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THC & CBD: The Two Sides of Cannabis

Matt Weeks
Grinder with Cannabis Nugs on it

In cannabis use, the people are affected by two separate yet equally important parts of the plant: THC and CBD. This is their story.

The ideal of two contrasting forces working together toward perfect harmony is epitomized by yin and yang, but there are countless real-world examples. In the confectionary world, any baker will tell you that chocolate chip cookies taste better with a little salt. The Ben Franklin Effect says that the best way to get an adversary to like you is to ask them for a favor. And the funniest comedies are tinged with sadness. So let it be with cannabis.

THC chemical formula beside leaves

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The primary drivers of cannabis’ effects on the body are the conflicting forces of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Composed of identical chemical formulae (but arranged differently) yet the compounds are staggeringly different. Sometimes, those differences complement each other. Other times, they duke it out for dominance.

THC is the psychoactive component of marijuana. It’s what get users high. It’s also the party responsible for red eyes, dry mouth and paranoia—while at the same time, increasing appetite and reducing pain. On its own, THC is a mixed bag. Combined with CBD, it’s a whole new ballgame.

CBD Chemical Formula Beside Cannabis Leaves

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Like THC, CBD occurs in both cannabis and hemp. But unlike THC, CBD is more plentiful in the hemp plant and less abundant in cannabis. There are also virtually no downside for CBD. It’s the relaxing agent in cannabis. It’s what calms nerves, lowers anxiety, eases feelings of stress, and short-circuits the tremors common to conditions like Parkinson’s. It does not produce a high.

While medical professionals and scientists can separate out THC and CBD into isolated tinctures or oils, recreational users don’t usually have the equipment for that luxury. For the common cannabis enthusiast, using cannabis means feeling the effects of THC and CBD at the same time. So not only do users get heart rate-upping, euphoria feelings from THC, they are also countered by the stress-dissolving mellowness that comes from CBD.

Close up of mouth of bong

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In effect, CBD cancels out portions of THC. This is because CBD is an “antagonist” to THC. In fact, if you feel yourself headed toward a green out, you can take CBD to bring you back down to Earth. It’s fascinating, this relationship that Mother Nature build.

Both THC and CBD affect the body through the endocannabinoid system, but in different ways.

THC is what’s known as an agonist (read: activator) of CB1 and CB2 receptors in endocannabinoid system. CB1 and 2 receptors are found primarily in the brain and central nervous system, leading to the psychoactive effects that THC is famous for. Basically, it lights up the brain’s reward centers, causing happy feelings.

Grinder with Cannabis Nugs on it

Image Credit: Content Diller

CBD, on the other hand, is an antagonist of CB1 receptors. Just like in literature, an antagonist in chemistry is the agent that fights against the positive action in the story. In this case, it dampens the euphoria and paranoid feelings by choking off THC’s ability to affect the CB1 and 2 receptors.

That’s because while THC is psychoactive, CBD is biologically active. It reacts with the body, but leaves the mind alone. When CBD affects the CB1 and 2 receptors in the brain, there is correlating condition that accompanies that reaction. It merely softens their abilities to produce psychoactive results.

This does not mean that CBD does not affect users. It most certainly does. But instead of creating feelings in the mind, CBD goes to work on other parts of the body.

Glass cannabis pipe beside buds

Image Credit: CAP JAH

For instance, CBD is known as an agonist for 5-HT1a receptors. These are one type of receptor for serotonin, the neurotransmitter known for its connection to happiness. Most 5-HT1a agonists are used in modern medicine as the active ingredient in antidepressants (such as Viibryd) and one (Filbanserin) as a treatment for female sexual dysfunction.

While CBD does not function exactly the same way as those examples, it has very important and interesting properties. Medical research is currently using it to treat all sorts of ailments and conditions, such as inflammatory issues, pain, anxiety and addiction.

3 cannabis buds in a row

Image Credit: CAP JAH

Synergy is as important in the plant world as it is in the animal, as it is in your own life. We seek balance and harmony, instinctively, because of the way our brains are wired. CBD and THC have a largely harmonious relationship in the body, working opposite ends to bring you good health.


Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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