You’ve probably read that the main active properties of the cannabis plant are THC and CBD — but what are they exactly?

Whether you’re a seasoned medical cannabis consumer or just curious about trying it, the term cannabinoid may be unknown to you. To be fair, it’s probably unknown to most.

The cannabis plant is home to hundreds of chemicals and in amongst those is a fascinating array of over 100 cannabinoids.

Of the estimated 113 present in the plant the unquestionable stars are CBD and THC, the former will not intoxicate you but has shown in studies to have multiple therapeutic uses, while the latter is a psychoactive compound that is best known for getting you high.

Whatever type of relationship you have with cannabis, you may have pondered the following questions:

What’s the difference between CBD vs THC?

Does THC have medicinal qualities?

Can I mix CBD with THC?

How do both compounds affect my body and brain?

All of these questions and more will be answered so get comfy while we profile this interesting duo and explore their respective capabilities.

THC vs. CBD: A Primer

Not much is known about most of the 100-plus cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, and studies documenting their capabilities are rare, but forthcoming.

This isn’t the case with THC. THC is the most researched, most present and most stigmatized of the cannabinoid family.

THC (or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) does in fact possess therapeutic qualities and health benefits but is most commonly known for getting people ‘high’ along with its unwanted and often harmful side effects. This is mainly due to the dramatic rise in THC potency of dried cannabis since the 1980s.

Cannabis from over 30+ years ago used to contain a meager 3% THC, while today’s super-strength strains — created by the newest growing techniques — often average 15% THC and can go as high as 30%.

The second-most popular and researched of the cannabinoids is CBD (or cannabidiol). When consumed it doesn’t deliver a ‘high’ to the user but instead has been studied and lauded for its medicinal properties.

Although it doesn’t have psychotropic effects, CBD is slowly but surely emerging from the shadow of THC as research is discovering its potential therapeutic use for numerous medical conditions.

Some evidence also suggests that the damage done to the brain by THC can be limited by CBD. The majority of modern cannabis strains used to contain less than 0.1% CBD but thankfully, renewed medical interest has led contemporary growers to breed strains with much higher CBD content as well as strains mixed with THC.

These strains can be used recreationally or for medical purposes and can be purchased from a licenced producer or any endorsed storefront now that cannabis is legal across Canada.

The scientific makeup of CBD and THC

THC and CBD are the cannabis plant’s two celebrity cannabinoids and both share the exact same molecular formula, as shown below. 

An illustration of the chemical structures of CBD and THC

Their effects, however, couldn’t be more different.

How to consume THC, CBD or a hybrid of both

If you’re curious about cannabis but dislike the idea of smoking — or the aroma and stigma that comes with it — there are many other ways to enjoy the benefits of CBD and THC.

Whatever your reason for using cannabis you can rest assured that discretion is guaranteed with today’s variety of inventive and innovative products and consumption methods.

Related Reading: 7 Ways to Consume Medical Cannabis Without Smoking It

Examples of these are:

  • Cannabis oil
  • Topicals or Salve (creams, foams, gels, lotions, and ointments)
  • Smoking
  • Vaporizing
  • Edibles
  • Sublingual spray
  • Skin patches
  • Tinctures
  • E-liquid
  • Suppositories
  • Capsules
  • Chewing gum
  • Crystals

How CBD & THC affect your body

Made and stored in the trichomes (the clear hairs on the cannabis plant’s leaves and flowers) cannabinoids influence the behaviour of cell receptors in our brain and body. Individually or combined they can hi-jack the body’s endocannabinoid system to produce both beneficial and adverse effects.

So what is the endocannabinoid system you ask?

It is a biological pathway within each of our bodies that is striving to achieve balance or homeostasis (a stable equilibrium) internally, no matter what type of chaos or calm is occurring externally.

This physiological system also plays a vital role regulating our digestive system, bone development, appetite, mood and memory among other things.

Endocannabinoids, like anandamide, is basically the body’s natural THC but possesses only a fraction of THC’s potency. Fun fact, the name anandamide comes from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”, making it the body’s natural “blissful” molecule.

Cannabinoids look for and activate cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) and when they get together they tell your body how to feel and what to do. They also affect and regulate the way other bodily systems function, like your immune, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems.

Explore In-Depth: Cannabinoid Receptors 101 – Why Do We Have Them?

CB1 receptors are mainly located in the brain and nervous system, as well as in the lungs, liver, and kidneys. THC is the cannabinoid that binds most with CB1 receptors which gives patients relief from pain, nausea and depression, among other things.

CB2 receptors, on the other hand, reside mainly in the immune system, with an abundance located in the spleen and gastrointestinal system. CB2 receptors bind best with CBD and aid in the regulation of appetite, pain management and immune system functions like inflammation.

