We’ve all heard the term cannabinoids tossed around in conversations about health and wellbeing. But, what are cannabinoids really and are they as amazing as they are said to be? Are THC and CBD the only cannabinoids in cannabis or just the most famous ones? Do all of them get you high? 

There are many questions posed about cannabinoids, and as the cannabis industry develops there are likely to be even more. But hopefully, there will be more answers as well. 

For now, let’s use what we do know and get the full lowdown on cannabinoids and how they benefit us. 

What Are Cannabinoids—a Definition

The most common belief is that cannabinoids are the chemical components found in hemp and marijuana plants. This is true, but not entirely. 

Firstly, not all compounds of the cannabis plant are cannabinoids. There are over 480 natural components in cannabis, and at least 113 of them have been classified as cannabinoids. 

Secondly, the definition is as follows: any chemical substance that binds the cannabinoids receptors in the brain and body and has similar effects to the cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant. So, that’s the cannabinoids definition. But, what does it mean? Put simply, cannabinoids are not just found in cannabis. There are cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, there are cannabinoids in people and animals, and there are cannabinoids produced in labs. 

The cannabinoid is a term that covers synthetic, phytocannabinoids, and endocannabinoids. The main difference between the three is where and how they occur. 

What Are Phytocannabinoids?

Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids that occur naturally in the cannabis plant. The term “phyto” means relating to plants, and they are just one of the types of cannabinoids out there.

However, since there is very little difference between phytocannabinoids and cannabinoids, people tend to use the two terms interchangeably. Don’t be confused is you see CBD defined as a phytocannabinoid or just a cannabinoid.

Phytocannabinoids are found in the resin glands, also called trichomes, on the flower and leaves of the cannabis plant. Their primary function is to protect the plant from UV rays, pests, and predators. 

What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

A synthetic cannabinoid, as the name suggests, is a man-made chemical that is usually added to the cannabis plant. They are commonly smoked but also sold as liquids that can be vaporized.

Some of the appeals of artificial cannabinoids are their low price, increased potency, and availability. 

Although marketed as safe alternatives to the chemicals in marijuana, these cannabinoids are in fact 30 times more likely to have negative effects than weed. Some include increased heart rate, vomiting, and hallucinations. 

How Do Cannabinoids Work? 

What Are Cannabinoids - How They Work

Phytocannabinoids are also different from endocannabinoids, or endogenous cannabinoids, which are produced in the human body. Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters located in the peripheral and central nervous system and form the complex network known as the endocannabinoid system. 

Endocannabinoids bind with two endocannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, thereby activating them. CB1 receptors are located in the parts of the brain that control memory, thinking, emotions, and motor skills, while CB2 receptors are found in the central nervous and immune system, i.e. throughout the body.

What Do Cannabinoids Do to the Body?

People and animals have an endocannabinoid system that has evolved over time. It regulates pain, appetite, mood, memory, motor functions, and so much more, but its primary function is believed to be maintaining homeostasis. In layman’s terms, this means that when the body is injured, or affected by some external factor,  the ECS starts working to keep the body’s operations running smoothly. 

When the body does not produce enough endocannabinoids, this cannabinoid system cannot function properly. On the other hand, consuming cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, improves the communication between cannabinoids and the cannabinoids receptors in the brain, restoring the work of the ECS. 

How the brain and body react after ingesting cannabinoids is determined by the type of cannabinoid taken and which receptor it binds to.

This interaction between cannabinoids and the ECS is the foundation of cannabis medicine and the reason for the multitude of health benefits.

How Many Cannabinoids Are There and What Are Their Effects?

There are at least 113 cannabinoids found in cannabis, but it is believed that there are many more that science has not discovered yet. These are some of the most prominent ones.

What Are Cannabinoids - Chart

THC-A

Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in raw cannabis. Through the process of decarboxylation, which basically involves carbon dioxide being released from the plant, THCA converts into THC. Decarboxylation happens when THC-A is heated at high temperatures, or naturally when the plant is dried and ages through curing. 

What are some of the cannabinoids effects of THCA?

  • THCA acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and can be used to treat pain and arthritis. 
  • It has neuroprotective properties that can treat certain neurodegenerative diseases
  • THCA has been studied for its anti-tumor properties in combatting prostate and colon cancer.

More research is needed into the medical properties of THCA, but since it is the precursor of THC and shares many of its benefits, there is great potential. 

THC-V 

Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is found in certain strains of cannabis and is a minor cannabinoid on the cannabinoid chart. It is also a distant relative of THC. Their chemical structure is pretty much the same except THCV is one molecule short in comparison to the THC molecule. So, similar in structure, but very different in its effects. 

Low doses of THCV won’t get you high. But, taken in higher doses, it activates the CB1 receptors, giving the user a buzz that is more clear-headed than the THC high, kicks in faster, but also fades away more quickly.

Not enough research is done to classify THCV as one of the medical cannabinoids. However, it is suggested that it shares some properties with CBD in the sense that it tones down some of the effects of THC. 

