CBD vs. THC: Differences, Effects and Quality | Ann Shippy MD
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CBD vs. THC: Differences, Effects and Quality

I don’t know about you, but I see CBD products popping up everywhere! I’ve seen CBD lotions at the checkout stand and CBD water at my local coffee shop. My natural food store has an ever-growing selection of CBD foods, oils and pills. I’ve been seeing more articles about CBD in medical journals and having more conversations with colleagues and patients about this compound.  

One of my Facebook followers commented: “CBD oil helps me with my pain, anxiety and insomnia!” I tend to agree that CBD oil offers a very helpful therapeutic tool for many people, and more research is coming in all of the time to support medicinal benefits; but the key is finding a high-quality source.   

I decided to write this article to answer all of your questions about CBD, help you decide if it is right for you to try, and how to choose a high-quality product. 

In this article, you will learn: 

  • The difference between CBD and THC 
  • Is CBD legal? 
  • What are the benefits of CBD and what conditions may it help 
  • Side effects and safety concerns of CBD 
  • How to choose a CBD product 
  • How to take a CBD product 

CBD vs THC – What’s the Difference? 

CBD stands for cannabidiol and THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol. These are just two of the over 100 cannabinoid compounds found in the Cannabis sativa plants, hemp and marijuana.  

THC is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana known for producing a “high.” CBD is found in both marijuana and hemp plants, and although has effects on the body, does not produce a psychoactive response like THC does. CBD won’t get you high. 

Hemp plants are cannabis plants with less than 0.3% THC and the main source of CBD oil. CBD makes up about 40% of the cannabinoid compounds in hemp. Hemp can also be used for making paper and textiles and for its edible seeds that are a good source of omega-3 fats and protein. 

I’m sure you are curious about the effects of both CBD and THC and whether CBD offers some benefit without the risks or the high from marijuana. First, it is helpful to understand how these compounds work in the body. 

Both CBD, THC and the other cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), which includes specific cannabinoid receptors in the body’s Central Nervous System. The role of the ECS is to help your body maintain homeostasis, or balance, in all systems including the stress response, digestion, brain function, bone health, metabolism and reproduction. In other words … many of our critical processes are affected by endocannabinoids. 

Your body naturally produces cannabinoid molecules that interact with the ECS and THC, CBD and the other cannabinoid molecules found in marijuana and hemp mimic those that your body naturally produces. Since CBD and THC have different effects in the body, they likely interact with the ECS in very different ways. 

This synergy between humans and plants may offer some possible medical treatments. The pharmaceutical industry has already caught on: cannabidinol (CBD) is an ingredient in Epidiolex, which is a seizure disorder medication.  

Is CBD Legal? 

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp and hemp-derived products, ending an over 100-year prohibition of this plant. So CBD products are legal in all states as long as the CBD is derived from hemp (remember hemp is defined as containing less than 0.3% THC). 

The legality of marijuana (which contains more than 0.3% THC) varies by state. In some states marijuana is illegal and in others marijuana is legal for medicinal use, recreational use or both. CBD products derived from marijuana are only available in states where marijuana is legal.  

Federally, marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, making it illegal. 

CBD vs. THC The Benefits 

Because of the legality of marijuana, robust clinical research is lacking for a variety of conditions. Medical marijuana is most often used for seizures, multiple sclerosis, pain (such as fibromyalgia and migraines), chemotherapy-induced nausea, glaucoma, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and Crohn’s disease, and the wasting associated with HIV-AIDS.  

I do have some concerns about the safety of marijuana (THC) for brain and mental health, as well as for the quality of the product which can be contaminated with mold or chemicals. I talk more about these concerns in my article Cannabis: Good for Your Health? I’m not for or against medical marijuana and think that each person should weigh the pros and cons of this therapy, if available to them.  

Since CBD has only been legal for a couple of years, the research on humans is beginning to take off and it will be fascinating to follow what is discovered as far as medical or therapeutic use for CBD. Research on CBD is looking at many of the same conditions as THC and may offer some of the benefits without the risks.  

