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Sep 12, 2019 Updated on May 16, 2021 9 min read

What are Cannabinoids?

author
by Emily Earlenbaugh, PhD.
Scientifically reviewed by Roni Sharon, MD
A zoomed-in look at the cannabis plant

One of the main reasons cannabis has so many diverse uses is the plant’s ability to produce a wide variety of different chemicals. In fact, there are over 500 different chemicals identified in cannabis. Some, like terpenes and flavonoids (the compounds responsible for the taste and smell of cannabis), are common in many different types of plants. But more than 144 of these chemicals are cannabinoids—compounds that are much rarer in nature but abundant in the cannabis plant. 

You’ve likely heard of the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which provides cannabis with much of its medicinal value and also produces the intoxicating effects. Another commonly known cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD), which is praised for having medicinal benefits without the intoxicating effects. While these are the most well known and abundant cannabinoids, there are a plethora of other cannabinoids produced by the plant.  

To truly understand how any type of medical marijuana might affect you, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how these active chemicals interact with your body and each other. 

How cannabinoids interact with the body 

In the 1990’s scientists researching cannabinoids discovered the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is comprised of 3 parts: 

  • endocannabinoids
  • cannabinoid receptors
  • enzymes designed to produce and destroy endocannabinoids 

One of the most important pieces of the ECS are the receptors. The CB1 and CB2 receptors are the primary receptors in this system and can be found throughout the human body. THC, a plant cannabinoid, is known to interact with both of these receptors.

Humans don’t produce THC, so researchers attempted to discover why these receptors exist within the body. What they found was that all vertebrates have these receptors that interact with chemicals that the body produces naturally—called endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids are produced by cells within the body in response to external factors, like pain or temperature. Endocannabinoids include the more well known molecules 2-AG and anandamide, as well as many less known endocannabinoids like virodhamine, and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol ether. 

This interaction between the endocannabinoids and their corresponding receptors plays a crucial role in maintaining your body’s internal balance or homeostasis. The endocannabinoid system regulates some very important aspects of your health, like:

  • Appetite
  • Blood pressure
  • Body temperature
  • Energy
  • Heart rate
  • Immune response
  • Inflammation
  • Memory
  • Mood 
  • Muscle control 
  • Pain response 
  • Sleep 
  • Thirst

So, as you can imagine, it’s pretty important to keep this system in good working condition. 

Researchers suggest that endocannabinoid deficiencies could be partially responsible for many health conditions that respond well to cannabis. From depression and arthritis, to fibromyalgia and Crohn’s disease, there are lots of conditions that may arise from a poorly functioning endocannabinoid system.

The cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, which are often called phytocannabinoids to distinguish them from endocannabinoids, are very similar to the endocannabinoids that our bodies produce naturally. When consumed, these phytocannabinoids mimic endocannabinoids and interact with our CB1 and CB2 receptors or other parts of the ECS. 

Cannabinoid effects and interactions

Common cannabinoids in cannabis
A full breakdown of the common cannabinoids in cannabis

There are over 144 known types of cannabinoids, and they are all different. Some are found naturally in the plant, while others have been found in various plants or in burned cannabis resin. Still, the way that these chemicals are produced often entails a chain of chemical transitions from one cannabinoid to another. 

In other words, some cannabinoids start out as one cannabinoid and then are converted by the plant or by a person into another. For example, THC begins in the cannabis plant as CBGA—the plant converts into THCA and then a person heats it during smoking, turning it into THC. If you notice similar names for two different cannabinoids, they are likely part of the same chain of transformations. 

These changes might be slight when it comes to the chemical structure, but these small shifts can cause big differences when it comes to the medicinal effects. As cannabinoids transform from one form to another, their level or type of psychoactivity and their specific therapeutic  effects may change. 

These cannabinoids won’t all work the same, and different cannabinoids activate the endocannabinoid system in a variety of ways. 

The entourage effect

To make things more complicated, cannabinoids’ effects may be influenced by other cannabinoids, terpenes or flavonoids present in the cannabis being consumed. This therapeutic synergy is known as the ‘entourage effect’ and is an acknowledgment that cannabis’ active chemicals seem to work together to create effects that wouldn’t come from any of their parts individually.

