THC and CBD
Some light history
Humans have been using cannabis for the past 4700 years. When people hear the word ‘cannabis’ their minds jump to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is the main intoxicating ingredient in cannabis. Cannabidiol (CBD) is the second most prevalent phytocannabinoid found within cannabis.
Both THC and CBD were isolated from cannabis in 1940 and our understanding of THC improved in 1965 when the Israeli scientist Rafael Mechoulam synthesized the molecule (useful for performing in lab experiments). Sadly, many aspects of the plant and its chemistry are unknown as federal laws in the United States classify marijuana as a Schedule I substance which hindered research into possible benefits. Thankfully, research into the plant and its chemicals has begun to flourish with adult-use and medical marijuana legalization.
The Endocannabinoid system
Both THC and CBD are considered psychoactive as any substance that directly affects brain function is considered to be psychoactive. They activate your body’s endocannabinoid system which is relatively new to science and is not fully understood yet. It is believed to be involved in a number of processes such as regulating physiological and cognitive, immune system, appetite, pain sensation and memory.
Imagine it as a web of neurons that function as little on/off receptors throughout your brain and body. When one of these receptors is turned ‘on’ it stimulates the brain to create certain chemicals or regulate specific processes. The main receptor in your endocannabinoid system is the CB1 receptor which is involved in the brain’s reward system and stimulates the production of dopamine.
Why THC gets you high
The trick with THC is it is similar enough to endocannabinoids that typically bind to the CB1 receptors so it can activate the CB1 receptor too. When you inhale THC it is absorbed into the blood stream and goes to the brain and activates the CB1 receptors to the ‘on’ mode. The abundance of THC in your system causes the receptors to effectively be in an ‘always on’ mode. This constant signal then continually tells your brain to produce more dopamine which produces the feeling of getting high.
The reason CBD does not do this as well is the difference in molecular structure between it and THC (see picture). That’s why you can consume a ton of CBD and won’t feel intoxicated. There are new studies indicating that CBD might even alter the CB1 receptor and prevent THC from activating it. Instead, CBD is believed to activate other endocannabinoid receptors that deal with immune system and inflammation. The research about CBD’s health benefits is still early, but some great research at Mount Sinai Health System is in progress and we will update this page when we learn more.
If you are interested in hearing more about that research check out this Freakonomics podcast! It also details their research into the health benefits of other drugs.