In our first Mind(Full) post, we started talking about the two major classifications of cannabis: Indica and Sativa. In that post, we mentioned that as far as the effects of cannabis goes, the classification doesn’t matter nearly as much as the cannabinoids in the plant.
There’s going to be a lot of speculative information in this post – that’s just because we still don’t really know how cannabis works – but this is something we do know: inside your body, right now, is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). Now, what that system actually does is still the subject of even more research, but what we can tell you is that the ECS serves a crucial role in making sure a bunch of your body’s functions actually work together.
Your Endocannabinoid System is everywhere… including your brain
Here’s what the Government of Canada says about how cannabis works:
Cannabis contains hundreds of chemical substances. Over 100 of these are known as cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are made and stored in the plant’s trichomes. Trichomes are tiny, clear hairs that stick out from the flowers and leaves of the plant. Cannabinoids have effects on cell receptors in the brain and body. They can change how those cells behave and communicate with each other.
So basically, there are hundreds of chemicals in cannabis, and they each do different things by bonding with different receptors in you brain and in the rest of your body. There are two chemicals that we are looking at today: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol. Or, as they are better known: THC and CBD.
Effects-wise, both THC and CBD are fairly similar: they generally relieve pain, help reduce inflammation, and lessen feelings of anxiety, among other effects. But THC is also an intoxicant, a word which here means “makes you feel as high as a kite.”
What makes THC so special? Well, let’s go back to the receptors.
Receptors and You
Receptors are protein molecules that bond with other chemicals that then make your body do different things. In short, these receptors are how your brain knows what’s going on inside of your body. Scientists have identified two major receptors used by the Endocannabinoid System: CB-1 and CB2.
(Before we get too far into the weeds here, we should mention that this can get really complicated really, really fast. We’re going to be very vague and brief with our explanations here, and if you want more accurate, more specific information, we encourage you to read into this subject further.)
CB-1 receptors are mostly found in the brain, but they are also found in the lungs, liver, and kidneys. Whereas CB-2 receptors are basically confined to your immune system. And each receptor does its own thing: CB-1 (at least, the ones in the brain) react to cannabinoids and make sure they don’t completely overpower your basic brain functions, and CB-2 mostly helps to regulate pain.
THC and CBD are almost identical on the atomic level: they’re made up of exactly the same stuff. And when we say “exactly,” we mean it: there’s no difference between the chemical makeups of THC and CBD. The difference comes in how those atoms are arranged, and again, it’s super close: THC and CBD have one atom that’s arranged differently.
That might seem like a super microscopic difference that can’t possibly have that huge of an effect, but as any identical twin will tell you, there’s a huge difference between a person and their twin. In fact, they’re entirely different people! In this case, that one atom of difference allows THC to bond with CB-1 and CB-2, while CBD can only bond with CB-2.
To put it simply:
CBD can’t get you high
Because CB-2 receptors aren’t located in the brain, CBD doesn’t affect the brain at all. That’s why you’ll find a growing number of medicinal cannabis products that have more and more CBD and less and less THC. While THC also bonds to CB-2, and therefore has many of the same health-related effects as CBD, it also bonds with CB-1, which means that getting those same effects comes with getting baked.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but many medicinal users rely on the effects of cannabis at times when getting high would be inappropriate, like at work or a fancy dinner with one’s grandmother. Or, medicinal cannabis users might just not like the sensation of being high.
As more and more people become comfortable with cannabis as a legal substance, more and more research on THC and CBD (and the other dozens of cannabinoids) will discover more and more uses for the plant. There may be even more differences we uncover in the years to come regarding these two wonderful chemicals.