THC and CBD are the two most prominent active compounds synthesized in cannabis, present in significant amounts in most of the strains we consume today.
Here’s a basic overview of what they do:
|THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol)||CBD (Cannabidiol)|
|Produces effects by attaching primarily to CB1 and CB2 receptors||Produces effects through several pharmacological pathways|
|Makes you euphoric and boosts dopamine secretion||Does not produce any adverse mind-altering effects|
|Antispasmodic||Reduces inflammatory response|
|Consuming too much can make you paranoid and promote anxiety||Reduces anxiety and the negative side-effects of THC|
Before we go any further, I have to address a myth that’s been plaguing cannabis education for decades.
That myth is that THC and CBD should be explained as two separate compounds.
The reason why this shouldn’t be promoted in this way is because both of these compounds work best when combined with each other and with another group of molecules present in the cannabis plant—terpenes.
So, with that in mind, let’s jump into the science of THC and CBD and see how they fit in with our own biochemistry.
What are THC and CBD?
THC and CBD are one of 113 cannabinoids found in plants belonging to cannabis genus, and are secreted inside trichomes (resin glands located on top of flowers).
Cannabinoids are active compounds that bind to a group of cellular receptors in our body that manage a bunch of processes, like:
- Pain sensitivity;
- Cognition and memory;
- Locomotor activity;
- Endocrine functions;
- Temperature control and heart rate;
- Nausea and vomiting;
- Intraocular pressure;
- Dopamine activity and more…
This group of receptors and activators is basically a system that controls the above functions, and is called the endocannabinoid system (or the ECS).
The ECS is mediated either by cannabinoids from cannabis or by cannabinoids we produce on our own, that chemically resemble the compounds found in pot.
Simply put, the ECS regulates important physiological functions in our body and always strives to maintain homeostasis.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the most abundant active compound in the majority of strains. It is also one of the few intoxicating cannabinoids and is actually responsible for making people “high”.
First synthesized and discovered in the ‘60s, this amazing compound has a primary binding affinity for a group of receptors located inside the brain.
To be precise, THC activates CB1 receptors and influences dopamine release—an effect that contributes to many of THC’s well known effects, like increased appetite, increased psychosis in high doses and cognitive impairment.
THC is also well known for impairing motor performance, which is why it’s usually not recommended to drive high, especially for novice users who haven’t yet developed any tolerance to the compound.
When it comes to its medical application, THC tackles a wide variety of medical symptoms rather efficiently and is awesome at relieving chronic pain, increasing appetite & reducing nausea, especially when combined with other cannabinoids and terpenes as a whole plant extract.
CBD (cannabidiol) is a non intoxicating cannabinoid present in many subspecies of cannabis, but the most abundant in hemp.
CBD was discovered in the 1940’s, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that it received worldwide popularity, due to its many medical promises which were fueled by claims that it can provide many benefits without making a user “high”.
And this is true, no doubt about it.
CBD, on its own, does not attach for endocannabinoid receptors but rather works through several molecular pathways, mostly through inhibiting enzymes that degrade our own endocannabinoids and helping us secrete more “feel good” hormones.
The available body of scientific evidence clearly shows that CBD has powerful anxiolytic, antipsychotic, antiemetic and anti-inflammatory properties.
How THC and CBD work together?
THC and CBD latch on to terpenes to produce something called an entourage effect—a term used to illustrate that several compounds combined have more powerful effects than each of them in isolated form.
So, that’s the first thing you should know:
For most medical conditions, combining THC and CBD has far superior effects than each of them alone.
The only difference I can remember would be in the case of epilepsy, where CBD has been actually proven to reduce seizure frequency and intensity.
For epilepsy patients, it’s usually advised to take high-CBD products with as little THC as possible and these percentages are easily achieved with hemp extracts and a (rather expensive) CBD isolate pharmaceutical that’s recently been approved by the FDA, called Epidiolex.
