What Are Cannabinoids?

 

 
Have you ever wondered what produces the variety of effects that come after consuming cannabis?

Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found in cannabis – and in our own bodies!

Yes, that’s right, the human body produces its own cannabinoids which are known as endocannabinoids. One example of these naturally occurring compounds is anandamide, named from the Sanskrit word for “joy” or “bliss.” Your body naturally produces endocannabinoids, like anandamide, on-demand.

Cannabinoids found in plants (such as cannabis) are called phytocannabinoids.

Interestingly, phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids both interact with the same receptors, known as CB1 and CB2, found throughout the body. Together, this network of binding sites (receptors) and chemical messengers (cannabinoids) is known as the Endocannabinoid System or ECS.

Overview of Cannabinoids and Their Effects

 
You’re likely familiar with THC and CBD, two of the most well-known cannabinoids. But did you know there are over 100 cannabinoids found in cannabis?

Cannabis science is still very much in its infancy, and as research advances it will be fascinating to learn more about these cannabinoids in the years and decades to come. In the meantime, let’s answer the question “what are cannabinoids?” as we cover 10 of the most prominent ones:

THC

No overview of cannabinoids could be complete without discussing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

THC elicits a diverse range of effects by binding directly to both CB1 and CB2 receptors. It is best known, however, for “its activities as a psychoactive agent, analgesic [pain-reliever], muscle relaxant and antispasmodic.”1

Researchers discovered THC and isolated it from the cannabis plant in the 1960s2, and many people now incorrectly use the terms ‘cannabis’ and ‘THC’ interchangeably.

Of course, THC is only one of 100+ cannabinoids, and there are plenty of varieties of cannabis that contain only trace amounts of it.

Another misconception is that THC is a ‘recreational’ cannabinoid used only to get high. In reality, THC has a multitude of potential therapeutic applications and is commonly used by both medical and recreational consumers.

THCA

THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) is the precursor of THC. Fresh cannabis plants contain the greatest amount of THCA. During the drying process, some THCA is converted into THC, but the remaining THCA doesn’t become THC until being exposed to heat – either from smoking, vaping or cooking cannabis. This process is known as decarboxylation.

One study found that THCA is “capable of substantially improving the symptoms of obesity-associated metabolic syndrome and inflammation.”3

Another study noted, “THCA shows potent neuroprotective activity,”4 while a third study found that “THCA may be a more potent alternative to THC in the treatment of nausea and vomiting.”5

Despite the popularity of THC, THCA may hold just as much – or even more – therapeutic potential as the psychoactive cannabinoid.

CBD

Until recently, high levels of CBD (cannabidiol) were mainly found in hemp plants. As interest has increased in the non-intoxicating cannabinoid, so too has the number of high-CBD cannabis cultivars (such as ACDC and Durga Mata 2) and other CBD products (such as CBD Softgels and CBD Sprays).

An intriguing feature of CBD is that it seems to counteract some of the possible negative side effects of high-THC cannabis. Dr. Russo notes that CBD has a “modulatory effect on THC-associated adverse events such as anxiety, tachycardia, hunger and sedation in rats and humans.”1

Initial research has demonstrated that CBD is an extremely versatile cannabinoid with many potential applications. Russo found that CBD exhibits the following therapeutic properties1:

  • Analgesic
  • Neuroprotective
  • Anticonvulsant
  • Anti-nausea
  • Anti-anxiety

CBDA

Just like THCA’s relationship with THC, CBDA (cannabidiolic acid) is the precursor of CBD. After decarboxylation, CBDA converts to CBD.

Unlike the cannabinoids mentioned above, not much is known about CBDA. This is largely due to its low stability – meaning its chemical structure changes easily, making it difficult to study in a lab.

However, one study found that “CBDA… has anti-inflammatory and anti-hyperalgesia effects”6 in rats.

CBG/CBGA

CBGA (cannabigerolic acid) is sometimes referred to as the parent cannabinoid, because all the other cannabinoid acids (THCA, CBDA, etc.) are derived from it. In other words, CBGA is the precursor to THCA, CBDA, and CBCA.

The highest levels of CBGA occur early in the flowering period and over time, most of it is converted into other cannabinoid acids by enzymes in the cannabis plant. The small amount of CBGA remaining after cultivation and drying is converted into CBG through decarboxylation when you heat (smoke, vape or cook) cannabis.

CBG has “demonstrated modest antifungal effects” as well as “analgesic and anti-erythemic effects.”1

CBN

CBN (cannabinol) is formed as a result of the oxidization of THC, which occurs when dried cannabis is exposed to oxygen and light over time. So, if you want to boost the CBN content of your cannabis, simply leave it sitting in a jar for an extended period of time.

CBN has “demonstrated anticonvulsant [and] anti-inflammatory… effects” and “produced greater sedation combined with THC”1 – making it a good candidate for further research into its suitability as a potential treatment for insomnia.

CBC/CBCA

Like THC and CBD, CBC (cannabichromene) is derived from its acid form, CBCA (cannabichromenic acid), through decarboxylation.

An interesting property of CBCA is its ability to induce cell death in the leaves of a cannabis plant7. This is believed to be a defense mechanism for the plant as it causes damaged leaves to fall off, leaving more energy available for growing healthy leaves and buds.

CBC’s potential for medical applications is high, as Dr. Russo notes its impressive “anti-inflammatory and analgesic activity, its ability to reduce THC intoxication in mice, antibiotic and antifungal effects, and observed cytotoxicity in cancer [cells].”1

THCV

Tired of getting the munchies? Then THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin) might be the cannabinoid for you.

THCV is similar in structure to THC, but its precursor is THCVA (tetrahydrocannabivarinic acid).

Researchers have discovered that “THCV produces weight loss, decreased body fat and serum leptin concentrations with increased energy expenditure in obese mice.”1 More research into its effects on humans is needed, but these initial results are encouraging reasons to conduct more studies.

Conclusion

 
As we’ve seen, the variety of effects produced by phytocannabinoids is staggering. Even more incredible is the broad array of different compounds in cannabis that cause those effects!

Now, the next time someone asks you, “What are cannabinoids?,” you can respond with your new knowledge about some of the most prolific cannabinoids and their potential effects.

 

Learn more about the chemical compounds in cannabis:

 

References

1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3165946/

2https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229163258_The_Endocannabinoid_System_and_the_Brain

3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31706843

4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5731255/

5https://bpspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bph.12316

6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30225659

7https://www.jbc.org/content/282/28/20739.full