What is CBD Good For?  

Here are some of the conditions with anecdotal clinical support or where there has been research on CBD: 

In my practice, I get asked about the use of CBD a lot, especially now that it is legal and widely available. I believe that CBD is safe to try and has fewer side effects than many pharmaceutical options. Of course, the quality and purity of the product matters greatly and I will discuss that below.  

As a physician, I take a holistic and Functional Medicine view of each individual patient and their condition. Where CBD might play a role in someone’s treatment plan, it is still only a part of the picture. CBD may help with symptom relief, but I’m still interested in uncovering and addressing the root causes for each of my patients and developing a comprehensive treatment protocol that includes diet, lifestyle, supplements, detoxification, stress managementexercise and other interventions.  

For example, where CBD may help manage the pain of a migraine headache, I’m still interested in what is causing the migraine and want to explore nutrient deficiencies, food sensitivities, toxins and other triggers.   

In my practice, CBD supplementation (hemp) has been very helpful in some patients for pain, sleep issues, inflammation and headaches. 

Side Effects and Safety of CBD 

CBD is very safe for most people and doesn’t have any issues with dependency or abuse. The World Health Organization Report on CBD states: “In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential… To date, there is no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”  

CBD seems to be well tolerated with little or no side effects. The most common side effects of CBD are drowsiness and loose stools.  

Evidence is limited on CBD in certain populations and CBD may possibly be unsafe for pregnant and nursing women. We know that THC can cross the placenta and get into breast milk, so it is possible that CBD does the same and animal studies suggest that CBD can affect development.  

CBD may also interact with certain prescription medications. CBD is metabolized through the Cytochrome P450 enzymes in the liver, the same enzyme system that many medications rely on. I always recommend consulting with me or another trusted medical provider who is educated on CBD before taking CBD or any new supplement. This is especially important if you take medications or have a medical condition. 

How to Choose CBD  

The CBD market is booming with little regulation on quality, purity and dosages of CBD products. Just like other supplements, I recommend sourcing reputable brands (often practitioner brands) where quality and purity are verified.  

The biggest issue I see with CBD is toxins. Hemp can be grown with pesticides, herbicides or in soils with heavy metals and these compounds can become concentrated in the CBD oil through the extraction process. The extraction process is also an issue. Most CBD oil is extracted using (toxic) hexane solvents. Many companies are not testing their end products for contaminants.  

In addition to toxins in CBD, there can be issues with dosages, proper labeling and THC content. A study of popular CBD products revealed that many had lower CBD doses than claimed and some even had higher THC levels than the 0.3% legal limit. This could pose an issue, especially for those whose employers test for THC in drug tests. 

When choosing CBD products, it is essential to be a savvy consumer. Here are my top tips: 

  • Choose organic. Organic hemp means fewer, and ideally zero, herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer residues that end up in the oil. 
  • Choose COextraction. Carbon dioxide extraction methods are an alternative to using toxic solvents. 
  • Choose “Broad Spectrum CBD.” Remember there are over 100 natural cannabinoids in hemp and they all likely work in synergy with one another. Just like I recommend eating the whole food or using a whole herb, using whole hemp is best.  
  • Choose companies that test their products. Ask about in-house or 3rd party testing and choose companies that prioritize quality, purity and transparency.  

How to Take CBD 

CBD is available as a liquid, as capsules, sprays, edibles (such as protein bars, gummies or sparkling water) and can even be used topically in a salve or lotion. I typically recommend capsules or a liquid because I have found that these provide the most consistent dosages. 

When taking CBD orally, you can combine it with a meal since fat will help to increase its absorption. Many oils and gel caps contain CBD packaged along with coconut or olive oils.  

Because of CBD’s safety profile and legal status, I believe it to be beneficial for many of the symptoms and conditions discussed in this article, especially in conjunction with other Functional Medicine approaches. The most important point that I want you to walk away with is that quality and purity matter most. It is worth taking the time to find the best possible product for you.  

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