When it comes to the entourage effect, the most supported examples relate to THC and CBD. Cannabis growers have long known about CBD’s ability to influence the high that cannabis producers, but scientists have only recently been able to measure specific effects. Most studies now suggest consuming THC and CBD simultaneously may actually reduce the severity of commonly known THC side effects like memory impairment or feelings of anxiety. If this is true, and it generally is accepted as true, then THC + CBD is the simplest example we can find. The science gets trickier when you consider the multitude of cannabinoids and terpenes made by the plant.

With so many different chemicals, the potential combinations are almost infinite when considering how many different strains of cannabis there are. Each strain has a unique blend of these active chemicals, and can sometimes give surprising effects. The entourage effect has proven to be difficult to study and evidence to support our understanding is still being amassed.

Still, having a general idea of the effects of the major cannabinoids can be a big help in determining which products are best suited to you. 

What are the most common cannabinoids? 

Cannabinoid Acids

When the cannabis plant produces cannabinoids, it actually produces their “acidic form.” For example, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is actually produced by cannabis as THCA–tetrahydrocannabinolic acid. It’s only once a human takes the flower and heats it that the THCA in the flower converts to THC. 

Another name for these cannabinoid acids is “raw” cannabis. What’s interesting is that these cannabinoid acids, despite being most dismissed as inactive, actually offer a lot of therapeutic potential. Cannabinoid acids may still be absorbed into the body, but don’t seem to make it into the brain, which is probably why they were originally written off as therapeutic cannabinoids.

All cannabinoids are produced within the cannabis plant as cannabinoid acids. Generally all cannabinoids acids are derived from just one “mother” cannabinoid–CBGA (cannabigerolic acid). The plant must first produce CBGA before converting to the better known cannabinoids like THCA, CBDA, or CBCA.  Very little “activated” THC is found in fresh cannabis flower–most will be in the form of THCA and will be decarboxylated upon smoking. 

THC 

THC tends to get the most attention as the most plentiful cannabinoid in the modern cannabis plant, and the one that causes the well-known psychoactivity or “high” associated with cannabis. It’s also praised for its strong medicinal effects, which continues to be utilized by patients all over the world.

How is THC used and what does it help with? 

  • One common use of THC is for pain relief. In fact, pain is the most common reason patients use cannabis, and THC plays a huge role in this. While many cannabinoids offer pain relief, some studies show that THC can bring the highest level of pain relief—beating out alternatives like CBD. This makes it a very popular option for those seeking pain relief.
  • Others find THC helpful for its mood-boosting abilities. Some animal studies show that THC can act similarly to an antidepressant, uplifting a depressed mood and calming anxiety. Regular, long-term use though may actually increase the risk one’s of anxiety or depression.
  • In addition, THC has been shown to help with issues like nausea, muscle spasms, and sleep disorders, along with other conditions. It is also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, neuroprotective agent, and antioxidant. THC can even shift your metabolism to help avoid weight gain, as studies suggest cannabis users tend to eat more but weigh less than non-users.
  • Of course, for some, THC’s psychotropic properties can be a big deterrent to use. Side effects like mental confusion, short term memory loss, shifts in time perception, rapid heart-rate, lowered coordination and anxiety can make it an uncomfortable experience for some, especially at higher doses. Still, these effects only happen for some and often lessen as tolerance to THC builds. For many, these side effects can also be reduced by combining THC with other cannabinoids or terpenes

CBD

CBD is another common cannabinoid, and one that has gained a lot of notoriety in recent years as the “non-psychoactive cannabinoid.” Despite the hype, it turns out that CBD is psychoactive, because it can alter mood by easing anxiety and depression. But it doesn’t have the same kind of disorienting effects as THC like mental confusion, shifts in time perception, short-term memory loss or lack of coordination. Most CBD users report that their mind feels and functions normally, though some people do report feeling different.

This powerful cannabinoid is able to help with many conditions. It is used to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and as mentioned above, fight anxiety.