Using THC and CBD separately

Consuming THC by itself

Recreational users have long been fans of cannabis with high levels of THC and today’s cannabis has never been more potent. Just like someone who enjoys a beer or two at the weekend, recreational cannabis fans seek out THC for its mind-altering or psychotropic effects.

It can deliver a mellow or euphoric ‘high’ depending on which strains you prefer. Indica strains were thought to provide a more relaxing buzz that is felt throughout the body while sativa strains were more known to deliver a more energizing experience which is more focused in the mind.

As more research has come available, however (especially surrounding terpenes), the indica vs. sativa debate is becoming less and less relevant.

THC can stimulate the appetite and enhance the senses but it can also impair cognition, motor skills, and distort one’s sense of time.

Although it does have therapeutic uses, THC is capable of inducing negative effects like paranoia and depression and possesses a host of long-term adverse effects which are listed below.

Since a person’s driving ability is affected by THC you should avoid using it for several hours before traveling anywhere in your vehicle.

Consuming CBD by itself

In short, CBD is safer than its psychoactive cousin THC.

Although scientists insist more studies on cannabidiol are required, it is undoubtedly the most popular cannabinoid when it comes to medical cannabis and is used to treat numerous conditions and diseases.

Evidence suggests that it’s effective in the treatment of pain, epilepsy and schizophrenia to mention just a few. Those using marijuana solely for medical purposes tend to avoid smoking it (unless it is paired with THC) as maintaining or improving their health is usually the objective.

The most popular consumption method we’ve seen in recent years is a potent, medical-grade cannabis oil. 

Further Reading: What is Cannabis Oil?

Using THC and CBD together

When it comes to the treatment of medical conditions, CBD and THC each have their own benefits but they are also very therapeutic when combined.  

By binding with terpenes — organic compounds that produce scent and flavour in all living plants — the two cannabinoids become a powerful healing tool.

Studies suggest that patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS), chronic pain, nausea, certain cancers and psychological problems reported significantly less anxiety and depression while also experiencing less appetite stimulation when using cannabis with nearly equal parts THC (6%) and CBD (7.5%).

Maybe a patient wants to feel a euphoric THC high to help them relax while their CBD eases their symptoms, or perhaps they are looking for an energy boost from THC to help them get moving.

Aside from treating illnesses, consuming a THC/CBD hybrid also offers health-conscious individuals a chance to get ‘high’, through the THC, while protecting their long-term mental state through the CBD with its neuroprotective qualities.

As one medical professional said in an interview with Health Canada ‘THC is the accelerator and CBD is the brakes.’

Medical benefits and adverse effects of THC

Medical Benefits of THC

The positive short-term effects of consuming cannabis with a significant THC content are usually an enjoyable ‘high’, which is often characterized by a relaxed, stress-free state where the user may be prone to excessive laughter and/or giddiness.

One’s senses may also be heightened as well as the possibility of a sudden increase in appetite. Euphoria — coupled with a more social outlook — may be experienced and the user’s perception of reality, music and the visual arts could be altered.

Additionally, some individuals may become more introspective and can experience a bump in creativity. THC’s capabilities also extend to relieving pain and helping those suffering from certain illnesses. Here are some examples:

THC and Cancer

Stigmatized as a compound that just gets you ‘high’, THC actually has been proven to reduce tumour growth and stimulate cell death in certain cancers.

Medical studies have demonstrated that THC has improved appetite and quality of sleep for cancer patients being treated with chemotherapy.

It was able to enhance sensory perception and improved food enjoyment with THC-treated patients finding the taste of meat to be less offensive and reported more desirable food odours in general which contributed to the increased amount of strength-building protein being ingested

THC and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Although mild adverse effects were experienced by some PTSD patients, THC has proved to be well tolerated and highly successful at treating the disorder.

By assuming the role of our natural endocannabinoid anandamide, THC mimics its effect and patient statistics revealed a significant improvement in symptom severity, sleep quality and frequency of nightmares.

An adverse effect to some but a blessing to others, THC’s ability to help us forget details has seen patients overcome negative memories surrounding a traumatic event and succeeded in improving their all round daily mood.

Adverse effects of THC

The unwanted and often unpleasant mental side effects of using THC can include confusion, anxiety, fear, panic and loss of memory and concentration.

In extreme cases a psychotic episode may be induced or intense depersonalization (a feeling of watching life without participating) and the user may experience acute paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and even suicidal tendencies.

In the short term, physical problems like fatigue, laziness and a lack of motivation can occur using THC. On top of this it can cause a spike in heart rate, drop a person’s blood pressure resulting in someone fainting or damage blood vessels if smoking is the person’s chosen consumption method.

