Cannabis is an incredible plant with many different medicinal uses. But have you ever wondered how medical marijuana can provide so much variety when it comes to its uses and effects?
One of the big reasons cannabis has so many diverse uses is its 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 found in many different types of plants. But more than 144 of these chemicals are cannabinoids—compounds that are unique to medical marijuana alone.
You’ve probably heard of the cannabinoids THC (which provides cannabis with much of its psychotropic and medicinal effects) and CBD (which is praised for having medicinal benefits without the same kind of intoxicating effects as THC), but there are a plethora of so many more cannabinoids to discover.
To truly understand how any type of medical marijuana might affect you, you need to get a basic understanding of how these active chemicals interact with your body and each other.
Not sure where to start? This guide will take you through the basics of cannabinoids, covering each major cannabinoid and helping you to discover which ones might be right for you.
How cannabinoids interact with the human body
Cannabinoids like THC and CBD have some incredible effects, but how do they work? Well, scientists researching cannabinoids tried to figure this out and actually discovered an entire system in the human body that nobody had known about. This system—called the ‘endocannabinoid system—is made up of CB1 and CB2 receptors which can be found throughout the human body.
These receptors interact with chemicals that the human body makes naturally—called ‘endocannabinoids.’ Endocannabinoids include chemicals such as 2-AG, anandamide, 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:
- Pain response
- Body temperature
- Immune response
- Heart rate
- Muscle control
- Blood pressure
So, as you can imagine, it’s pretty important to keep this system in good working condition.
Unfortunately, when this internal system is disrupted, or not functioning to its fullest potential, it can lead to problems. Some scientists believe that endocannabinoid deficiencies could be partially responsible for many health conditions that respond well to cannabis. From depression to arthritis, to insomnia, to Crohn’s disease and so many more, there are many conditions that can arise from a poorly functioning endocannabinoid system.
Luckily, cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant (sometimes called phytocannabinoids to distinguish from endocannabinoids) are incredibly similar to the endocannabinoids that our bodies produce naturally. When consumed, these phytocannabinoids act like our natural endocannabinoids and interact directly with our CB1 and CB2 receptors. This activates the endocannabinoid system so it can continue to maintain all of its key functions. When endocannabinoids are lacking, using medical marijuana can help to fill in the gaps and keep the endocannabinoid system functioning.
Cannabinoid effects and interactions
There are over 144 cannabinoids, and they are all different. 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 other cannabinoids and then transform in response to conditions like heat, light or oxidation. For example, THC begins in the cannabis plant as CBGA—but then transforms into THCA and then 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 the shifts can cause big differences when it comes to the medicinal uses for patients. As cannabinoids transform from one form to another, their level or type of psychoactivity and their specific medicinal effects may change.
These cannabinoids won’t all work the same, and different cannabinoids can activate this system in a variety of ways.
To make things more complicated, cannabinoids’ effects may shift depending on what other cannabinoids, terpenes or flavonoids are present in the cannabis blend being consumed. This is called the ‘entourage effect’ and is an acknowledgment that cannabis’ active chemicals work together synergistically to create effects that wouldn’t come from any of their parts individually.
Take, THC, for example. While it is considered to have energetic effects when taken by itself, when combined with the terpene myrcene, the resulting blend becomes quite sedative. On the other hand, if you add THCV to that blend, it will go back to being energetic. This is the entourage effect at work.
With so many different chemicals, the potential combinations are almost infinite, which is why there are so many different strains of cannabis. Each strain has a unique blend of these active chemicals, and can sometimes give surprising effects.
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.
Understanding the major cannabinoids
Ready to learn about the different cannabinoids? Here are some of the most popular and studied cannabinoids we’ve discovered so far:
THC tends to get the most attention as the most plentiful cannabinoid in the plant, and the one that causes cannabis’ well-known psychoactive and disorienting high. It’s also praised for its strong medicinal effects—which continues to be utilized by patients all over the world.
So 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. Studies show that THC can act similarly to an antidepressant, uplifting a depressed mood and calming anxiety.
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.
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. Still, these effects only happen for some and may lessen as your tolerance to THC grows. For many, these side effects can also be ameliorated by combining THC with other cannabinoids or terpenes.
CBD is another common cannabinoid, and one that has gained a lot of notoriety in recent years as the “non-psychoactive cannabinoid.” Well, 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. People using CBD tend to report that their mind feels and functions normally.
In addition, the World Health Organization recently reported that CBD can help with 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.
Another popular cannabinoid is THCV. This cannabinoid has a lot in common with its chemical cousin THC, but has a slightly different chemical structure and effect profile.
Known for its relaxing, euphoric, and energizing high, THCV has been shown to help those suffering from anxiety, and may even reverse the anxiety-inducing effects of THC when the two are used together. It can also be used 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 can help promote new bone cell growth and prevent weakening bones, and can even act as a powerful neuroprotectant in conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
If you are a fan of CBD, you might do well with the very similar CBDV. This compound is similar in structure to CBD, and like its cousin doesn’t cause big shifts to your perceptions or ability to function normally. While there isn’t a huge body of literature on this lesser-known cannabinoid, there are a few pieces of research that shed light on its potential uses.
One use for CBDV is as an anticonvulsant for those suffering from conditions like epilepsy. One study found that people treated with it had decreased seizures, and GW Pharmaceuticals is currently in phase 2 trial for a CBDV based drug for epilepsy.
CBDV may also be effective at relieving nausea, as one study showed it could relieve nausea symptoms in rats.
CBG is a common cannabinoid found in cannabis and hemp plants. It is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, so it is well suited to those who want to avoid the psychoactive aspect of cannabis.
Despite its lack of psychoactive effects, this powerful cannabinoid comes with a whole host of therapeutic effects.
Research shows CBG can help with 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.
It can help in reducing intraocular pressure in glaucoma, act as an effective antibacterial agent against resistant bacterial strains like MRSA, help with psoriasis and other skin conditions, and can even aid in regulating emotions like an antidepressant.
This non-psychoactive cannabinoid is best known for its pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties, but it also has some less common characteristics. CBGV has been shown to improve dry-skin conditions, which is fairly rare among cannabinoids.
CBGV also shows promise as a potential treatment for those suffering from cancer. One study even found that CBGV inhibits growth and division in leukemic cancer cells.
CBN is known best for being the cannabinoid that is created when THC ages. 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—but in actuality—it isn’t. Pure CBN doesn’t have a sedative effect, but when combined with THC, the combination is very sedative. This makes cannabis high in CBN and THC a great option for insomnia.
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 + CBCV
CBC is another cannabinoid with some important effects. Like CBN, CBC is a powerful antibiotic, shown to help with infections that are resistant to other treatments. CBC is also helpful for relieving pain, boosting positive moods and reducing inflammation when combined synergistically with THC.
CBC might also help protect the brain from neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. Studies show that CBC not only protects the brain, it also encourages your brain to grow new brain cells, in the specific areas responsible for memory and learning.
CBCV is a similar chemical which some say has similar effects to CBC. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough research on this cannabinoid to confirm any particular medical uses.
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 looking into these incredible chemicals. 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.