Does CBD Get You High : Cannabis, from the days of reefer madness on down, has been known for its intoxicating effects. Those effects—the “high” or “stone”—are due to THC, the most dominant and psychoactive of the more than 113 cannabinoids found in cannabis.
But as we have come to better understand cannabis, both in its chemical elements and their individualized effects, its use has increasingly become less about getting high and more about getting well. CBD has emerged as the “other” cannabinoid, THC’s more well-behaved sister, psychoactively speaking. CBD is known as the one that won’t get you high.
But is this true? Does CBD get you high, or not? This is not as straightforward a question as it first appears. Although CBD is commonly considered to be non-psychoactive, this is really only compared to THC; after all, among the most prized effects of CBD is its ability to reduce anxiety and promote calm, both which are psychoactive effects. Psychoactive simply means it has effects on the mind.
High is a fuzzy term. We get “high” in any number of ways—the “love high” experienced with a new romance, for example, or more pertinently, the “runner’s high” athletes get from rigorous physical exercise.
The science of the runner’s high has a lot to tell us about CBD’s impact on our consciousness. Researchers have only in the last few years examined the runner’s high as it relates to the endocannabinoid system, and it turns out a runner’s high looks a lot like what occurs in the human body after using CBD. Previously, it was believed a runner’s high was due to the release of endorphins, the body’s self-produced form of opiates.
However, it now appears that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is what is really behind the sense of euphoria and painlessness associated with a runner’s high—specifically the neurotransmitter anandamide, known as the “bliss molecule,” which is found in increased levels in the body after strenuous exercise.
CBD likewise helps increase levels of anandamide found in the body. A runner’s high and the feeling produced by CBD are both physiologically and psychologically similar. THC, on the other hand, does not increase anandamide levels.
This helps answer the question more clearly: yes, CBD does get you high in a sense, but it’s not the feeling of disorientation experienced with a traditional THC-induced marijuana high. It is a more subtle, calming, and clear-thinking sense of wellbeing, akin to a runner’s high.
In other words, CBD is psychoactive but not intoxicating. As always, the key to understanding this is the endocannabinoid system, which as we know consists of two types of receptors, CB1 and CB2. THC and CBD interact with the CB1 receptors very differently.
THC directly binds with and activates the CB1 receptor. In studies in which THC-rich cannabis is given to people who have had their CB1 receptors blocked, they experience no intoxicating effects. This means that the CB1 receptors are most prevalent in the area in the brain that produces feelings of intoxication. Neuroimaging studies have shown this to be true: subjects experiencing THC intoxication show increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for most high level cognitive tasks, such as decision-making, as well as motor skills.
CBD does not bond directly with the CB1 receptor, but instead serves as an inhibitor, preventing the breakdown of naturally occurring endocannabinoids in the body—most significantly, anandamide. Tellingly, CBD even inhibits the bond between THC and CB1 receptors, reducing the intoxicating effects of THC. Hence marijuana with high levels of THC that also has high levels of CBD tends to have less of a “stoney” effect and more of a calming one.
Interestingly, while CBD doesn’t activate the CB1 receptor, it does impact another significant receptor system other than the ECS—the body’s serotonin receptors. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of well-being and happiness; serotonin levels are elevated by physical exercise and even exposure to sunshine.
CBD’s activation of serotonin receptors, then, further explains its remarkable effectiveness at fighting anxiety. While people regularly experience better moods on sunny days, nobody has ever gotten intoxicated from sunshine.
So does CBD get you high? The real answer is we need to better define what “high” means.
Consider the phrase, “You must be high,” which is usually meant derisively, as in, “You are crazy.” Yet in the realms of examining consciousness, higher usually means better—elevated moods and higher functioning.
CBD has many positive health impacts, including some that are purely physiological, such as reducing inflammation, but arguably its most consistently powerful impacts are psychoactive. Nothing about anxiousness is good for human health. CBD has the ability to fight anxiety and heighten our sense of calm, clarity, and happiness.
Why does all of this matter? Because while THC offers some of the same health benefits as CBD, many people have no desire to be intoxicated. THC’s stronger psychoactive impacts, in fact, can increase feelings of anxiousness.
And one of the reasons that marijuana has been illegal for so long is that it can impair judgement. Studies have shown that THC can hamper aspects of cognitive function and motor skills. CBD does neither, and in fact, has often been linked to enhanced cognition.
So in this sense—no, CBD doesn’t get you high, not in the way that THC does. The reality is that in nature, CBD, THC, and all the other cannabinoids have what is known as an “entourage” effect—they work together in complex, often complementary ways.
But science’s more recent advancement in understanding the endocannabinoid system and its many areas of influence in the human body has likewise allowed us to better understand the different effects of cannabinoids and use them more effectively.
CBD can deliver many of the same benefits that have drawn people to cannabis for centuries without inducing its more extreme psychoactive effects. The difference is that in the past we had no ability to isolate CBD, and create products that utilize its unusually broad array of benefits, without the de-stabilizing side effect of “getting high.”
Dr. Mike Hansen, MD
Internal Medicine | Pulmonary Disease | Critical Care Medicine
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