As cannabis slowly gains legal status all over the world, many people are struggling to understand the plant's medicinal benefits. After all, the list of "qualifying conditions" for cannabis use spans from anxiety disorders to chronic pain and even multiple different chronic illnesses.
So, how can one plant be effective for managing such a wide range of ailments? Cannabinoids.
Cannabinoids are like cannabis' "magic keys" in that they may fit perfectly in certain "keyholes" in the body's cells to unlock, or regulate, certain bodily functions.
No worries, it's a lot to digest, but we're going to break it all the way down.
Table of Contents
Where are cannabinoids found?
Does the human body produce cannabinoids?
What do the cannabinoids do?
What are the most common cannabinoids?
How are the cannabinoids used?
Are there synthetic cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds found in the Cannabis plant, and are more technically referred to as "phytocannabinoids" when they come from a plant source. Researchers have also discovered cannabinoids in the body, called "endocannabinoids," but we'll touch more on that below.
There are over 113 known cannabinoids found in cannabis, but research mostly focuses on a select group of cannabinoids known to occur the most frequently.
Of all the cannabinoids, the two most popular are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychotropic component found in cannabis, and CBD(cannabidiol), the non-psychoactive cannabinoid that has more recently been acknowledged for its great health potential.
These two generally occur in larger concentrations in certain cannabis species. Cannabis with a high THC content is used both medicinally and recreationally and is sometimes referred to as "marijuana" or just "cannabis." Alternatively, a type of cannabis called hemp contains large concentrations of CBD and only trace amounts of THC, so consumers can use hemp without experiencing psychotropic effects.
Many other cannabinoids, deemed "minor cannabinoids" are found in trace amounts in both cannabis and hemp strains. Because the minor cannabinoids are found in much smaller concentrations, they are often overlooked.
However, modern research suggests that these cannabinoids are not as unimportant as they may seem. In fact, they each may have specific benefits of their own, and are thought to play important roles in the entourage effect, a theory that suggests that all cannabis compounds work synergistically together to regulate each other's effects.
Cannabinoids are most often found in cannabis, which is where they got their name. You can find cannabinoids in almost every part of the cannabis plant, but the flowers are the richest source. Cannabinoids are produced by hair-like structures on the cannabis flowers, called trichomes.
We once thought cannabinoids were exclusive to cannabis, but researchers now know that cannabinoids are also naturally found in some other plants, like ginseng, carrots, broccoli, black pepper, and echinacea.
Of course, cannabis is still thought to be the richest source of cannabinoids, which is why it is still the primary source of cannabinoid-based dietary supplements and medicines.
Yes! Another place you will find cannabinoids is the body of all mammals, although things are a little bit different on the inside. The human body naturally produces endogenous cannabinoids, or "endocannabinoids," which are similar in structure to phytocannabinoids but go by different names.
Endocannabinoids act as neurotransmitters, sending signals through the body's "endocannabinoid receptors" that are found on the surface of the cells throughout the brain, central nervous system, and major organs.
There are two main endocannabinoids receptors in the human body: CB1 and CB2.
CB1 receptors are most often found in the brain and mostly impact the central nervous system.
CB2 receptors are commonly found in the gut and immune cells and have a larger impact on the immune system.
There are two main endocannabinoids produced by the body—anandamide and 2-AG—which each interact with both the CB1 and CB2 receptor in different ways to regulate a series of important bodily functions.
Together, the endocannabinoids and endocannabinoid receptors make up the “Endocannabinoid System.” This bodily system was discovered in 1992, but we are still working to learn about it’s function and importance.
We do know, however, that the Endocannabinoid System plays an important role in maintaining homeostasis in the body, which affects the brain, hormones, immune system, and more. That means that the Endocannabinoid System has a direct impact on appetite, mood, pain perception, general wellness, and countless other bodily functions.
To learn more about the Endocannabinoid System, read “How Does CBD Work?”
So, there are well over 100 cannabinoids that make up the cannabis plant, but what does that have to do with cannabis' medicinal benefits?
Glad you asked!
Cannabinoids from cannabis, called phytocannabinoids, are similar in structure to the endogenous cannabinoids produced by the body. That means that they can take on the role of endocannabinoids and bind with certain endocannabinoid receptors to alter the way the body sends and receives messages through the central nervous system and immune system.
Different cannabinoids react differently in the body. For instance, THC is thought to have a high affinity for CB1 receptors, the endocannabinoid receptors found in the brain. That means that THC binds with CB1 receptors in the brain at a high rate, leading to the psychotropic effects we’ve come to expect from high-THC cannabis strains.
CBD is thought to interact with the endocannabinoid receptors in a different way. Researchers believe that it may bind indirectly and change the endocannabinoid receptor’s ability to bind with other cannabinoids. In other words, CBD may be able to block certain neurotransmitters, like those that transmit pain, from reaching the brain.
To put it simply, cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, so they also may have an impact on many different regulatory functions, like appetite, mood, pain perception, and more. More research is needed to confirm how CBD and other phytocannabinoids may benefit the body.
We mentioned that there are well over 100 cannabinoids found in cannabis, but only a few of them have been significantly researched. Even then, the research we do have about the most cannabinoids is limited, and our knowledge of how to use phytocannabinoids as medicine is still being developed.
