Is CBD Really Non-Psychoactive, or is it a Myth?

One of the major selling points (if you want to call it that) of CBD oil and other CBD products is that, unlike its “partner-in-crime” THC, it is a non-psychoactive substance. We hear all the time and in almost every article we read, “CBD won’t get you high!” or, “CBD is entirely non-psychoactive!”.

But how true is this, really?

As it turns out, there seems to just be a mild ambiguity or discrepancy in the term “psychoactive.” Yes, it is true that CBD doesn’t get you high, but according to some people, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s non-psychoactive.

In this article, we take a closer look at what that term “psychoactive” really means, and examine whether or not we should be claiming CBD as a “non-psychoactive” therapy. While it’s true that it doesn’t alter the mind in any way, a few respected people in the industry are saying that a more appropriate term to be using might be something like “non-intoxicating.”

What Does “Psychoactive” Really Mean?

According to Science Daily, the term “psychoactive” refers to a substance that acts “primarily upon the central nervous system (CNS), wherein it alters brain function and results in temporary changes in perception, mood, consciousness and behavior.”

By that account, given that we most often associate an “alteration in perception or consciousness” with the stereotypical THC-induced high, most people would say that CBD is indeed non-psychoactive. After all, it doesn’t do things like produce the giggles or make us go into deep, existential conversations.

But what about depression or anxiety – or even insomnia for that matter? CBD is well-know to treat all three of these things, and might they be easily categorized as conditions that affect ‘perception, mood, consciousness and behavior?’ If we look at it this way, CBD would actually be very “psychoactive.”

And moreover, with regard to “acting upon the central nervous system,” it is common knowledge that CBD has a massive influence on CNS functioning, even if it doesn’t directly bind to CB receptors in the way that THC does.

THC and CBD: They Both Affect the Central Nervous System, just in Different Ways

Like we just said, it is well-known that THC directly binds to endocannabinoid receptors – namely CB receptors that are widespread throughout the central nervous system (in fact, the CB-1 receptor is the most abundant and widespread protein receptor in the brain and spinal cord). Also, in terms of chemical structure, THC has a nearly identical shape as the endogenous (naturally-occurring in the body) cannabinoid anandamide, which has been called the “bliss molecule” because of its euphoric effects on the mind. When THC physically binds to CB-1 receptors, it acts as an “anandamide overload,” hence the overwhelming feelings of euphoria.

CBD works very differently, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect on the central nervous system.

Rather than physically binding to CB receptors, it instead works on a more indirect level by activating receptor-independent channels, which in turn do have a direct effect on CB-1 activity. Rather than overwhelming the receptors with euphoria, though, it actually does the opposite and reverses (or “softens”) the effects of the THC high. This is why CBD offers great relief for THC-induced paranoia or panic/anxiety attacks.

Also, it has been observed that CBD binds to and activates non-cannabinoid receptors like serotonin, TRPV-1, and PPAR-gamma. It’s interaction with serotonin is believed to be the reason for its therapeutic anti-anxiety effects, while its interaction with TRPV-1 and PPAR-gamma accounts for its anti-psychotic and gene-expression effects, respectively.

As you can see, given its pleiotropic (having multiple effects) tendencies on the central nervous system, it may not be wise to say that CBD is non-psychoactive.

CBD and Psychoactivity: The Expert’s Opinions

Dr. Adie Poe is a neuroscientist out of St. Louis’ Washington University, and a recent co-founder of the cannabis research organization Habu Health. With the understanding that the average consumer finds it extremely confusing and frustrating to get any kind of straight facts or real, reliable information on marijuana products, her long-term goal has been to use clear scientific data to minimize the amount of opinion and biased anecdotal evidence that is currently saturating the cannabis industry. And as it turns out, her arguments are bringing up some really good points.

“Any substance that exerts its effects by directly impacting brain activity,” she says, “is considered to be psychoactive.”

She goes on to say that CBD has measurable anti-anxiety effects, which are “directly mediated by its many mechanisms of action within the central nervous system.” Moreover, she brings up the very valid point that intoxication (i.e. getting high) is just “one potential psychoactive effect” out of the many that cannabis has – including its roles as an antidepressant, antipsychotic, and anti-seizure therapy.

“CBD is psychoactive,” she emphasizes, “a lot of people misunderstand that. [It] binds to targets and activates processes inside your brain – it just doesn’t have the same intoxicating effect that THC does, nor does it affect motor functions.”

Final Thoughts on CBD and Psychoactivity

At the end of the day, we’re really probably just splitting hairs when it comes to whether or not CBD is psychoactive. By definition (that is, the fact that it acts on the central nervous system and alters brain function to influence things like perception, mood, consciousness and behavior), it seems rather clear that the substance is indeed quite psychoactive.

However, it’s fairly obvious when people say “CBD is non-psychoactive,” that they’re simply referring to the fact that it doesn’t negatively affect behavior, impair judgment, or inhibit simple motor functions. In other words, that it doesn’t get you high.

So if you want to be ultra-proper and scientific (or if you just want to sound smart and pull one over on your friends), you can certainly make the argument that CBD is psychoactive, and you can have plenty of scientific references and info to back yourself up on. However, if you want to “maintain the status-quo” and stay in accordance with the majority of folks’ viewpoints (not to mention the majority opinion of the cannabis industry), it’s probably not a huge deal to adhere to the general consensus that CBD is a non-psychoactive substance.

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