Cannabinoids Explained

What are cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are naturally occurring chemical compounds that are found in cannabis, and often unique to the plant. Of the over 480 different compounds present in the plant, just over 100 are termed cannabinoids. They’re the reason you may feel a psychoactive high or therapeutic pain relief after consuming cannabis.

Cannabinoids are similar to endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids). These are produced by the human body and used to promote homeostasis, which regulates internal health and immune system functions. Endocannabinoids work by signaling to other cells and can produce similar, modest euphoric feelings naturally, like a runner’s high.

How do cannabinoids work?

The source of marijuana’s distinct effects was a perplexing question until rather recently. It wasn’t until the 1980s that research into cannabis found cannabinoids bind to receptors found throughout the brain and body.

To date, two different classes of receptors have been identified:

  • CB-1, commonly found in brain cells and the central nervous system.
  • CB-2, usually found in the body and immune system.

Similar to the behavior of other chemical compounds, cannabinoids interact with receptors like a key and lock would. Cannabinoids, being the key, bind with receptors that contain metabolic enzymes that break down the cannabinoids, thus unlocking the effects like organic endocannabinoids would.

The fascinating part is that different cannabinoids produce different effects according to the type and location of receptor they interact with.

Importantly, cannabinoids aren’t directly produced by cannabis. Cannabinoid acids are concentrated in cannabis resin, which need activation by decarboxylation (heating). Smoking, vaping or cooking cannabis starts a reaction that produces cannabinoids form the secretions of cannabinoid acid.

How many cannabinoids are there?

The stars of the cannabinoid bunch are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Most every adult American has heard of these compounds, whether they use medical/recreational marijuana or not.

However, the number of cannabinoids expands far beyond THC and CBD. Estimates vary, but just over 100 different cannabinoids have been identified, with many more thought to exist.

Given this variety, the interactions between cannabinoids themselves are also of great interest. For example, the cannabinoid CBD does not interact with CB-1 brain cell receptors in the same way as THC and actually interferes with THC binding to receptors. This explains why strains with a high CBD content don’t produce as intense of a psychoactive high.

Thanks to this understanding, products, and strains can be engineered to contain specific cannabinoids. This way, a particular effect can be achieved, whether anti-inflammation, reduced stress, euphoria or energized creativity.

Let’s take a look at the most common types of cannabinoids and acids, as well as their effects and benefits:

THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol)

Believe it or not, but THC is just about one of the only cannabinoids that will get you high. It’s in the minority, in reality, and other psychoactive cannabinoids don’t have nearly the same potent effect as THC.

That said, it is one of the most abundant cannabinoids in modern cannabis products and strains, having been the first to be isolated. Typically, THC binds with CB-1 receptors in the brain and can produce strong psychoactive effects, as well as elation, relaxation, and laughter. In medical uses, THC can help with pain relief, digestion and mood. It’s been used to treat symptoms of diverse conditions including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, sleep apnea, and HIV/AIDs.

CBD (Cannabidiol)

The second-most well-known cannabinoid, CBD is the opposite of THC in many respects. CBD does not produce intoxicating effects associated with THC, a phenomenon easily explained by how the separate cannabinoids act. CBD is more partial to binding with CB-2 receptors found throughout the body.

As such, it produces effects that are more physiological, like:

  • Reduced stress
  • Improved appetite
  • Better sleep

It does many of the same things THC does, but patients and users who don’t want as intense of a high can use CBD-dominant strains and products to achieve the same desired outcomes.

CBG (Cannabigerol)

A less common cannabinoid, CBG is attracting new interest among researchers and cultivators for its benefits. Non-psychoactive like CBD, cannabigerol is often only present in very small levels. CBG is being touted as a cannabinoid that’s effective at addressing glaucoma, cancerous tumor growth, Crohn’s disease, and Irritable bowel syndrome.

CBC (Cannabichromene)

CBC is another non-psychoactive, minor cannabinoid that’s drawing interest for healing potential. Just like CBD, CBC acts as a buffer against THC. More importantly, it has been observed to play a part in neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, key functions of brain health and development.

Interestingly, CBC has also been seen to have anti-inflammation properties without activating endocannabinoid receptors. Some reason its benefits can be enhanced when it interacts with other cannabinoids that do bind to receptors.

CBN (Cannabinol)

CBN is psychoactive, but only marginally so compared to THC. This is because it derives from the same cannabinoid acid (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) and is created when THC is exposed to oxygen. This is why old marijuana may lose potency as THC decreases and CBN increases.

It’s often present at a very low level in most popular strains, so an understanding of CBN is still being built. Early indications are that it is effective as a sleep aid and remedy against arthritis.

Now that you’ve become familiar with some of the more well known cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant, it may be a good time to learn about terpenes, compounds that play an important role in cannabis wellness.


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