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CBD vs THC: Everything You Need to Know

Structure of CBD - CBD vs THC

Over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed that naturally-containing cannabidiol (CBD) supplements have become increasingly popular for promoting overall wellbeing. From oil tinctures to gummies to softgel capsules to skin salves, CBD-containing extracts are everywhere. But because it stems from cannabis plants, plenty of people are still curious about and confused by how CBD can help their bodies without creating the psychoactive “high” effect commonly associated with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) within cannabis.

That’s why we decided to simplify the conversation a bit and break down what exactly makes these two ingredients unique. THC and natural CBD are structurally similar, but the ways in which they affect the human body are dramatically different. Here’s everything you need to know about the distinctions between CBD-containing products and THC.

CBD vs THC Infographic

Chemical Structures of CBD & THC

Chemically speaking, CBD and THC have the exact same makeup. They both contain 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms and 2 oxygen atoms.2 However, 1 atom is located in a different place in the 2 molecular structures. That microscopic difference changes how the human body reacts to the two compounds.

CBD and THC are considered phytocannabinoids, meaning they are cannabinoids present in plants. The human body also makes its own cannabinoids internally, which are known as endocannabinoids. Plenty of other cannabinoids exist alongside CBD and THC— such as CBC, GBG and CBN—but these two are the most well-known and understood today.

The Endocannabinoid System

All humans have what’s called an endocannabinoid system (ECS). This is the body’s network of neurotransmitters responsible for binding with cannabinoids in order to maintain vital functions like cognition, fertility, appetite, pain sensation and more.3 The ECS was discovered in the early 1990s by research scientists trying to find an explanation for why THC in cannabis plants creates a psychoactive effect in the human brain.4

There are currently two cannabinoid receptors recognized by biologists: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors reside predominantly in the brain and central nervous system while CB2 receptors exist in the peripheral nervous and immune systems. Phytocannabinoids, cannabinoids, and endocannabinoids attach not only to CB1 and CB2 sites, but also to receptors for opioids, serotonin, dopamine, orexin and even chemokine.

Because CBD and THC are cannabinoids, they interact within the endocannabinoid system. And they are just two of the 104 different cannabinoids currently found and understood in cannabis plants.5 While both CBD and THC bind to CB2 receptors in a similar way, they have opposite reactions to CB1 receptors. THC binds directly with CB1, and that reaction sends a signal to the brain that results in a “high” effect. CBD, on the other hand, can’t bond directly with CB1. Instead, it negates any existing bonds between THC and CB1. CBD alone doesn’t lead to any psychoactive response.

How You Can Find CBD in Supplements

While CBD and THC can be found together in some plants, different types of cannabis plants contain varying amounts of each of these compounds. According to the 2018 Farm Bill, the term “industrial hemp” is now used to classify cannabis varieties that, when dry, contain no more than 0.3% THC, and the term “marijuana” is used to classify cannabis varieties that exceed that 0.3% THC content marker.6 While hemp plants can have low (less than 0.3%) to undetectable levels of THC, they can contain a bounty of beneficial CBD, which is why hemp plants are now considered legal by the federal government and used in all sorts of wellbeing-promoting products today.

Read more about the hemp plant and its many uses in Hemp Plants & CBD Hemp Extract.

Where to Buy CBD Hemp Extract

When choosing a CBD hemp extract product, look for a supplier that guarantees both quality and potency and has a certificate of authenticity on hand for all of its products. At Swanson Health, every CBD hemp extract product we carry is 100% quality tested and has undergone an extensive review from our science and regulatory teams. That means means you’re guaranteed to find the right product for you with the synergistic benefits of plant terpenes, cannabinoids, flavonoids and fatty acids, all working together to power your wellbeing.

If you found this article to be helpful, you might also enjoy What is CBD Hemp Extract? and The Best Nutrients to Knock Out Stress. Also, be sure to sign up for Swanson Health Emails to get expert wellness advice and our best promotions in your inbox.

Lindsey Bristol, Swanson Health Products



About Lindsey Toth, MS, RD
Registered Dietitian, Swanson Health Products

Lindsey is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and nutritionist with a soft spot for pie. She empowers people to take charge of their health by finding the balance between the pleasure and nourishment in food.

Her philosophy is that you should take care of your body because it’s the only permanent home you have. It’s what inspired her to pursue a career in nutrition and, ultimately, led her to Swanson Health.


1 Can CBD Really Do All That? The New York Times.

2 Cannabidiol. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

3 Pacher P., et al. Pharmacological Reviews. 2006 Sep; 58(3). doi: 10.1124/pr.58.3.2. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.

4 Matsuda LA., et al. Nature. 1990 Aug 9; 346(6284). doi: 10.1038/346561a0. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.

5 Lafaye G, et al. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 2017 Sep; 19(3). US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.

6 2018 Farm Bill. U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nursery, & Forestry.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease


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