Can You Get High Off Cannabidiol (CBD)?
The short answer is, no. Cannabidiol (CBD) doesn’t activate receptors in the brain, which is required to release neurotransmitters such as dopamine and subsequently lead to the euphoric effects of being high.
You can’t get high off CBD. However, the close relationship between CBD, THC, and cannabis creates a reasonable cause for concern if you aren’t familiar with how cannabis compounds interact with our bodies.
Understanding why CBD can’t deliver the ‘high’ associated with cannabis and how THC does trigger intoxicating effects gives us insights into the chemical changes that take place after administering different cannabinoids.
Before we get into the science of how CBD and THC affect the brain, we must define the complex network responsible for the chemical change, the endocannabinoid system or ECS.
The Endocannabinoid System
All animals possess an ECS and, in consequence, are affected by cannabinoids like CBD and THC (1). The ECS ‘regulates various cardiovascular, nervous, and immune system functions inside cells (2). It is responsible for creating the benefits associated with CBD, like decreasing anxiety, regulating appetite, lowering inflammation, and improving the sleep-wake cycle. The ECS also provides the mechanism of intoxication after using THC.
The three parts of the ECS are explained below:
Endocannabinoids – Naturally produced arachidonate-based lipids structured similarly to cannabinoids. The ‘first discovered and best-characterized are anandamide (arachidonoyl ethanolamine) and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG). (3)
Cannabinoid (CB) Receptors – G-protein coupled receptors located on cells throughout the body. There are two main types of CB receptors, CB1 and CB2. CB1 is primarily located in nerve cells in the brain and CNS, while CB2 is expressed mainly in the immune and hematopoietic cells. (4)
Degrading Enzymes – Proteins that break down endocannabinoids. The two enzymes that impact the ECS are fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MAGL). FAAH breaks down anandamide, and MAGL breaks down 2-AG. (5)
The ECS is incredibly complex, and scientists are just beginning to understand how it functions, but we know the mechanisms that take place after taking CBD and THC.
How Does CBD Interact with the ECS?
CBD has an indirect effect on the ECS because it is unable to bind directly with CB receptors. Instead, CBD inhibits FAAH, which increases levels of anandamide. (6)
Anandamide is extremely important regarding both CBD and THC. The endocannabinoid is known as the ‘bliss molecule and can bind with CB1 receptors in the brain and CNS. The phenomenon is known as the ’runner’s high’ is due to increased levels of anandamide after extended periods of cardio. The body needs exercise and rewards us by naturally producing the endocannabinoid. (7)
When CBD is used over an extended period, anandamide levels are increased, and the user experiences the benefits of CB receptor activation, influencing a number of bodily functions. However, the process of inhibiting FAAH is slow and takes time, one reason why CBD companies instruct their consumers to dose regularly.
Unlike a runner’s high, which creates a flood of dopamine released by CB1 receptors, inhibiting FAAH and increasing anandamide levels doesn’t produce an instant high. Users who experience benefits after taking CBD likely have insufficient levels of anandamide and low natural endocannabinoid production. A consistent dose leads to balancing these chemicals and lowering anxiety levels or leading to better sleep patterns.
Why Does THC Get Us High?
THC creates a high because once the compound hits the brain, it directly activates CB1 receptors, instantly increasing dopamine levels. CB2 is also activated but with much less efficacy.
THC can effectively bind with CB1 because it is structured similarly to anandamide. While CBD and THC have the exact same molecular composition and mass, their structures are slightly different. THC has a cyclic ring, where CBD has a hydroxyl group. The subtle difference is highly significant; allowing THC to activate CB1 and create the notorious ‘high.’ (8)
Cannabis Synergy – CBD and THC
Cannabis in flower form and full-plant extracts delivers both CBD and THC, along with a plethora of other cannabinoids and compounds. Isolated concentrates are available but are becoming less common. Even highly potent extracts are incorporating compounds other than THC. Cannabis users and researchers agree that taking cannabinoids together is more beneficial and opens up the opportunity to a spectrum of effects.
While CBD and THC are very similar, they function inversely on CB1. THC delivers a high because it activates CB1, while CBD acts as a negative allosteric modulator, meaning it limits the receptor’s activity and the ability for THC to bind with the receptor. (9)
The relationship between CBD and THC is most famously explored in Dr. Ethan Russo’s Taming THC. Russo explains that CBD lowers the effectiveness of THC when taken together. (10)
Does CBD Get You High?
Not only is it impossible to get high off CBD, but the cannabinoid also lowers the efficacy of THC by altering CB1. The answer is no, but the mechanism of CBD and THC function in the ECS is far more complex. The process is further complicated because THC and CBD are commonly taken together.
We have much to learn about CBD, THC, and the ECS, but we can confidently say that CBD won’t get you high as long as it is taken without THC.