Other serious side effects include hyperemesis syndrome (severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and possible dehydration), impaired coordination and performance.

Effects appear to be worse if you: a) start using early in adolescence and b) use frequently and over a long period of time and they may not be fully reversible even when cannabis use ceases.

Other long-term effects of smoking THC-heavy cannabis are similar to the effects of smoking tobacco. These effects can include risks to lung health such as bronchitis, lung infections, chronic cough and increased mucus buildup in the chest. They may also worsen asthmatic symptoms.

Finally, men who are hoping to have children should tread cautiously when using THC heavily and over a long period of time. The effects of THC on human sperm have been investigated and results have revealed that substantial, long-term users experience a significant decline in sperm count, its motility and its concentration.

Medical benefits and adverse effects of CBD

Medical Benefits of CBD

Research suggests that CBD is a neuro-protective compound, it shields the brain and can limit the damage that THC does to the brain. It also allows the brain to change naturally, thus enabling the vital process of neuroplasticity to occur more easily.

Aside from this scientists have been able to prove — thanks to an improved understanding of the endocannabinoid system —  that CBD can ease or alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, epilepsy, depression and psychosis.

Additional studies have revealed that CBD helps with certain sleep disorders and addiction to cannabis itself. Given the anti-convulsive, anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, and anti-psychotic actions of CBD, it definitely has the potential to become a popular mood stabilizer in the future, and one with very few side effects.

CBD and Cancer

Although further studies need to be conducted evidence is emerging to suggest that CBD is a potent inhibitor of both cancer growth and may well be worthy of clinical consideration for cancer therapy.

Aside from showing real promise in helping to curb the effects of lung cancer, leukemia, colon cancer and to a lesser extent glioma (brain cancer) and breast cancer, CBD reduced tumour growth and, in some cases, metastasization during clinical trials on animals.

Additionally, CBD can be used in combination with classical chemotherapeutic agents to check for the presence of a synergistic effect that could allow for a dose reduction in conventional chemotherapy medicine, thereby reducing toxicity while maintaining efficacy. A real plus for CBD is that it did not result in any overt toxicity meaning it’s a great candidate for prolonged treatment.

CBD and Epilepsy

Cannabidiol has a broad range of biological effects which can impact the nervous system in many places. Its anti-seizure properties and favourable side‐effect profile support further development of CBD‐based treatments for epilepsy.

A good performance in certain neuro studies suggest that CBD may also be effective for a wide range of central nervous system disorders that may complicate the lives of individuals with epilepsy.

Much remains to be learned about CBD, especially its anti-seizure effects which are not yet fully understood. When this changes medical professionals have predicted even more important developments and insights will be obtained using CBD to help improve the treatment of epilepsy.

CBD and Stress, Psychosis, and more

There is much interest in CBD’s healing powers due to its anxiolytic, antipsychotic and antidepressive qualities which were displayed during human and animal studies.

CBD helped those suffering with schizophrenia, psychosis and social anxiety disorder to better manage their symptoms with less adverse effects than other antipsychotic drugs. The beneficial effects of CBD administration in psychiatric symptoms adds to its safe profile in humans.

Adverse effects of CBD

Although scientists insist more research on CBD is absolutely imperative, cannabidiol currently has a favourable safety profile which has already been established in a plethora of ways.

Most notably for its use in treating epilepsy, stress and psychotic disorders. The worst side short-term effects reported were tiredness, diarrhea, nausea and changes of appetite/weight.

Being the grossly understudied compound that it is, CBD’s long term effects remain unaddressed, especially in vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, and the chronically or terminally ill however research in this area is ongoing.

Driving after consuming THC or CBD

Studies using brain imaging have revealed that during an acute THC ‘high’ there is increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex region of our brains. This area of the brain is responsible for decision-making, attention and other key functions, like motor skills.

In short, THC intoxication can affect any of these functions and so should not be used while driving.

According to Canadian law a person will be prosecuted if he or she is caught with 5 nanograms or more of THC in one milliliter of their blood. So don’t risk driving while using a CBD/THC product as you may be over the limit without knowing.

However, it is legal to drive using CBD-only products as cannabidiol is not listed as one of the controlled substances banned for use by Canadian drivers in the Blood Drug Concentration Regulations. This is because CBD — when used alone — does not get the user high and contains only trace amounts (0.3 percent) of THC.

Wrap up

Choosing to use THC, CBD or both in unison will depend on a range of personal factors (health and otherwise) for every person but we hope this article has provided clarity on the multiple uses for both cannabinoids and debunked a few myths along the way. If you are a first timer to both THC and CBD just remember to start low and go slow.