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THC vs CBD – Molecular Structure

CBD and THC have the same atomic formula: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. A slight difference in how the atoms are arranged allows for the differing effects on your body.

CBD and THC are both functionally similar to your body’s own endocannabinoids. This allows them to interact with your cannabinoid receptors.

These interactions affect the stimulation of neurotransmitters in your brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals responsible for relaying messages between cells and have vital roles in pain, immune function, stress, sleep, and assist with homeostasis.

Homeostasis and Balance of the Human Body – the Role of the ECS 

The human body has a microscopic signalling system to maintain balance and homeostasis, and to promote health. Because unlike other systems in the body like the circulatory system or the nervous system, this system for regulating balance in the body does not have a visible structure, it has evaded detection until discovered in the 1980’s. It is critical in its function even before we are born, playing an important role in embryo development and it is present in almost all animals, including our evolutionary ancestors and existed long before humans evolved. 

Some have called this the body’s Master Regulatory System. This might seem a little dramatic and rooted in the hype that was mentioned above, but it certainly is a regulatory and signalling system within our body that acts to maintain balance and homeostasis. And because it was discovered by cannabis researchers, for the activity that plant based cannabinoid compounds have on the human body, it was given the scientific name of the Endogenous Cannabinoid System, the Endo-Cannabinoid System, or the ECS. Note that the Endogenous Cannabinoid System was named as such even prior to its discovery as researchers were seeking to discover how plant based cannabinoids acted within the body. If the ECS had been discovered independently of cannabis research it may have been named differently based on its function within the body. 

Whilst plant based cannabinoids (phyto-cannabinoids) from cannabis were isolated as crude extracts long ago, and the first real cannabinoid ‘isolate’ was successfully purified in 1899, the first properly determined phyto-cannabinoid chemical structure was that of cannabinol (CBN) in 1940. This was achieved by Professor Roger Adams and his colleagues in the Noyes Chemical Laboratory at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign (UIUC), largely in collaboration with the USA Treasury Department Narcotics Laboratory in Washington D.C. (see section on Cannabinoid Chemistry below). However, it would take decades for more significant discoveries to begin to illuminate the story of cannabinoids and for any real momentum to begin in cannabinoid research. 

One of the most important researchers on this path has been Professor Raphael Mechoulam. Mechoulam with his collaborators has published over 400 scientific papers since the 1950s, and began publishing scientific papers on cannabinoids and medicinal cannabis in 1963. This included novel research in the early 1960s beginning with work on extracts from hashish, isolating compounds, and determining the structures of CBD in 1963 and THC in 1964. This foundational work on some of the plant based cannabinoid compounds has led to numerous profound discoveries, but arguably the most important discovery by Mechoulam and a significant group of collaborators and colleagues in this field was the discovery of the Endo-Cannabinoid System (ECS) from 1988, through the 1990s, and beyond. This research has never abated and has since gained momentum through the broader scientific community (despite some controversy and regulatory hurdles). 

The endocannabinoid receptors, the endocannabinoids and their biosynthetic and biodegrading enzymes constitute what has come to be known as the endocannabinoid system, the discovery of which prompted a search for its physiological and pathophysiological roles. This search revealed that there are several disorders in which endocannabinoids are released to their receptors in an ‘autoprotective’ manner that ameliorates unwanted effects of these disorders. “

– Mechoulam et al 2014 Nature Reviews Neuroscience 

Visit the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) website for comprehensive information on medicinal cannabis products, access and use guidance.