CBD vs THC: The Molecular Difference You Need to Understand

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There are more than 100 different cannabinoids, or chemical compounds found naturally within the cannabis plant. While they all have the ability to react with your body’s cannabinoid receptors on different levels, the two that get the most press these days are CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). One gets you high and one doesn’t, but they both show a lot of medical potential.

The Molecular Difference between CBD and THC

The most obvious difference between CBD and THC is that the former is known for having anti-inflammatory properties while the latter will result in inebriation, or “a high.” This is actually more complicated than it seems and that has a lot to do with how the compounds in each react with the receptors found within the body.

In terms of their molecular makeup, both CBD and THC are exactly the same, featuring 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. What makes them different is that one tiny atom is placed differently in the overall configuration. While a tiny atom may seem insignificant, the minuscule difference in the arrangement has a monumental impact.

The human body has quite a number of receptors responsible for facilitating communication between the brain and the rest of the body. The two receptors impacted by CBD and THC are cannabinoid 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid 2 (CB2). CB1 receptors are found in the parts of the brain responsible for our emotions, coordination skills, memory and other mental processes. Our immune and central nervous systems are home to the majority of our CB2 receptors.

Here’s where things get tricky. Even though the CBD and THC molecules are slightly different, they can both bind to CB2 receptors. And these are the receptors which are believed to help reduce inflammation and calm the nervous system. So this is why both THC and CBD users are reporting successful relief from acute or chronic pain conditions.

Now here is a difference worth noting: Only THC binds to CB1 receptors. But of course, THC binding to these particular receptors are more likely to cause a mind-altering experience because of the direct connection to the spinal cord and brain. THC can still have a number of great health benefits, but not everyone is after a psychoactive experience. CBD does not bind to CB1 receptors and can, in some cases, disrupt the binding and reduce some of the psychoactive properties.

CBD Studies

While still primarily considered a natural remedy, CBD oil has gained some traction in the medical world thanks to limited scientific research. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, also known as the “farm bill,” legalized the growing of hemp and, subsequently, the development of hemp-derived CBD products.

As of right now, there is scientific evidence to back the use of CBD oil to:

  • Relieve pain
  • Reduce seizure activity
  • Treat neurological disorders
  • Alleviate the symptoms of anxiety
  • Reduce depression
  • Reduce symptoms related to cancer
  • Treat acne
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Enhance substance abuse treatment programs
  • Prevent diabetes

While there is research to support the potential use of CBD oil in these instances and likely many others, it’s important to remember that the FDA has not approved CBD oil as a treatment for any condition. Nor have they approved any drugs containing CBD and making medical claims about the compound’s benefits is currently against regulation.

THC Studies

Despite its psychoactive properties, marijuana has also gained traction within the medical community. While also not FDA-approved,  studies have found THC helpful to:

  • Reduce pain
  • Treat nausea and vomiting related to cancer treatments
  • Treat PTSD
  • Increase appetite in patients with dementia, eating disorders and other conditions
  • Dilate the lungs
  • Relax muscles
  • Treat seizure disorders

Using CBD and THC Together

With all of this ongoing research, the next logical question is whether or not CBD and THC can or should be used together. According to a study published by the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the answer is yes. We mentioned before that CBD tends to disrupt the way THC interacts with the body’s receptors at CB1. Well, scientists found that giving patients small doses of CBD a little while before giving them THC allowed them to experience both mental and physical relief from their symptoms without the cognitive impairment associated with THC alone.

The scientists recognized the need for more extensive research on the benefits and uses of both CBD and THC. That said, the idea of combining the two in order to strike a balance could be key to creating more effective cannabinoid treatments for a wide variety of disorders and symptoms. The key will be to find the correct ratio for each individual based on their needs and tolerance levels.

Legislative Progress

Of course, we have a long way to go legislatively. Despite some states approving the use of marijuana both medicinally and recreationally, it is still illegal on the federal level. The FDA does support research into the potential benefits of both CBD and THC but is concerned with protecting public safety. They have gone as far as scheduling a public hearing for May 31, 2019 to hear about experiences with the compounds. Their goal appears to be gathering information on how to create a better regulatory strategy. And who knows? This may even pave a pathway for federal legalization.

Individuals interested in attending or making comments at the FDA’s public hearing must make a request to attend the hearing by May 10, 2019. Meeting registration info can be found here.

As of right now, hemp-derived CBD oil is legal in all states, as long as the product contains less than 0.3% THC.  It is still important to check to see if your state has specific rules regarding who is allowed to possess and use the compound.

Medical marijuana is approved for use in 33 states, while recreational use is legal for those over the age of 21 in ten states and the District of Columbia. Those states that are only allowing medical use have strict regulations as to what conditions can be treated with THC, and as you might guess, those rules vary widely by state. Quite a few states have pending legislation, so we can expect to see recreational and medical use continue to expand. In many cases, legislators are hung up not on the sale of marijuana in general, but on controversies regarding taxation and how to handle the records of small drug offenders.

Summing Up Our THC/CBD Findings

Public approval for the legalization of CBD and THC products seems to be gaining traction. Individuals struggling with chronic pain and other disorders are looking for safer, effective remedies and heads are turning toward hemp and marijuana.

  • Marijuana’s status as a federally illegal substance makes it impossible to conduct large clinical trials to study its benefits or to experiment with different ratios of THC/CBD.
  • CBD is often sold as a tincture, oil, gummy candy, or supplement. THC is usually consumed via smoking or in oils, edibles, and tinctures.
  • When comparing CBD products, make sure you look for third-party lab results as well as information on growing practices and the use of pesticides.

THC and CBD may both have the potential, given some promising early findings, to relieve the discomfort of millions of patients. With broader formal studies, better public education initiatives, and increasing availability, we may see surprising changes sooner rather than later. These two little molecules, just an atom apart, might alter the medical landscape.