Health-conscious consumers looking to try cannabis for its medicinal or therapeutic properties find themselves met with a cannabis conundrum; CBD vs. THC — what’s the difference? And which cannabis compound is right for me?
The answers can vary from person to person and will depend on your particular health situation, wellness goals, and personal preferences. Let’s look at the potential medical benefits of the two most well-known cannabis compounds, and decide what is more effective — THC or CBD.
THC or CBD for Your Health?
When visiting most dispensaries, you’ll notice the products fall into two main categories: THC or CBD. Both of these are compounds found in the cannabis plant, and each hosts different effects – though there are some overlapping benefits. Additional compounds found in cannabis (other cannabinoids, terpenes, etc.) have therapeutic properties. Here, we’re focusing on the medical benefits of CBD vs. those of THC.
CBD vs. THC: What’s the Difference?
THC gets the user “high” while CBD provides the therapeutic benefits of cannabis without its intoxicant properties. Some are surprised to learn that, chemically speaking, THC and CBD are the same thing. Each compound is made of two oxygen atoms, plus 21 atoms of carbon and 30 of hydrogen. All are pretty common elements.
The scientific difference between THC and CBD is not found in the chemical makeup itself, but in the particular atomic arrangement of those chemicals. The different “shape” of each compound allows it to interact with the body in different ways, binding to different types of neurotransmitters and receptors and, in turn, enacting their particular effects on everything from mood, memory, and sleep patterns to inflammation and muscle tension. Because of their chemical similarity, there is a great deal of overlap in the conditions that can be treated by THC and CBD.
As a few examples, both compounds can have an effect on:
- Anxiety/stress/depression/other mental disorders
The differences in the ways THC and CBD treat these conditions are sometimes subtle and can be impacted by the presence of other cannabis-derived compounds like terpenes and other cannabinoids. Experimentation may be required to find a cannabis product with the exact sort of therapeutic properties you’re seeking.
The source of the compound is another difference between THC and CBD products. THC products are derived from the potent bud (flower) of cannabis plants specifically cultivated for their psychoactive properties. CBD, on the other hand, can be extracted from non-psychoactive cannabis plant material, referred to as hemp.
Medical Benefits of THC
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is known for producing the quintessential “high” that is experienced when smoking or otherwise consuming cannabis. This psychoactive sensation is widely celebrated among recreational marijuana consumers, but science has demonstrated that THC also has a great deal of medicinal potential.
- Pain relief. Some 50 million Americans live with chronic pain. A 2013 study approved by the FDA found that THC was effective in activating pathways in the central nervous system that prevent pain signals from being carried to the brain. THC’s pain relief potential is so impressive that some patients have reported using cannabis as a replacement for addictive opioid pain medications.
- Anxiety. THC has also shown potential in treating anxiety and related conditions. For example, it has been used to calm down people with Autism when they’re experiencing episodes of acute anxiety and overstimulation.
- Muscle Relaxant. THC’s ability to relax muscles is important to both its pain relief potential and its ability to soothe patients suffering from anxiety, but it’s worth pointing out as a feature all its own. These muscle relaxant properties give THC therapeutic potential in easing anything from muscle cramps to insomnia and multiple sclerosis.
- Glaucoma. One of the first medical uses identified for cannabis was in the treatment of glaucoma, an eye condition that affects the optic nerve and reduces vision. THC lowers the intraocular eye pressure in those with glaucoma, essential for symptom management of this disease.
Medical Benefits of CBD
CBD (cannabidiol) does not have THC’s psychoactive properties. This has made CBD products popular among consumers who want to explore the medical benefits of cannabis while remaining clear-headed. There is some argument as to whether CBD can truly be called “non-psychoactive” (its applications treating anxiety and related disorders would seem to indicate otherwise) but it lacks that signature, heady “marijuana high” that you get from consuming cannabis products with high THC levels.
The many benefits of CBD may include:
- Anti-inflammatory. One of CBD’s most promising uses is as an anti-inflammatory. CBD products can be used as a replacement (or supplement) for common over-the-counter non-steroid anti-inflammatory pain relief medications like ibuprofen and naproxen, often used used to ease inflammatory conditions like arthritis, atherosclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and periodontitis. These medications, while widely used and considered mostly safe, can cause kidney damage with prolonged use over time.
- Anxiety and stress. Like THC, CBD has also been shown to help reduce anxiety. Cannabis products fight anxiety and stress on a short-term basis by easing some of their symptoms (psychological treatment should be sought in cases of prolonged, chronic stress). Several studies have demonstrated the link between CBD and stress relief, though the exact mechanism by which this occurs is a matter for further research.
- Obesity and diabetes. This one comes as a surprise to many people familiar with the old stereotype about cannabis users and their uncontrollable urge to gorge on junk food. In actuality, a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that the risk of diabetes and obesity in cannabis users was one-third lower than in non-users.
This effect is likely to be increased by eliminating THC and its “munchies” side effect from the equation. (Although the munchies themselves could be considered a therapeutic benefit of THC, rather than an unwanted side effect, for those struggling with their appetite due to, for example, chemotherapy.)
How Do THC and CBD Interact?
