If you are interested in the medicinal benefits of cannabis, it is important to first understand cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are a group of molecules that are found in the cannabis plant and mammals. Each cannabinoid has unique properties and therapeutic benefits. In this blog post, we will discuss the most common cannabinoids, where they are found, and their function.
What are Cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are naturally occurring chemical compounds of the cannabis plant and the mammalian body. You’ve probably heard of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), two very famous cannabinoids of the cannabis plant. There are many more, lesser-known cannabinoids, however; in fact, researchers believe there may be over 100 cannabinoid compounds in cannabis.
We also have cannabinoids in our body; these constitute part of our endocannabinoid system (ECS), a complex system involved in maintaining homeostasis. Many health conditions are linked to chronic inflammation and an unbalanced ECS, and endocannabinoids play an important role in mammalian health.
Phytocannabinoids are plant-derived cannabinoids (“phyto-“ meaning “of plant”). These are the compounds that are synthesised within the cannabis plant, including THC and CBD. When phytocannabinoids are consumed by humans, they are capable of stimulating two receptors of the endocannabinoid system known as CB1 and CB2. This chemical activity influences a range of physiological processes including mood, appetite, immunity, cognitive function and sleep.
“Endo” is short for “endogenous” and means “from within”. The term endocannabinoid, therefore, refers to cannabinoids found within mammals, i.e. they are naturally produced by the mammalian body. Two prominent endocannabinoids are anandamide (AEA) and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Endocannabinoids are chemical messengers which carry signals between nerve cells; these signals might relate to things such as mood, pain and sleep.
As the name suggests, synthetic cannabinoids are laboratory-generated compounds that function similarly to natural cannabinoids. Synthetic cannabinoids, however, do not offer the same safety profile as phytocannabinoids and can be much more unpredictable and harmful. Synthetic cannabinoids can be in the form of a powder, dried plant material or dissolved and sprayed onto paper.
Cannabinoids Derived From Non-Cannabis Plants
Cannabis isn’t the only plant that can synthesise chemical compounds which can affect the endocannabinoid system. For instance, cannabigerol (CBG), which is found in cannabis, has also been found in tiny concentrations in Helichrysum umbraculigerum. In addition, Beta-caryophyllene is a terpene found in some aromatic plants and spices (including cannabis, oregano and cinnamon) which interacts with the CB2 receptor of the ECS, providing anti-inflammatory effects.
What Effects Do Cannabinoids Have on the Body?
Different cannabinoids exert different effects on the brain and body, such as neuropathic pain relief, anxiety relief, relaxation, increased appetite and a heightened sense of wellbeing.
Cannabinoids work by stimulating CB1 and CB2 receptors which are present on cell surfaces within the central nervous system and the brain. The effects are dependent on which part of the brain is involved, e.g. memory and cognition may be affected within the limbic system, or reward and pleasure responses may be enhanced on the mesolimbic pathway.
A significant effect of some cannabinoids is euphoria. But not all cannabinoids are psychoactive. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly found phytocannabinoids.
The 4 Major Cannabinoids
THC is famous for its psychoactive effects and is the main component of marijuana. Additional effects of THC include pain relief, relaxation and appetite stimulation. THC is illegal for recreational use in the UK (although legal in some countries and US states).
CBD is a legal cannabinoid in the UK and has soared in popularity as a wellness supplement in recent years. Cannabis-derived CBD offers many of the benefits of THC, including anxiety relief, pain and inflammation reduction, and better sleep and relaxation, without the psychotropic effects.
Referred to as the ‘mother of all cannabinoids’, CBG has been shown to benefit neurodegeneration, nausea, pain and inflammation. All other cannabinoids are synthesised from CBG; hence its nickname.
When THC undergoes prolonged exposure to air or UV light, it degrades and creates CBN. This cannabinoid is believed to help with pain and sleep. It is only mildly intoxicating, despite being a THC derivative.
The Entourage Effect
While some cannabinoids are more obscure than the major cannabinoids such as CBG, CBD and THC, their role remains important. Every cannabinoid, flavonoid and terpene present in the cannabis plant has a unique function and plays a collaborative role as part of the ‘entourage effect’. This term refers to the collective actions of all cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids which enhances their therapeutic potential. In other words, the effect of every cannabinoid is heightened by the presence of additional cannabinoids. Some minor cannabinoids include THCV, CBDV and THCB.
Are Cannabinoids Drugs?
Cannabinoids are not considered drugs and some cannabis derivatives such as CBD are legal in many countries. However, marijuana is classified as a controlled substance in the UK due to its large quantities of psychotropic cannabinoid THC.
How are Cannabinoids Used?
Cannabinoids used for recreational and medicinal reasons are often smoked, vapourised and eaten. In recent years, cannabinoids such as CBD have become widely available as sublingual CBD oils and tinctures, oral sprays, gummies and topical creams.
What to Consider When Buying Cannabinoids
Most importantly, find a reliable and trusted source when purchasing cannabinoids. The brand should have a good reputation and sell high-quality products which have been tested for purity (they should provide transparent and easily accessible independent lab test reports). Check the product label and ensure that your product contains less than 0.2% THC, which is the legal UK limit.
The Bottom Line
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds naturally produced by the cannabis plant (such as THC and CBD) and the human body (such as AEA and 2-Ag). We know that cannabinoids can have a powerful positive influence on the mammalian endocannabinoid system, and their effects are enhanced by the presence of additional cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids (the ‘entourage effect’). However, there is still much research to be done to fully understand the potential therapeutic applications of cannabinoids.