I’ve touched upon their basic mechanisms of action in the previous chapter, however we can now say that THC and CBD produce effects through different molecular pathways:
- THC primarily binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors located in the brain, boosting dopamine levels and impairing motor skills.
- CBD inhibits enzymes that degrade endocannabinoids that attach to those same CB receptors, thus minimizing the amount of available receptors THC can attach to. In layman terms, CBD neutralizes the psychoactivity of THC which is why strains with equal levels of CBD and THC do not cause a strong and euphoric “high”.
- CBD also activates a group of receptors that stimulate the production of serotonin, endorphin and oxytocin.
So, this is how THC and CBD work together:
THC is analogue of an endocannabinoid called anandamide, and produces psychoactive effects, analgesia and acts as a muscle relaxant. Adverse effects of THC are anxiety, tachycardia and sedation—however, CBD, through antagonizing CB1 receptors, reduces those side-effects, all the while providing anti-inflammatory, antiemetic, neuroprotective properties.
The mechanism of how these compounds play off each other in our body is amazing to comprehend, with the only challenge being finding the right dosage.
Another group of compounds plays a huge role in the effects that THC and CBD produce, and it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t mention them.
Terpenes are volatile aromatic molecules produces inside the same resin glands that synthesize THC and CBD, and these little compounds are responsible for the smell and aroma of cannabis.
They account for as little as 1% of the whole flower, with monoterpenes such as myrcene, limonene, pinene, linalool taking the biggest percentage.
These compounds basically help cannabinoids cross the blood-brain barrier more efficiently and even produce health effects on their own: Myrcene is a sedative which, when combined with THC, produces the “couch-lock” effect many recreational cannabis consumers strive for.
What is the best THC to CBD ratio?
You might have heard it before, but THC may produce biphasic effects—low doses may produce one effect while high doses may produce something completely opposite.
A good example of this dosing paradox is a two-round study by the University of Illinois in Chicago in which the subjects were first given 7.5 mg and then 12 mg of THC.
“We found that THC at low doses reduced stress, while higher doses had the opposite effect, underscoring the importance of dose when it comes to THC and its effects.”
The biggest takeaway for you is that THC can make you paranoid in extremely high doses (especially if you are a novice user) and relaxed in low doses.
That being said, beginners should almost always stick to low to moderate doses and ease into cannabis dosing.
You will see strains that have:
- High THC and low CBD percentages — mainly used by recreational users, as they get you really high. The higher the THC percentage, the stronger and longer lasting the high.
- High CBD and low THC percentages — perfect for medicinal users who want to experience multiple medical effects without getting high or euphoric.
- Equal CBD and THC percentages — quite rare nowadays, but great for consumers who are looking for a minimal high with a strong focus on relieving symptoms.
As you know by now, CBD suppresses the psychoactive effects of THC, so if you’re looking for a more mellow experience either buy a more potent strain and consume a little, or buy a CBD dominant strain and have no worries.
Another thing that characterises every strain is that it has a certain ratio of cannabinoids, which make it what it is. This is broken down very neatly in this article, but here’s a quick recap for you:
|1:0||Intoxicating effects, uplifted emotions.
More prominent side-effects for novice users.
|2:1||Laugh and euphoria with calmer thoughts.
|1:1||Biggest therapeutic benefits and tranquility.
Very few side-effects.
|1:2||Mild sedation and body relaxation.
|0:1||Anti-psychotic and relaxing effects, great for therapeutic use.
When shopping for a cannabis product, it’s extremely important to take both cannabinoid ratio as well as terpene content into consideration, as knowing how these compounds work will give you the best overall picture into the effects one strain may produce.
More on cannabinoids
Investigating THC and how it works—THC: The Complete Science Behind Tetrahydrocannabinol
All you need to know about CBD (literally)—CBD: the Complete Science Behind Cannabidiol (Feat. Martin A. Lee)
Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome and what causes it — What Is Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS) and How to Treat It?