Why CBD is Different From Regular Cannabis

Updated on January 15, 2022

There is a new type of cannabis that is sweeping the United States and Europe right now: cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD is the plant’s second-most abundant cannabinoid, following tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, despite both influencing the body’s endocannabinoid system, there are many differences in the effects that these cannabinoids have.

By far and away the biggest distinction is that THC is psychoactive, and CBD is not. For recreational cannabis users, this makes CBD unappealing, as it cannot be taken to alter consciousness, induce short-term euphoria and reduce inhibitions. But for those interested in the medicinal benefits of cannabis, the lack of intoxication is precisely what makes CBD attractive and more viable as a treatment. 

For example, your boss isn’t likely to allow you to smoke cannabis for therapeutic reasons at work, because it will make you high. With CBD oil, you can still enjoy much of the physical and mental relief offered by cannabis, while staying grounded in reality at all times.

Why is there a sudden interest in CBD?

Considering that CBD has been known about for several decades and was first isolated and chemically defined in Israel in the 1960s, it has taken a long time for society to tune in to the possibilities of non-psychoactive cannabis. There are a few reasons for this.

As the primary constituent of cannabis and the compound responsible for its peculiar psychoactive properties, the vast majority of research and media attention has historically gone on THC. When marijuana use was rife in the 1960s as part of counter-culture movements in the United States, United Kingdom and beyond, intrigue in other psychoactive substances, such as LSD was also high. However, that curiosity was soon met with strong pushback, as concerns about the impact of mind-altering drugs on mental health grew.

As a prohibited plant in most countries, studying cannabis and its unique compounds was a challenge, and our understanding of it improved at a snail’s pace until the 1990s. We knew that cannabinoids like THC and CBD had some medical qualities, from patients’ improvements in symptoms, but the mechanisms in which they functioned were unclear.

The early 1990s brought the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), also in Israel. Finding this biological network has provided a much greater insight into how cannabinoids produce the effects that they do, which will ultimately help to develop high-quality medicines with these compounds, that do not cause severe side effects.

The ECS has allowed us to learn much more about the subtle changes that cannabinoids make to the body. Compared to THC is a very simple cannabinoid – it binds to the CB1 receptor as a partial agonist. CB1 receptors are overwhelmingly found in the brain, with notably high expression in the basal ganglia and in the limbic system. Agonists of this receptor have the ability to affect mood, appetite and pain sensation. While not a full agonist, THC is more potent than anandamide, an endocannabinoid that is called the “human THC” as it is the endogenous analogue of the cannabinoid.

However, CBD is an antagonist of both the CB1 and CB2 receptors, meaning that none of its effects are direct. Instead, CBD’s changes to the ECS are more measured. Alterations to mood and appetite are affected by increasing concentrations of anandamide. The endocannabinoid, which is also a neurotransmitter is not produced in greater quantities thanks to CBD, but it remains in the body for longer as CBD is an inhibitor of the fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) enzyme. CBD can also manage the potency of receptor agonists by acting as a negative or positive allosteric modulator. When CBD reduces the binding affinity of the CB1 receptor, this mitigates some of the effects of THC – making CBD an anti-psychotic.

This mechanism is why growers of recreational cannabis have predominantly sought to increase the ratio between THC and CBD in their strains in recent times. Their goal is to make the most psychoactive strain possible, and this is not just achieved by upping the THC content, but by reducing levels of THC. This manipulation of the cannabis plant may explain the mental health difficulties which can occur with sustained usage. While the herb has been used for thousands of years, never have users been subject to such an imbalance between CBD and THC.

However, most of these scientific breakthroughs have come in the late 1990s and early 21st century. It’s only now that the all-encompassing benefits of CBD are getting recognition, because medical researchers know the value, and indeed importance of having a balanced ECS.

CBD made national headlines in the US for the first time in 2013, as a treatment for epileptic seizures in children with rare, intractable conditions, like Dravet’s syndrome. A CNN documentary focussed on the new science behind cannabis, highlighted the stories of kids like Charlotte Figi, a young Colorado girl whose seizures reduced significantly after taking CBD oil.

In the years that have followed, children from across America and even the world have travelled or relocated to US states where this cannabis-based medication is legally available. Unsurprisingly, this positive media story about CBD fuelled huge interest in the compound, setting some of the foundations for the rapidly-growing market there is today.

Cannabis is now a health-conscious industry

Stereotypes about cannabis users have always done the plant a disservice. There are many people who use cannabis regularly and productively, finding that it helps with creativity, and in keeping them calm and sociable. Many have learned to harness the psychoactive effects for self-improvement and personal development. That said, recreational users also have a notorious reputation for sitting on the couch, eating junk food while high as a kite.

This perhaps hasn’t been aided by the fact that the most popular ways of taking cannabis have historically been smoking it or by infusing it into a sugary treat (an edible). Society is now much more aware about the dangers of smoking, however, and the cannabis and CBD industries are also moving with the times. CBD vape oil and e-liquid are some of the best-selling CBD products, as people try to recreate the experience of smoking, without subjecting their lungs to punishing inhales of hot, carcinogenic smoke.

The ECS is not just an internal system – the skin is packed with CB2 receptors which are part of the peripheral nervous system. Several cannabinoids have potent anti-inflammatory properties, which are often more powerful and less problematic than aspirin and other pharmaceutical drugs, and this is because of the immunomodulatory effect that CB2 receptors can have on the immune system. This is encouraging for those with acne and other inflammatory skin conditions, as CBD creams and other cannabinoid-infused topical products may help to alleviate symptoms, without causing cracked, dry or flaking skin.

Final thoughts

Interest in CBD may seem high at present, but it’s likely that things are just getting started. There is still a serious absence of clinical research in humans on the cannabinoid, which prevents it being prescribed for more than a handful of ailments, while stopping companies from making bold claims about products. And until prospective doctors are taught about the endocannabinoid system in-depth at medical school, the true of potential of cannabis and CBD will remain unknown.

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