The cannabis plant is made up of over 500 components, including a family of medicinal compounds called phytocannabinoids. The two most prevalent cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). The system in the brain and body where those phytocannabinoids interact with our cells is called the endocannabinoid system. It’s made up of cannabinoid receptors (acting as “locks”) and compounds called endocannabinoids that bind to them (acting as “keys”), and its job is to maintain balance between the messages our cells send to each other. Critical to health and wellness, this system plays an important role in almost every physiologic process in the human body, including emotions, energy metabolism, immunity, gastrointestinal function and more.
THC’s intoxicating effect is a direct result of an interaction between THC (the “key”) and the brain’s cannabinoid receptors (the “lock”). When they bind together, a chemical change happens in the cell, which then causes a change in the cell’s neurotransmitter message.
The location of the receptors tells us how THC will affect someone. For example, the areas of the brain that control pain, emotion, sleep, appetite, nausea, learning, memory and pleasure all contain endocannabinoid receptors — and that’s why people who use THC report benefits like pain relief, less anxiety and depression, and better sleep.
CBD is more complicated. Unlike THC, it doesn’t bind directly to the cannabinoid receptor, so while it does affect the flow of neurotransmitters in the brain, there’s no “high” effect. CBD works by modulating how endocannabinoids and THC (the “keys”) bind to the cannabinoid receptor (the “lock”). It also works at many physiologic sites outside the endocannabinoid system. Because of its widespread activity in the brain and body, CBD has an extensive range of therapeutic properties, providing neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-convulsant, anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety and anti-cancer benefits. That means patients with epilepsy, autoimmune disorders, neurodegenerative illnesses and inflammatory conditions who use CBD often find great relief from their symptoms.
Now let’s talk about how THC and CBD can be used together — something most experts recommend to their patients thanks to a phenomenon known as “the entourage effect.” This means they work better in tandem than alone, and when combined, enhance each other’s effects while minimizing potential side effects. For instance, while both THC and CBD are proven to have pain-relieving properties when taken separately, studies show CBD enhances pain relief when taken with THC. Also, CBD can minimize some unwanted effects from THC, such as memory loss, rapid heart rate and intoxication.
Simply saying, “THC gets you high, CBD doesn’t,” just scratches the surface when it comes to understanding THC, CBD and cannabinoids in general.