What is CBD?

What is CBD?

Chapter 1

CBD is everywhere. But what is it? And how is it different from THC? You’ve probably heard both acronyms tossed around. If you’re confused about the difference between them, you’re in the right place. Read on. By the end of this article, you will understand exactly what they are and how they are different.

Here’s the executive summary: CBD stands for Cannabidiol. It is one of the two major active compounds of Cannabis. CBD does not contain any intoxicating properties, meaning it does not produce a “high.” As you’ve probably noticed, CBD seems to be everywhere and everyone seems to be talking about CBD’s uses and benefits.

People who have used CBD oil hail it for its therapeutic benefits for the body and mind, especially it’s anti-inflammatory1 and anti-anxiety 2 properties. Studies have indicated CBD may help alleviate dry skin, acne, and other skin issues 3. It’s been shown to have sebostatic (reducing sebum or skin oils) and anti-inflammatory effects4.

For people looking for these types of benefits without the “high” associated with marijuana, CBD oil has become something many people are now using to treat various conditions.

Ok, now onto THC, which stands for Tetrahydrocannabinol. THC, also sometimes referred to as delta-9-THC, is the most well known of all of the substances in the cannabis plant because it induces the “high” associated with marijuana. CBD and THC are both cannabinoids, which is a name for chemical compounds naturally found in the cannabis plant. CBD and THC have almost the exact same chemical composition, with the position of one sole atom setting them apart. Because of that one difference, THC activates a receptor in the brain that stimulates a “high feeling,” while CBD inhibits that same receptor.

Now that you understand the broad differences, let’s do a deeper dive into each of them.


What is CBD?

CBD is one of the 100 naturally occurring compounds found in Cannabis plants (both marijuana and hemp). Because it’s not intoxicating, CBD does not cause the negative mental effects that may be associated with THC such as panic, anxiety, depression and psychosis5. In addition, CBD has been shown to actually counteract the mind-altering effects of THC6.

For the science nerds amongst us, here is a quick overview of Cannabidiol (CBD) and its chemistry. CBD’s formula is C21H30O2. If you hearken back to your high school chemistry days, you will recall that this means 21 atoms of carbon, 30 of hydrogen and 2 of Oxygen.

An article in National Cancer Institute states that CBD “may relieve pain, lower inflammation, and decrease anxiety without causing the ‘high’ of delta-9-THC.” The NIH also says that CBD may be useful in “possibly even treating mental illness and addictions.7” 

While research into CBD’s medicinal effects is still in its infancy, the US Food & Drug Administration in 2018 approved the first CBD-based drug to treat epilepsy8. And the future looks promising for other potential treatments as many studies are currently underway for everything from anxiety disorders9 to alcohol abuse10 to dyspepsia11 (indigestion) to back pain12.

For those afraid it might be harmful, CBD has gotten a clean bill of health from the World Health Organization, which issued a report stating that it is “generally well tolerated with a good safety profile.” When reported, side effects13 are generally mild, with fatigue the most commonly cited issue14

And for those who worried CBD may be addictive, the WHO report says, “there is no evidence of recreational use of CBD or any public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”

What is THC?

THC is the primary psychoactive agent in Cannabis. Largely because of THC, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance by the U.S. government under the Controlled Substances Act. This means marijuana is illegal under federal law. Of course, because of marijuana’s medicinal properties and widespread use, it has been legalized in many states for medicinal or recreational purposes, or both.

The National Institutes of Health writes that “THC, acting through cannabinoid receptors, also activates the brain’s reward system, which includes regions that govern the response to healthy pleasurable behaviors such as sex and eating. Like most other drugs that people misuse, THC stimulates neurons in the reward system to release the signaling chemical dopamine at levels higher than typically observed in response to natural stimuli. This flood of dopamine contributes to the pleasurable "high" that those who use recreational marijuana seek.”15

THC’s high can present in varying ways depending on the strain, potency, and the user. Some feel a sense of relaxation, wellbeing or even euphoria while others can feel anxiety, fear and even paranoia and in addition, THC also has the ability to heighten senses or, in extreme cases, cause hallucinations16. Impaired judgment, motor coordination, reaction time17 are also possible negative effects of THC as well as an increase in the time it takes to complete tasks18.

