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CBD vs. THC: The Cannabinoid Cage Match

As the stigma around marijuana lessens and its legalization increases, more and more folks are experimenting with how they can incorporate cannabis into their daily routine. And the possibilities are almost endless—anxiety, pain, and insomnia are just the beginning of the list of conditions that cannabis may relieve.

When exploring these benefits, from the medical to wellness and also recreational, chances are you’ve probably also heard the terms CBD and THC. Both chemicals are produced by the cannabis plant, but are they the same thing?

Other than both of them being three-lettered acronyms, not really.

CBD vs. THC — What’s the Difference?

The cannabis plant has almost 400 chemical entities, and 60 of them are known as cannabinoid compounds.

Of those, the two most popular are—hands down—cannabidiol (or CBD), and tetrahydrocannabinol (aka THC). Cannabis strains with wide, dark green leaves typically have a higher cannabidiol content. Cannabis strains that have thin, pale green leaves, on the other hand, often have more THC.

CBD reacts with many other receptors throughout the entire body without affecting locomotor skills or impairing memory
The two compounds share a similar molecular formula and molecular mass, but they can react pretty differently when interacting with receptors—or more specifically, the complex, wide-reaching endocannabinoid system—in the human body.

The most notable difference is THC’s psychoactive component, caused by its ability to bind to CB1 receptors in the brain and nervous system. This is responsible for the well-known, mind-altering high associated with marijuana. It can land the user anywhere on the spectrum of euphoric to paranoid.

On the other hand, CBD reacts with many other receptors throughout the entire body without affecting locomotor skills or impairing memory. In fact, some studies have shown CBD to block certain side effects of THC.

Essentially, the two compounds share some similar properties, yet can also be near opposites in regards to others.

How Can THC and CBD Help?

The reach of CBD in the health sphere extends pretty far. Studies have found CBD helpful in treating a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It has also anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, providing pain relief for various conditions, like multiple sclerosis. CBD has also been explored as an anticonvulsant for children with epilepsy.

Recent research also indicates CBD as being a useful warrior in the fight against cancer. When used in tandem with other treatments, CBD can help with pain management. It may also suppress the spread of cancer cells and make these cells self-destroy.

When we look at which medical conditions THC can help with, there is some overlap with CBD. For instance, studies show that THC may impart some pain relief to cancer patients. It may also reduce spasticity in patients with MS, stroke, or cerebral palsy.

If that’s not enough, there are many more medical conditions that THC can help improve. This list includes Parkinson’s disease, atherosclerosis, chronic inflammatory disease, and Tourette’s syndrome.

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The Entourage Effect—Is it Real?

The entourage effect: the theory that cannabinoids are more effective in combination than they are in isolation.
Sometimes two (or more) is better than one. In this case, such a partnership has been dubbed the entourage effect.

The theory is that cannabinoids are more effective in combination than they are in isolation. And some product manufacturers have built on that theory, combining different cannabis components to create a personalized effect.

But some scientists say that more double-blind clinical trials must be conducted to actually find out if such a synergy exists between CBD and THC.

So far, it’s mostly just anecdotal evidence out there. But in one example of clinical trials supporting the entourage effect theory, researchers have found that combining THC with CBD, particularly in an oral spray called Sativex, can be more effective in treating neuropathic pain than just one of the two alone.

Today’s Cannabis Scene

Thanks to the myriad ways in which THC and CBD can influence the body, people have been using cannabis as a source of herbal medicine for many years.

Recently, CBD’s wide scope of health benefits and lack of psychedelic high has the cannabinoid dominating the mainstream wellness industry. As CBD is touted as a miracle cure, THC continues to be demonized, and continues to be considerably less glamorous when it comes to criminalization.

As of June this year, marijuana is legal for medical use in 30 states, for recreational use in nine others, and neither in the rest.

But what about CBD? This one is a little trickier. Not yet technically legal in all 50 states, the 2014 Farm Bill allowed for industrial hemp—with restrictions and gray areas, of course.

Last year, a spokesperson for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency confirmed the agency’s policy that CBD is “not legal. It’s just not.” However, with a new Farm Bill seeking to make hemp legal, it seems like the hemp industry is only going to continue burgeoning.

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The Author

Kathleen Wong

Kathleen Wong

Kathleen Wong is a writer based in Honolulu, Hawaii. She has written for High Times, Merry Jane, Mashable, Refinery29 and Mic. When she isn't writing, you can find her on the beach or walking her dog.