CBD vs THC: Effects on the Brain and Mind

How these major cannabinoids influence your gray matter


The popularity of marijuana in recent years has also coincided with a gradual uptick in understanding and appreciation of this useful and medicinal herb.

In fact, the huge number of people now using marijuana mostly only do so thanks to this increased understanding – now that people finally comprehend that marijuana isn’t an inherently dangerous, dreadfully harmful substance, they can start using it to their benefit, or even just to relax.

However, despite the increase in general knowledge about marijuana, there is still plenty of confusion out there about the precise mechanics of many parts of marijuana; for example, how the cannabinoids in marijuana actually affect the brain.

So, let’s take a look at exactly how cannabinoids work within the brain, as well as their precise effects and reactions.

How Do Cannabinoids Interact with the Body?

Although many people that use marijuana regularly will claim to understand the mechanics behind cannabinoids fully, there is sadly very little general understanding of the precise mechanisms behind the interaction between cannabinoids and the human body.

Once you imbibe any cannabinoid, whether THC or CBD, it is broken down in the liver and finds its way to the endocannabinoid system.

This is a health system that runs throughout the human body and is involved in all manner of different bodily functions. It works using two primary receptors, known as CB1 and CB2 that, when triggered by the release of cannabinoids in the body, induce all kinds of different reactions.

Those of you unfamiliar with the idea of natural cannabinoids might be shocked at this revelation, but it’s true; the body actually produces cannabinoids all on its own, without the inclusion of cannabis at all.

In fact, this is the reason cannabis has any effect on our bodies whatsoever – it is already designed to work with cannabinoids on a fundamental level. It’s just that external cannabinoids are in a higher concentration compared to those produced naturally in our bodies.

This endocannabinoid system or ECS spreads throughout the human body and is responsible for far more bodily functions and reactions than you might expect. For example, the inflammation response, where the body causes a particular area to enlarge so as to protect it from injury or infection, is controlled by the CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system.

However, while it is comforting to know that the body already has the capacity to work with cannabinoids, it is important to remember that THC and CBD are not the same as endocannabinoids – they look and interact very similarly to the cannabinoids produced in the body, but are still fundamentally different.

How do THC and CBD differ in how they interact with the brain?

THC’s Effects on the Brain

THC is the far more well-known component of cannabis, frequently referred to with fear, as if the simple cannabinoid would be the gateway to complete drug addiction and mortal danger.

Instead, THC is pretty harmless in itself – it induces a variety of effects, the most commonly known of which is an intense psychoactive high caused by its interaction with certain neurotransmitters in the brain. The only real danger of THC is with its overuse.

However, precisely how does it actually create this high?

The answer lies in the CB1 receptors, one of the two main receptors in the endocannabinoid system. These receptors are found primarily within the brain and are responsible for the release of dopamine, which is the primary neurochemical responsible for the sensation of happiness or joy.

These CB1 receptors are activated by anandamide, the molecule produced by the endocannabinoid system when the brain tells it to induce that sensation of happiness. This will typically happen when you accomplish something, or otherwise enjoy yourself – this is how the brain rewards you for doing positive behaviors and is the chief sensation you feel when you do something that you enjoy.

However, anandamide is surprisingly similar in shape to THC. This is what enables THC to mimic this effect, as when you imbibe THC, your brain’s CB1 receptors become filled with THC and continuously over stimulated.

Instead of triggering the receptors and then decaying, as anandamide does, THC actually stays at the CB1 receptor site for an exceptionally long time, triggering it over and over again.

The precise length of its stay at the CB1 receptors is based on its particular strain origin.

A study by Leslie Iversen for Brain: A Journal of Neurology found that THC’s interaction with the CB1 receptors is what creates these sensations, as well as inhibiting the release of amino acids and monoamine neurotransmitters in the brain.

Altogether, THC is able to induce a sensation of happiness, as well as all the other effects of being high that you’ve come to expect.

