THC vs CBD: What’s the Difference?

Written by Bonni Goldstein, M.D.

You may have heard about THC and CBD — they’re basically the yin and the yang of cannabis. In short, THC gets you high and CBD doesn’t. But how are people using them as medicine?

First, a little science: The cannabis plant is made up of over 500 components, including a family of medicinal compounds called phytocannabinoids. The two most prevalent cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).

The system in the brain and body where those phytocannabinoids interact with our cells is called the endocannabinoid system. It’s made up of cannabinoid receptors (acting as “locks”) and compounds called endocannabinoids that bind to them (acting as “keys”), and its job is to maintain balance between the messages our cells send to each other. Critical to health and wellness, this system plays an important role in almost every physiologic process in the human body, including emotions, energy metabolism, immunity, gastrointestinal function and more.

Related: 4 Groundbreaking Studies on Cannabis and Disease

How THC Works

THC’s intoxicating effect is a direct result of an interaction between THC (the “key”) and the brain’s cannabinoid receptors (the “lock”). When they bind together, a chemical change happens in the cell, which then causes a change in the cell’s neurotransmitter message.

The location of the receptors tells us how THC will affect someone. For example, the areas of the brain that control pain, emotion, sleep, appetite, nausea, learning, memory and pleasure all contain endocannabinoid receptors — and that’s why people who use THC report benefits like pain relief, less anxiety and depression, and better sleep.

How CBD Works

CBD is more complicated. Unlike THC, it doesn’t bind directly to the cannabinoid receptor, so while it does affect the flow of neurotransmitters in the brain, there’s no “high” effect. CBD works by modulating how endocannabinoids and THC (the “keys”) bind to the cannabinoid receptor (the “lock”).

It also works at many physiologic sites outside the endocannabinoid system.

Because of its widespread activity in the brain and body, CBD has an extensive range of therapeutic properties, providing neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-convulsant, anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety and anti-cancer benefits. That means patients with epilepsy, autoimmune disorders, neurodegenerative illnesses and inflammatory conditions who use CBD often find great relief from their symptoms.

Combined Effects

Now let’s talk about how THC and CBD can be used together — something most experts recommend to their patients thanks to a phenomenon known as “the entourage effect.” This means they work better in tandem than alone, and when combined, enhance each other’s effects while minimizing potential side effects. For instance, while both THC and CBD are proven to have pain-relieving properties when taken separately, studies show CBD enhances pain relief when taken with THC. Also, CBD can minimize some unwanted effects from THC, such as memory loss, rapid heart rate and intoxication.

Simply saying, “THC gets you high, CBD doesn’t,” just scratches the surface when it comes to understanding THC, CBD and cannabinoids in general.

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Bonni Goldstein, M.D. is a Los Angeles-based physician and medical advisor for Weedmaps, the world’s first and largest cannabis technology company, where users can search for medicinal cannabis products. Dr. Goldstein has successfully treated thousands of adult and pediatric patients with cannabis, and has recently been recognized as the 2017 Medical Professional of the Year by Americans for Safe Access (ASA).  Dr. Goldstein’s book Cannabis Revealed was awarded 2017 Book of the Year Semifinalist by the American Botanical Council.  For more info on the CBD/THC relationship (and all sorts of other essential topics and laws relating to cannabis), be sure to check out Weedmaps Learn.


Sophie A
Sophie A14 days ago

Thank you

Marie W
Marie W6 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Marge F
Marge F11 months ago

Thank you for posting this informative article.

Ellie M
Ellie M11 months ago


Stanley S
Stanley S11 months ago


Patricia D
Patricia D11 months ago

Thanks for the info.

Julia S
Julia S11 months ago

Thank you!

W. C
W. C11 months ago

Thank you.

William C
William C11 months ago


joan silaco
joan s11 months ago