Still, many cannabinoids are starting to appear in wellness supplements and even some pharmaceutical medicines. The most common cannabinoids you’ll find today are:
THC is available in multiple forms, but delta-9-tetrahydracannabinol is the most abundant. It is also the main psychotropic cannabinoid found in cannabis and the most heavily researched cannabinoid. For this reason, it’s used medicinally (and recreationally) by people all over the globe, but it is legally restricted in many areas.
Research has linked THC to potential benefits that make it popular for pain relief, as an addition to certain cancer therapies, for managing sleep disorders, and more. THC has even been used as a model to create several pharmaceutical applications used for pain, nausea, weight loss due to serious illness, and more.
Delta-8-THC is another form of THC, but it is considered a minor cannabinoid because it is less abundant.
Still, it’s thought to have psychotropic properties that are similar to those of delta-9. Some sources argue that delta-8 imposes less potent psychoactivity, but may provide equal (and potentially even greater) therapeutic benefits. For this reason, it’s not frequently linked to the same potential side effects as delta-9, like paranoia or anxiety, which are especially common after over-indulging.
There is still a lot to learn about delta-8-THC, but we now know how to synthesize it from CBD derived from legal industrial hemp, so it may be a more accessible option.
CBD is one of many non-psychotropic cannabinoids, but it is currently the most popular. It was also one of the first cannabinoids to be discovered, though THC took the research spotlight for several decades. Now, preliminary evidence has linked CBD to many different potential benefits, like managing anxiety, sleep, pain, and various neurological conditions.
CBD has also been used to create an FDA approved pharmaceutical, called Epidiolex, which is used to manage a rare but serious form of epilepsy affecting children.
CBG is another non-psychotropic cannabinoid that’s gaining popularity in the wellness world. Although research is limited, researchers are incredibly interested in CBG’s health potential because it is thought to be a “cannabis stem cell” of sorts.
In short, cannabigerolic acid, which breaks down to become CBG, is also the precursor to many other cannabinoids, like THC and CBD. This leads researchers to believe that CBG has plenty of unspoken therapeutic potential, and evidence currently highlights the possible antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects of the minor cannabinoid.
CBN, another minor cannabinoid, has been linked to various different potential benefits, like managing pain and inflammation. However, most interest in CBN surrounds its potential benefits as a sedative that may help manage certain sleep ailments, like insomnia. Although this hasn’t yet been proven, the theory is supported by strong anecdotal evidence.
Interestingly enough, CBN is not genetically created by the cannabis plant. Instead, CBN is produced when THC is exposed to light and heat. It’s thought to have very mild psychotropic effects and is thought to be the reason that cannabis that has been improperly stored often causes drowsiness.
CBC is a minor cannabinoid that’s hardly been researched, but experts have learned a few things about CBC that leads them to believe that it has therapeutic potential similar to CBD. Unlike many of the cannabinoids above, CBC is not known to act directly on either of the two main endocannabinoid receptors.
Instead, it may interact with other receptors in the body, like vanilloid receptor 1 (TRPV1) and transient receptor potential ankyrin 1 (TRPA1), which are thought to affect the way that the body perceives pain. It's unknown how CBC may impact pain, but researchers are interested in these potential benefits.
CBGV is a derivative of CBG, and it is also considered a minor cannabinoid. We don’t know much about it, either, but researchers believe that it may enhance the body’s ability to absorb other cannabinoids, like THC and CBD.
THCV is thought to carry certain daytime benefits that promote alertness and focus. Preliminary research has also found that it may have various benefits, like managing inflammation and inflammation-induced pain, as well as some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
CBDV is a non-psychotropic cannabinoid that is structurally similar to CBD. Also like CBD, it’s been linked to various benefits and may be useful for various neurological applications. Current efforts mostly focus on using CBDV to formulate another antiepileptic drug similar to Epidioldex.
Cannabinoids can be used by consuming whole-plant cannabis products, which are only legal in some states. However, industrial hemp gained its legal status in 2018 and is an accessible source of many different non-psychotropic cannabinoids.
Now, a variety of cannabinoids are used to create dietary supplements in all different forms, ranging from tinctures to edibles. CBD oil tinctures are a popular example, but you can find formulas that include the full range of cannabis’ cannabinoids, like full spectrum CBD products, or products that contain only one isolated cannabinoid, like CBD isolate.
Although the wellness communities mostly focus on natural cannabinoids, specifically those derived from cannabis, synthetic cannabinoids arose as a product of necessity.
Because cannabis was entirely restricted in most parts of the world for decades, researchers were mostly unable to evaluate cannabis or its cannabinoids for their health potential for quite some time. Creating cannabinoid-based medications was even more difficult, and it continues to be a barrier that is difficult to cross today.
Although many cannabinoids are widely accepted as having therapeutic potential, not many cannabinoid formulations have gained FDA approval. Instead, a few pharmaceutical companies have designed synthetic versions of certain cannabinoids, like THC. For instance, the pharmaceutical drug Nabilone features a synthetic cannabinoid modeled after THC.
Alternatively, synthetic cannabinoids have been illegally manufactured and sold as street drugs. K2, or spice, is often sold as black market marijuana, but it has been linked to some dangerous side effects.
You should avoid synthetic cannabinoids unless prescribed by a doctor. That means that you should take care to ensure that any cannabinoid-based supplements you purchase are made from real cannabis or hemp-derived cannabinoids with no synthetic cannabinoids added.
Synthetic cannabinoids are only used by companies who intend to cut corners to lower production cost, and many synthetic cannabinoids can cause serious side effects.
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