If you imbibe too much THC at one time, however, you begin to experience issues with psychosis, as well all kinds of disruptive psychomotor behaviors, due to the fact that your CB1 receptors are remaining over-stimulated for far too long.

Additionally, THC can have effects on other areas in the brain, especially when it is overused. Within the hippocampus, which is the section of the brain responsible for memory retention and learning, THC can begin to lead to the degradation of long-term memory acquisition, as well as general cognitive function.

Several studies, such as this one by Nader DA and Sanchez ZM for the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, have found that, when someone uses too much Marijuana over too long a period of time, they begin to suffer long-term cognitive degradation that is similar in pattern to the neural degradation experienced with age.

What this means is that, if you smoke too much weed, especially at a very young age, then you will lose neurons at a far faster rate, eventually leading to impaired mental faculties and reduced brain activity.

While this sounds pretty terrifying, it is important to remember that this is primarily linked to extreme examples of use, as well as using marijuana when your brain is still developing.

What about CBD, however? How does this lesser-known cannabinoid affect the brain in comparison to THC?

CBD’s Effects on the Brain

CBD, properly known as cannabidiol, affects the brain, and indeed the entire body, quite differently when compared to THC.

Instead of binding with the CB1 receptors and stimulating them over and over again, CBD works in a very different way. Firstly, CBD prefers to link up with the CB2 receptor, rather than the CB1 receptors.

This isn’t to say it is incapable of working with the CB1 receptors, only that it “fits” better there, and thus tends to go there first. However, the way it works with its chosen receptor is quite different altogether when compared to THC.

Rather than binding to the receptors directly and overstimulating them, various studies, like this one by Natalia Battista for the Journal of Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, have found that CBD instead simply works nearby. It stimulates the CB2 receptors not directly, but through blocking the receptors’ direct antagonists.

Essentially, the body’s method of controlling various bodily functions is to send a sort of signal to the relevant receptor, an antagonist that basically tells the receptor to shut off. However, CBD sits there, blocking the antagonist’s path to the receptor, making it so that the receptor is constantly being triggered through its association with CBD.

This means that CBD is incapable of creating any kind of psychoactive high, as it doesn’t stimulate either of the CB receptors strongly enough to induce that sensation of feeling high.

Additionally, the effects of CBD tend to be longer-lasting, as it continues to stimulate the CB2 receptor gradually and smoothly, without any of that initial burst of intensity that THC is known for.

However, there is a myriad of other effects that CBD can produce in the brain that THC simply can’t, and this has to do with its ability to act as a neuroprotective agent.

Studies have shown, like this one by Hampson et al. for the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, that CBD acts as a guardian for various neurons in the brain, slowing down the rate of neurological decay that overuse of THC can cause.

Additionally, and perhaps even more interestingly, this also applies to diseases that induce neurological decay, such as Parkinson’s disease. By protecting the degradation of neurons within the brain, patients with these conditions report the slower onset of symptoms, resulting in a higher quality of life.

Furthermore, CBD is well known as a treatment for epilepsy, and indeed was only recently federally legalized for use in the treatment of a few particularly unpleasant forms of epilepsy, like Dravet syndrome. Though the precise mechanisms still aren’t fully understood, using CBD in combination with the regular epilepsy medication Clobazam massively increases both drugs’ efficacy.

All this combines into a variety of useful potential medical benefits from using CBD, both as a way to induce relaxation and to help treat all manner of bodily injuries, but also tackle some very specific and frightening conditions.

Final Verdict About CBD vs. THC & Their Effects on the Brain and Mind

The difficult thing about trying to compare CBD and THC when discussing their effects on the brain is that they are fundamentally different things.

While they are both cannabinoids, they are also inherently different in their chemical composition and intended use.

While it does appear that CBD works to help counteract some of the more unpleasant side effects associated with using THC, it also works with the body in an entirely different way than THC does.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the best way to experience and enjoy these cannabinoids, and to get the very best health effects possible, is to enjoy them together simply; make sure to use cannabis that contains sufficient quantities of both cannabinoids to enjoy the fullest effect.

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