Research has suggested that the complex interaction between THC, CBD, and the other cannabinoids and terpenes present in cannabis creates a much higher therapeutic potential than taking any of these compounds alone. This principle has come to be known as “the entourage effect” and it is the topic of ongoing research.
A 2011 review published in the British Journal of Pharmacology concluded that consuming phytocannabinoids (like CBD and THC) together with other compounds naturally found in cannabis (in this case, terpenes) can be highly effective in treating a variety of conditions such as pain, anxiety, inflammation, and even types of cancer and fungal infections.
CBD can also help mitigate some of the effects of THC use that medical users may find unpleasant. Studies in both humans and animals suggest that CBD may help reduce side effects of THC use such as paranoid feelings, hunger, and sedation.
Finding the Right Ratio of CBD to THC
If you’re intrigued by the idea of the entourage effect and want to try medicinal cannabis with both THC and CBD present, you’ll want to experiment with the ratio of the two to find the products that work best for your situation. Cannabis has a different effect on every user, and every user’s end goals or therapeutic needs are different, so there is really no magic number to start with when deciding what ratio of THC to CBD will work best.
For example, someone undergoing treatment for a serious medical condition might use cannabis daily to combat nausea and loss of appetite. This patient’s ideal ratio of CBD to THC might be very different from that of a laborer who consumes cannabis after work a few times per week for its stress relief and muscle relaxant properties. The correct dosage and ratio are highly personalized from user to user, and the best way to find them is to start small and experiment gradually or to seek advice from an experienced cannabis professional.
Cannabis Side Effects
There are very few serious side effects when using CBD or THC, whether separately or in conjunction with one another, and neither are considered addictive.
CBD, in fact, has no side effects at all that would be considered broadly negative. The World Health Organization has called CBD safe in large quantities, with the only known side effects being potential interactions with other medications. (Definitely ask your doctor before beginning any therapy with CBD or THC!)
THC use, on the other hand, has several known side effects, but they’re all fairly short-term and innocuous:
- Redness/dryness of eyes
- Dry mouth
- Memory impairment
- Changes in coordination and response time
- Elevated heart rate
- Feelings of anxiety or paranoia (mostly experienced with high doses in low-tolerance users. In extreme doses, THC may increase the risk of developing schizophrenia in patients predisposed to severe mental health conditions.)
General “fogginess” and memory loss are probably the most commonly cited annoyances for THC users, but other cannabinoids (specifically certain terpenes and flavonoids) actually have neuroprotective properties (i.e., they’re good for your brain health). It’s therefore unclear whether the overall net effect of long-term cannabis use on the average user’s brain is negative or positive.
It’s important to be aware that other, more serious mental side effects may be possible in teens and young adults, who should never use any sort of cannabis products for medical treatment without the supervision of a doctor or other qualified health professional. It has been hypothesized that this is because THC has the potential to create more permanent psychiatric changes when applied to a brain that is not yet fully developed.
Which Cannabis Compound Is Right for Me?
With THC and CBD both having therapeutic qualities — and many of them being shared or similar — it can be difficult to choose which one is best for your particular ailment or health goals. Emerging data about the potential of the entourage effect also has many users looking for products that contain complex combinations of the two, along with other cannabinoids.
If you’re considering using any type of cannabis for medicinal purposes, a good first step is to speak to your doctor or contact a trusted professional in the medical cannabis industry for additional guidance.
Consuming Medicinal Cannabis
In addition to deciding between CBD and THC products, you’ll also have to decide how you want to consume them, and there is no shortage of options these days. This, too, will depend on your personal preferences and various health factors. The following are the most common methods for consumption:
- Smoking. The ubiquitous, iconic method of consumption still favored by many marijuana users, smoking allows you to appreciate the smell and taste of your natural cannabis flower as part of your consumption ritual. Cannabis flower with or without THC can be bought whole, then ground up and smoked through a pipe, or purchased in the form of pre-rolled joints. Any type of smoking can be hard on your lungs and throat, so medicinal users with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, or related conditions are encouraged to look at other options.
- Vaporizing. “Vaping” is typically considered less harsh than smoking, and it’s definitely more convenient, as most vapes today can fit in your pocket, and use discreet cartridges pre-filled with THC or CBD concentrate. Raw flower, in contrast, can be a mess to clean and grind, and bulky or smelly to carry around. A pen vape eliminates all those concerns. Some of the same lung and respiratory issues that surround smoking may also be present with vaping, and research is ongoing as to how vaping actually affects the lungs.
- Edibles. Perhaps the most convenient method of consumption, and one of the most versatile, is to simply eat your CBD or THC. Packets of gummies or cookies are extremely convenient options, and the prevalence of oils and extracts means that THC and CBD can be worked into even the most complex of gourmet dishes.
- Extracts and concentrates. Concentrated THC and CBD products can take many forms. Hash and kief are common, simple methods of concentrating “the good stuff” and reducing the bulk of non-psychoactive plant material, but modern products include all sorts of different waxes, oils, and “sugars.” Some can be mixed with foods or beverages for discreet oral consumption, while others are vaporized or smoked through a special rig (e.g., “dabs”).
Visit our Cannabis Administration Methods Guide to learn more about dosing.
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