In addition, the World Health Organization recently reported that CBD can help treat epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, psychosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other serious conditions. The organization also concluded that CBD is exceptionally safe to use, having no known negative side effects or potential for addiction. This cannabinoid is under broad investigation for the treatment of many diseases, but so far sufficient evidence only exists for a few conditions, including pediatric seizure disorders.

THCV and other ‘varins’

Another popular cannabinoid is tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), though it is much less common than THC or CBD. This cannabinoid has a lot in common with its chemical cousin THC, but has a slightly different chemical structure and effect profile. This alteration in chemical structure means that, unlike THC, it may function as more of a blocker than an activator of CB1, but the data around this is conflicting.

Reported to produce a relaxing, euphoric, and energizing high, THCV may help block the anxiety-inducing effects of THC when the two are used together. It also holds promise  as a weight-loss aid—by reducing appetite and boosting metabolism, and as diabetes treatment by helping with blood sugar control and insulin production. To add to this, THCV may help promote new bone cell growth and prevent weakening bones, and can even act as a neuroprotectant in conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

There are other cannabinoids that end in “V” too. This group includes CBGV, CBCV, CBDV, and of course THCV. Otherwise known as the “varins,” these cannabinoids wield a shorter tail than the more known cannabinoids like THC and CBD, which may give them unique pharmacologic activity. There is much more to learn about the “varins” which may hold promise in managing weight loss, diabetes, cholesterol problems, autism, seizures, and more.

CBG

CBG is a common cannabinoid found in essentially all cannabis plants. Like all of the cannabinoids mentioned so far, CBG is produced as CBGA. All the primary cannabinoids are created from CBGA. This is how CBGA got its nickname of “mother of all cannabinoids.” CBG has also been dubbed  a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, but similar to CBD this probably isn’t accurate. The limited science we do have suggests CBG is active at a number of non-cannabinoid receptors. 

Early research shows CBG can have potential for a wide range of issues. CBG is an effective pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory agent. It can act as a neuroprotectant against degeneration in conditions like Huntington’s disease and has been shown to promote neurogenesis, the regrowing of new brain cells. Studies show CBG may help fight against colorectal, prostate and oral cancer.

CBG can help in reducing intraocular pressure in glaucoma, act as an antibacterial against resistant bacterial strains like MRSA, help with psoriasis and other skin conditions, and may even aid in regulating emotions like an antidepressant.

CBN

Cannabinol (CBN) is known best for being the cannabinoid that is created when THC ages–it is a natural byproduct of THC degradation. In fact, as THC ages a significant amount it can naturally convert to CBN–up to 25% per year. Some CBN can also be formed when THC is heated to high temperatures, like when smoking. While this might not sound appealing, it has so many medicinal benefits that some prefer older cannabis because it often has high CBN levels. Depending on the effects you are seeking, CBN could be the ideal cannabinoid for you.

CBN is considered to be sedative by many, however there is little research to support this. Pure CBN doesn’t seem to have a sedative effect, but when combined with THC, the combination was found to be very sedative. This makes cannabis high in CBN and THC a great option for insomnia and could help explain why smoking a joint feels different than vaping some herb.

Other research shows CBN can stimulate appetite, ease glaucoma, and work as a powerful antibiotic, which all makes sense given its close relation to THC. 

CBN may also be helpful for people with ALS. In one study, researchers were able to delay ALS onset for mice using CBN, but human studies are needed to confirm this potential use.

CBC 

CBC is another cannabinoid made from CBG with some important effects. Like CBN, CBC is a powerful antibiotic, shown to help with infections that are resistant to other treatments

CBC might also help protect the brain from neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. Studies show that CBC not only protects the brain, it could encourage your brain to grow new brain cells, at least if you’re a rat taking CBC.

Find the cannabinoid that’s right for you

This list of cannabinoids is just the beginning. There are many more cannabinoids out there to learn about, and the research is only just getting started in this field.s. Still, this should give you enough information to get started finding the cannabinoids that are right for you. 

With so many different cannabinoid options, you can learn to find the ones that fit your needs—and avoid the ones that don’t.

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