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Psychoactive vs. Non-Psychoactive: Are We Using Those Terms Correctly When it Comes to Cannabinoids?

November 3, 2020 - Science - Written by: Dr. Jonny Lisano, Ph.D.

Disclaimer: Part of our mission is to always present the latest cannabinoid research; however, none of this is intended to represent the safety or efficacy of our products. These statements and our products have not been evaluated by the FDA, and our products are not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure any disease. You should consult your physician or other health care professional before taking CBD to determine if it is right for your needs.

Written by: Dr. Jonny Lisano, Ph.D.

When it comes to cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, in particular, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), we often hear terms like “psychoactive” or “non-psychoactive” associated with these compounds. The compound THC is commonly regarded as psychoactive and CBD non-psychoactive. Yet, how do we actually define psychoactive effects, and are those terms being used correctly? Let’s take a closer look…

Defining Psychoactive 

First, let’s discuss what psychoactive really means.  A psychoactive substance is any chemical that produces mind-altering effects like changes in mood, perception, cognition, or behavior.  Typically, when we think of psychoactive drugs we think of stimulants like amphetamines (Adderall), depressants (alcohol), narcotics (opioids) or hallucinogens (LSD). When it comes to cannabinoids, we typically say THC is psychoactive and CBD is non-psychoactive.  Meaning CBD doesn’t produce any alterations in mood, perception, cognition, or behavior.

This belief is largely based on the fact that CB1 cannabinoid receptors of the endocannabinoid system are heavily expressed within the central nervous system. THC can bind and activate the CB1 receptor and cause psychoactive effects; however, while CBD can bind the CB1 receptor it can not activate it or cause the associated psychoactive effects. Thus, the mantra “THC is psychoactive but CBD isn’t”.

What if I told you that technically that’s not correct, and CBD is indeed psychoactive? Now hold on… don’t get too excited, CBD is not going to produce the same psychoactive effects as THC, but it certainly can induce alterations in your mental state. Specifically, alterations in your mood. The endocannabinoid system is much more complex than was initially thought and includes more than just the CB1 receptor that THC acts on. There are other cannabinoid receptors within the central nervous system that can cause mood alterations in response to CBD.

Defining a Mood

Now, the definition of a mood is a temporary state of mind or feeling.  One of the most common anecdotal reasons individuals use CBD products, like CBD oil, is to help dampen their feelings of anxiety.  Anxiety is simply defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease. That definitely fits the definition of a mood, as typically we feel very anxious prior to some major event like public speaking, meeting an online date for the first time, holidays with the in-laws, or interviewing for that job we really want.

CBD and Mood (Anxiety)

But what does science say about CBD and anxiety? Well for starters, in a double-blind randomized clinical trial in individuals that have opioid use disorder withdrawing from use, it was found that individuals who received CBD had reduced craving and anxiety in addition to lower salivary cortisol (our stress hormone) concentrations compared to placebo (Hurd et al. 2019).  In another study, 8-weeks of CBD administration to individuals suffering from PTSD, which is classified as an anxiety disorder, 91% of individuals experienced a reduction in PTSD related symptoms while also receiving regular psychiatric care (Elms et al. 2019).  Finally, in 18 to 19 year-old teenagers it was found that taking 300mg of CBD daily for 4-weeks significantly decreased their scores on two separate measures of social anxiety disorder compared to a control group (Masataka 2019).  So, that is three recent studies that demonstrate CBD could be beneficial in individuals suffering from anxiety disorders. Feelings of anxiety result from underlying psychological and neurochemical imbalances. As such, CBD technically is psychoactive because in order to reduce feelings of anxiety it would have to be causing effects at the neurochemical and psychological level.  The mechanisms of which are still to be understood.

A More Accurate Classification

I know, now you’re probably thinking, “Well if CBD is psychoactive what terminology should we use instead?”. That’s a great question! We believe that instead of using psychoactive and non-psychoactive to differentiate the effects of specific cannabinoids like THC and CBD we should start using intoxicating and non-intoxicating. An intoxicating substance is something that causes an individual to temporarily lose control of their faculties (i.e. hearing, speaking, seeing, balance, thoughts, understanding etc.).  Alcohol, opioids, and THC are all intoxicating substances, but CBD is not, it doesn’t have the intoxicating side effects of THC. CBD does not impair cognition in adults (Colizzi & Bhattacharyya 2017, Martin et al. 2019), and has actually been shown to counteract the cognitive deficits associated with long term THC use (Solowij, 2018).

Final thoughts

By definition and based off observed effects, CBD is indeed psychoactive, which is by no means a bad thing. However, to better differentiate CBD from other psychoactive substances like THC and opioids we should stop referring to CBD as non-psychoactive but rather non-intoxicating, as CBD does not alter our cognitive faculties the way other compounds do.

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Jonny received his Ph.D. from the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Exercise Physiology. During his time at (UNC) he and his advisor established the first cannabis and exercise performance laboratory in the nation. Jonny’s early research pertaining to cannabis focused on the assessment of how the long-term use of cannabis products in physically active individuals affected parameters of overall health and exercise performance. As he progressed into the field of cannabis research his focused shifted from exercise performance to that of how CBD affects immune function in physically active individuals who are using cannabis products.

Jonny has always been an advocate for living a healthy lifestyle and believes CBD can be an integral part of that. His focus at 6° Wellness is to provide and explain the most current scientific knowledge pertaining to cannabis in a way everyone can understand, and providing recommendations on how the products we offer can fit into your lifestyle.

In his free time Jonny enjoys training for competitive obstacle course races, hiking the beautiful Colorado backcountry, and partaking in the occasional beer from the local craft beer scene.

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