the endocannabinoid system, resulting in different effects.

THC binds to the cannabinoid CB1 receptor with full agonism. CBD, on the other hand, binds as an inverse agonist and a negative allosteric modulator of CB1 and CB2 (1), so by binding in a different way, it prevents other substances (such as THC and other full agonists) from binding and exerts its effects differently.

In other words, THC binds and activates the mechanisms linked to the cannabinoid CB1 receptor, such as the psychoactive effects; and CBD binds differently to CB1 and although it does not activate it, it prevents other compounds from binding to this receptor to avoid its activation. For this reason, CBD attenuates the psychoactive effects of THC.

Because there are a large number of CB1 receptors in the central nervous system (2), CBD can modulate different mechanisms and result in health benefits. However, this large population of cannabinoid receptors in the brain also contributes to the psychoactive effect that THC exerts on the brain.

CBD can interact with other receptors in the body, including serotonin 5-HT1A receptors and TRPV1 vanilloid receptors (3), giving it potential therapeutic effects such as mood regulation, anxiety relief and reduction of inflammation. In contrast, THC has no effect on these systems and has even been linked to undesirable effects.

Differences in the metabolism of CBD and THC

Both CBD and THC are metabolized in the liver, but in different ways.

When THC is metabolized in the liver, it is converted into an active metabolite called 11-hydroxy-THC (4), which is more potent than THC itself and produces strong psychoactive effects by presenting a higher affinity for cannabinoid receptors in the brain. THC and its metabolites are eliminated from the body through urine and feces.

On the other hand, when CBD reaches the liver, it is converted into several inactive metabolites, which are eliminated from the body mainly through urine.

Differences between the effects of THC and CBD

What are the differences between CBD and THC applications?

CBD and THC have different potential therapeutic uses.

  • CBD has neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, so it can help as an adjuvant treatment in multiple sclerosis (6), Alzheimer’s disease (7) and Parkinson’s disease (8).
  • On the other hand, THC can be used to relieve pain, stimulate appetite or as a palliative treatment for cancer patients (9).

What are the differences between the side effects of CBD and THC?

Well, in general if we compare CBD vs THC, CBD has lighter side effects than THC.

CBD may cause diarrhea, fatigue, vomiting and drowsiness (10) but this is most likely due to the drug-drug interaction that occurs when it is applied as an adjunctive therapy. So far, there are no known serious adverse effects resulting from unitary consumption of CBD.

THC produces alterations in the state of consciousness or perception that lead to problems of coordination and judgment. In addition, THC can cause alterations in the formation of neuronal connections, which can lead to a decrease in memory and learning (10). THC can also trigger anxiety and paranoia (11).

Similarities between CBD and THC

CBD and THC come from the same plant.

Yes, CBD and THC come from the Cannabis sativa plant. Cannabis sativa plant . However, depending on the cannabis strain, CBD and THC will be found in different concentrations. Cannabis plants that are rich in CBD are known as hemp, which is where CBD flowers come from.

In contrast, the term marijuana is generally coined for cannabis plants with a high THC content and to which limited therapeutic effects are attributed.

Although CBD and THC were originally isolated from the cannabis plant, they can also be produced synthetically in the laboratory. They are what we know as synthetic cannabinoids.

Are CBD and THC similar?

Their similarities are very general, for example, CBD and THC share their origin, being cannabinoids from the cannabis plant. Both have therapeutic effects, which, although occurring through different routes, have the potential to provide relief for some ailments.

On the other hand, both have side effects, although they are much more evident in THC, both can produce dizziness, tiredness, diarrhea and appetite changes (5).

Another similarity is that CBD and THC both have effects on the brain, this is due to the concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system.

In conclusion

I hope you now have a broader picture about the differences of CBD vs THC. Remember to check the legal restrictions of both compounds in the country where you are and consult your doctor for more information on the use of CBD and THC.

  1. Peres, F. F. F., Lima, A. C., Hallak, J. E. C., Crippa, J. A., Silva, R. H., & Abílio, V. C. (2018). Cannabidiol as a Promising Strategy to Treat and Prevent Movement Disorders?. Frontiers in pharmacology, 9, 482. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2018.00482.
  2. Piazza, P. V., Cota, D., & Marsicano, G. (2017). The CB1 Receptor as the Cornerstone of Exostasis. Neuron, 93(6), 1252-1274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2017.02.002
  3. Melas, P. A., Scherma, M., Fratta, W., Cifani, C., & Fadda, P. (2021). Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety and Mood Disorders: Molecular Targets and Epigenetic Insights from Preclinical Research. International journal of molecular sciences, 22(4), 1863. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms22041863
  4. Schwilke, E. W., Schwope, D. M., Karschner, E. L., Lowe, R. H., Darwin, W. D., Kelly, D. L., Goodwin, R. S., Gorelick, D. A., & Huestis, M. A. (2009). Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), 11-hydroxy-THC, and 11-nor-9-carboxy-THC plasma pharmacokinetics during and after continuous high-dose oral THC. Clinical chemistry, 55(12), 2180-2189. https://doi.org/10.1373/clinchem.2008.122119
  5. Iffland, K., & Grotenhermen, F. (2017). An Update on Safety and Side Effects of Cannabidiol: A Review of Clinical Data and Relevant Animal Studies. Cannabis and cannabinoid research, 2(1), 139-154. https://doi.org/10.1089/can.2016.0034
  6. Furgiuele, A., Cosentino, M., Ferrari, M., & Marino, F. (2021). Immunomodulatory Potential of Cannabidiol in Multiple Sclerosis: a Systematic Review. Journal of neuroimmune pharmacology : the official journal of the Society on NeuroImmune Pharmacology, 16(2), 251-269. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11481-021-09982-7
  7. Abate, G., Uberti, D., & Tambaro, S. (2021). Potential and Limits of Cannabinoids in Alzheimer’s Disease Therapy. Biology, 10(6), 542. https://doi.org/10.3390/biology1006054
  8. Patricio, F., Morales-Andrade, A. A., Patricio-Martínez, A., & Limón, I. D. (2020). Cannabidiol as a Therapeutic Target: Evidence of its Neuroprotective and Neuromodulatory Function in Parkinson’s Disease. Frontiers in pharmacology, 11, 595635. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2020.595635
  9. Blake, A., Wan, B. A., Malek, L., DeAngelis, C., Diaz, P., Lao, N., Chow, E., & O’Hearn, S. (2017). A selective review of medical cannabis in cancer pain management. Annals of palliative medicine, 6(Suppl 2), S215-S222. https://doi.org/10.21037/apm.2017.08.05
  10. Huestis, M. A., Solimini, R., Pichini, S., Pacifici, R., Carlier, J., & Busardò, F. P. (2019). Cannabidiol Adverse Effects and Toxicity. Current neuropharmacology, 17(10), 974-989. https://doi.org/10.2174/1570159X17666190603171901
  11. Sharpe, L., Sinclair, J., Kramer, A., de Manincor, M., & Sarris, J. (2020). Cannabis, a cause for anxiety? A critical appraisal of the anxiogenic and anxiolytic properties. Journal of translational medicine, 18(1), 374. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12967-020-02518-2

Masha Burelo
Investigadora en cannabinoides | Doctoranda en Neurociencia

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