Why THC gets you high and CBD doesn’t

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Why THC gets you high and CBD doesn’t

This post is also available in: Français (French)

CBD, cannabinoids, THC, psychoactive – if you’ve been trying to understand CBD, THC and the difference between them you’ve likely heard at least a couple of these terms. You may have also encountered phytocannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and even terpenes. What’s it all really about?

You’ve come to the right place if you’re looking for a way to understand why THC gets you high and CBD doesn’t and what they have to do with endocannabinoids.


Cannabinoids and the role of the ECS

You first need to understand the endocannabinoid system (ECS) which assists the body in maintaining functional balance through its three main components  to understand THC vs CBD and how they affect us: “messenger” molecules that our bodies synthesize, the receptors these molecules bind to and the enzymes that break them down.

Just a few of the body’s functions that cannabinoids impact by acting on the ECS are appetite, stress, energy metabolism, pain, reward and motivation, sleep, cardiovascular function and reproduction. Nausea control and inflammation are a couple of the potential health benefits of cannabinoids.


Types of cannabinoids

There are two types of cannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are made inside the body. Phytocannabinoids, or exogenous cannabinoids are made outside the body. One of the main plants that make phytocannabinoids is cannabis, and it makes a lot of them.


What THC does

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most abundant and well-known cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. An ECS component in the brain that governs intoxication, the CB1 receptor, is activated by THC. The region of the brain responsible for attention, decision making, motor skills and other executive functions, the prefrontal cortex, has been shown to have increased blood flow with THC intoxication – but, of course, it varies from person to person.

Feeling of euphoria from the brain’s reward system are triggered when THC cannabinoids bind to CB1 receptors. Our likelihood of partaking again in the future is increased when cannabis activates the brain’s rewards pathway, which makes us feel good. A major factor in cannabis’ ability to produce feelings of euphoria and intoxication is THC binding to CB1 receptors in the brain’s reward system .


What CBD does

THC is not the only thing in cannabis that has a direct impact on brain function. The second most plentiful cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant is cannabidiol (CBD). Any substance that has a direct effect on the function of the brain is psychoactive yet CBD is often touted as non-psychoactive which is misleading. CBD, as an example, has very powerful anti-anxiety and anti-seizure properties, so it’s clear that it interacts with the brain and central nervous system.

CBD is not intoxicating although it is indeed psychoactive – meaning it doesn’t get you high. This is due to CBD being really bad at activating the CB1 receptor. In fact, in the presence of THC, evidence suggests that it actually interferes with the activity of the CB1 receptor. Compared to the effects felt when CBD is absent, users tend to feel a more mellow, nuanced high and have a significantly lower chance of experiencing paranoia when THC and CBD work together to affect CB1 receptor activity. That’s due to the fact that THC activates the CB1 receptor while CBD inhibits it .


How CBD and THC interact with each other

CBD may help protect against cognitive impairment associated with overexposure to THC. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology administered THC to participants and discovered that those who had been given actual CBD prior to the THC administration revealed less episodic memory impairment than participants who had been given a placebo, further indicating that CBD may curb THC-induced cognitive deficits .

In fact, a 2013 review of nearly 1300 studies published in scientific journals found that CBD “can counteract the negative effects of THC.” A look at CBD’s effects on THC consumption in real-world scenarios is needed as pointed out by the review as well. CBD is often recommended as an antidote for those who have accidently consumed too much THC and find themselves overwhelmed and that is reinforced by this existing data.


Cannabinoids interact with many systems in the body

CBD and THC bind to several other targets besides CB1 receptors. As an example, CBD has a least 12 sites of action in the brain. CBD may have other effects on THC metabolism at different sites of action while balancing the effects of THC through inhibiting CB1 receptors.

CBD may not always inhibit or balance THC’s effects. It could also directly enhance THC’s positive effects. For example, CBD does have the potential to synergize, and even enhance THC-induced pain relief. Largely due to its activation of CB1 receptors in the pain-control area of the brain, THC is both a neuroprotective antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory.

To suppress inflammation and chronic pain, as revealed by a 2012 study, CBD interacts with alpha-3 (α3) glycine receptors , a critical target for pain processing in the spine. The combined effect of different cannabis compounds work together as a whole to produce a greater effect than if working separately, or the entourage effect as it’s known, as shown by this study.

Even this interaction is not entirely clear though. Low doses of CBD actually enhance the intoxicating effects of THC , while high doses of CBD reduce the intoxicating effects of THC, as shown by a February 2019 study.


Terpenes play a key part in the entourage effect

Different cannabis strains can offer specific levels of both THC and CBD, evoking the entourage effect. High-CBD strains, for example, will have different, less intoxicating effects than strains with higher THC levels. While not at levels that would cause any intoxicating effects, even some hemp-derived CBD oil contains small trace amounts of THC.

When other terpene and cannabinoid molecules are consumed alongside CBD and THC, things get even more interesting. The ability of cannabinoids to bind to targets in the brain means they could potentially reduce, enhance, prolong or in some other way modulate the effects of THC, although we are just beginning to understand the isolated effects of cannabinoids such as CBC, CBG and CBN.

It’s entirely possible the relative contributions of these lesser known molecules is why some of cannabis’ best-known side effects (such as couch-lock) may have very little to do with the THC itself. Also proven to be a critical piece of this entourage effect are terpenes, which are the largest group of known phytochemicals in cannabis. Terpenes appear to support other cannabis molecules in producing cerebral and physiological effects as well as giving cannabis its distinct aroma and flavour.


Bottom line

With relatively little research into its interactions and effects with the human body, cannabis is a complex plant. We’re just now starting to learn the ways CBD, THC and other cannabis compounds interact and work together with our ECS to change the way we feel.

This post is also available in: Français (French)

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