Most people have heard of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol). They’re not only the most well-known, but the most prevalent compounds in the cannabis plant.
Most people with a limited knowledge of the plant will tell you: THC gets you high and CBD doesn’t, but that’s just a small part of the story.
THC the Most Well-known Cannabinoid
The main cannabinoid of cannabis is THC. Our understanding of how and why THC makes us “high” was very limited until 1965 when an Israeli scientist named Rafael Mechoulam isolated and synthesized THC.
We’ve now come to the understanding that THC is an activator of the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptor. When cannabis is taken by people who have had their CB1 receptors blocked (by a different drug called antagonist) cannabis cannot get them high. This means that CB1 receptors must be the critical target in the brain that induces a high.
Tetrahydrocannabinol binds to CB1 receptors in the brains rewards system which is what gives us the feeling of euphoria after consuming cannabis.
Studies focused on brain imaging have shown increased blood flow in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain during cannabis intoxication. The prefrontal cortex is a region in the brain responsible for decision making, attention and other executive functions like our driving skills. THC can affect any of these functions to various degrees depending on the person and their tolerance to cannabis.
THC also activates our brain reward pathways which makes us feel good. The activity in these regions of the brain produce pleasurable sensations and emotions.
CBD Doesn’t Get You High
Although CBD is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid, meaning it doesn’t get you “high,” it does have a direct impact on your brain function.
Cannabidiol which is the second most prevalent cannabinoid in cannabis is often referred to as a ‘non-psychoactive’ cannabinoid. This is slightly misleading. Any substance that has a direct impact on brain function is considered to be ‘psychoactive’ and CBD certainly does so.
While CBD could be classified as a predominantly non-psychoactive cannabinoid, it certainly does have a few powerful psychoactive properties such as anti-seizure and anti-anxiety properties.
So CBD is indeed psychoactive without the high associated with it. The reason for this is that unlike THC, CBD is bad at activating the CB1 receptor. Evidence suggests that CBD actually interferes with the activity of the CB1 receptor, especially in the presence of THC.
When THC and CBD work together to affect the activity of the CB1 receptor, users tend to feel a more mellow high and have a much lower chance of experiencing paranoia compared to the effects felt when CBD is absent. That’s because THC activates the CB1 receptor while CBD inhibits it. The presence of both cannabinoids balances the effect.
We are just beginning to understand the isolated effects of some of the many other cannabinoids like CBN, CBC and CBG and their ability to bind to receptors in the brain. They could potentially enhance, interfere with, prolong or in some other way manipulate the effects of THC. We’re just starting to learn the many ways cannabinoids work together to change the way we feel.