Besides its recreational uses, THC has proven medical benefits in certain formulations.19 The FDA has approved THC-based pharmaceuticals to treat nausea in chemotherapy patients and as an appetite stimulant for people with AIDS suffering from wasting syndrome, which causes muscle and fat tissue to "waste" away20. 

So there you have it. While CBD and THC come from the same plant and are very close in chemical composition, they are still very different in terms of their uses and benefits.


  1.   Nagarkatti P, Pandey R, Rieder SA, Hegde VL, Nagarkatti M., Future Med Chem. 2009;1(7):1333–1349. doi: 10.4155/fmc.09.93
  2.   Lee, J,  Bertoglio, L.,   Guimarães, F.  & Stevenson, C.  Br J Pharmacol. (2017) 174(19): 3242–3256. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5595771/
  3.   Oláh A., Markovics A., Szabó-Papp J., Szabó PT., Stott C., Zouboulis CC., Bíró T., Exp Dermatol. 2016 Sep;25(9):701-7. doi: 10.1111/exd.13042. Epub 2016 Jun 15.
  4.   Oláh A, Tóth BI, Borbíró I, Sugawara K, Szöllõsi AG, Czifra G, Pál B, Ambrus L, Kloepper J, Camera E, Ludovici M, Picardo M, Voets T, Zouboulis CC, Paus R, Bíró T., J Clin Invest. 2014 Sep;124(9):3713-24. doi: 10.1172/JCI64628
  5.   Johns, A., British Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 178, Issue 2, Feb. 2001 , pp. 116-122 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.178.2.116
  6.   Bhattacharyya S, Morrison PD, Fusar-Poli P, Martin-Santos R, Borgwardt S, Winton-Brown T, Nosarti C, O' Carroll CM, Seal M, Allen P, Mehta MA, Stone JM, Tunstall N, Giampietro V, Kapur S, Murray RM, Zuardi AW, Crippa JA, Atakan Z, McGuire PK. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010 Feb;35(3):764-74. doi: 10.1038/npp.2009.184. 
  7.   National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, “Cannabis and Cannabinoids -Patient Version”
  8.   FDA NEWS RELEASE, “FDA approves first drug comprised of an active ingredient derived from marijuana to treat rare, severe forms of epilepsy, June 25, 2018.”
  9.   Clinicaltrials.gov., “Cannabidiol for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders: An 8-Week Pilot Study,” McMaster University, June 8, 2018.
  10.   Clinicaltrials.gov., Cannabidiol for Alcohol Use Disorder, Medical University of South Carolina, April 5, 2019.
  11.   Clinicaltrials.gov., “Efficacy and Safety of Cannabidiol for Gastroparesis and Functional Dyspepsia,” Mayo Clinic, May 7, 2019.
  12.   Clinicaltrials.gov., “Investigation of Cannabidiol for Reduction of NeuroInflammation in Chronic Back Pain (CBD),” Massachusetts General Hospital, March 27, 2019.
  13.   Bergamaschi MM., Queiroz RH., Zuardi AW., Crippa JA., Curr Drug Saf. 2011 Sep 1;6(4):237-49., PMID: 22129319
  14.   Shannon S, Lewis N, Lee H, Hughes S. Perm J. 2019;23:18-041. doi: 10.7812/TPP/18-041. PubMed PMID: 30624194; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6326553.
  15.   NIH, National Institute on Drug Abuse, “How Does Marijuana Produce Its Effects?” July, 2019
  16.   NIH US Library of Medicine, toxnet, HSDB: DELTA 9-TETRAHYDROCANNABINOL, CASRN: 1972-08-3
  17.   NIH, National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Does marijuana use affect driving?” July, 2019
  18.   Vadhan NP., Hart CL., van Gorp WG., Gunderson EW., Haney M, Foltin RW., J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2007 May;29(4):357-64., DOI: 10.1080/13803390600693615
  19.   NIH. Ibid. 
  20.   Institute of Medicine (US); Joy JE, Watson SJ Jr., Benson JA, Jr., editors. National Academies Press (US); 1999. 4, The Medical Value of Marijuana and Related Substances. 

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