  • Some studies show that THCV can lower panic attacks, making it suitable to treat conditions like schizophrenia and PTSD. 
  • THCV can also suppress appetite, although there isn’t much evidence to back this claim. 

THC 

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the two most popular cannabinoids found in marijuana and the most infamous on the list of cannabinoids. It is also the most abundant compound in the plant and the main psychoactive element in marijuana, responsible for that “high” feeling you get when you smoke weed

Marijuana plants can contain up to 35% of THC, whereas hemp plants have small quantities, usually 0.3% or lower. 

The THC chemical structure is very similar to anandamide, an endocannabinoid. 

Runners might be familiar with anandamide, also called the “bliss molecule”, which gives people a feeling of euphoria after a jog. Anandamide, one of the endogenous cannabinoids, binds to THC receptors, thus allowing the human body to recognize THC and in that way affect the communication between neurotransmitters in the brain and give users the same feeling of euphoria. 

But getting you stoned isn’t all THC can do. It also has many medicinal properties.

  • THC has been found to aid in the removal of toxic accumulations of amyloid-beta protein in the human brain, which are believed to enhance the progression of Alzheimer’s disease
  • THC can reduce stress levels, one of the health benefits of cannabinoids everyone is familiar with.
  • THC is an antiemetic, which means it can reduce nausea and vomiting, the side-effects of chemotherapy.
  • THC increases appetite. You’ve heard about munchies? Well, THC can act as an appetite stimulant and treat HIV wasting syndrome and anorexia. 
  • THC can help with sleep problems. Studies show that THC can reduce rapid-eye-movement during sleep. This way it can help PTSD patients avoid troubling nightmares and help get a good night’s rest. 
  • THC is a mild analgesic, or one of the cannabinoids for pain relief, and thus effective in treating chronic pain and inflammation.

CBD

What Are Cannabinoids - CBD

Probably the most famous cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD) is found in many hemp strains. Unlike THC, it does not have psychoactive properties; it can even be used to dampen the effects of THC. 

CBD can treat a wide range of medical conditions.

  • CBD oil is very helpful in providing alleviation from gastrointestinal issues, particularly IBS. 
  • Its anti-inflammatory properties provide immediate relief from chronic pain. It is one of the most commonly used cannabinoids for neuropathic pain, arthritis, rheumatism, as well as migraines and headaches.
  • Studies show that CBD is effective in reducing the number of seizures, particularly among children. In fact, Epidiolex is the first FDA-approved cannabidiol drug to treat Dravet and LGS, rare forms of epilepsy. 
  • It is also known to treat a variety of skin conditions, which is one of the reasons it is widely used in cosmetic products.
  • CBD is also effective in treating mood disorders, such as depression and PTSD. In determining the cannabinoids effects on those with bipolar disorder, CBD was found to have a positive impact in reducing psychosis and other symptoms of the disease.
  • Cannabidiol is also proven to be much more effective than traditional depression medication, as it does not have harsh side effects. Not only does it replace opioids use, it can also be used to help reduce opioid addictions.

THC and CBD

Google “what are cannabinoids” and most of the hits you get are about THC and CBD, the superstars of cannabinoids.

THC and CBD are so similar, they even have the same molecular structure, but the atoms are arranged differently, which makes all the difference between CBD and THC, namely in the way they react with your body’s cannabinoids receptors

Both THC and CBD bind to the CB2 receptor, but only THC is able to directly bind to CB1. CBD influences the receptor’s ability to interact with other cannabinoids, meaning that it has a more extensive effect on the cannabinoid system.

But, let’s not dwell on scientific explanations. The main thing that sets the two apart is the psychotropic effect, or lack thereof. People who want to experience the benefits of cannabis, but want to keep a cool head, will go for CBD products. On the other hand, if you’re looking to get high, THC is the answer. 

CBG 

Cannabigerol (CBG) is a minor non-psychoactive cannabinoid (its content in most strains is less than 1%). 

Like other cannabinoids, the CBG cannabinoid displays many of the health benefits of cannabinoids.

  • It reduces intraocular pressure and thus is effective in treating glaucoma
  • A 2015 study on mice with Huntington’s disease showed that CBG was able to protect the neurons in the brain.
  • CBG also has antibacterial properties. It is known to kill or slow down the growth of bacteria, especially in its acidic form, CBGA. 
  • CBG can also fight cancer. Together with THC-A, CBG could stop the growth of colorectal cancer cells, as well as block the receptors that contribute to cancer cell growth. Yet, another connection between cannabinoids and cancer

Since it’s non-psychotropic, CBG has great potential for medicinal use, but further research is necessary to determine its exact effects.

CBN

Cannabinol (CBN) is another phytocannabinoid found only in trace amounts in cannabis. There is usually less than 1% of CBN in fresh cannabis plants.  It is mildly psychoactive as it is produced from the degradation of THC. When THC is exposed to oxygen, it turns into CBN cannabinol.

Like other minor cannabinoids, its medicinal effects still haven’t been researched extensively.

  • CBN is another one of the cannabinoids for pain relief, due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
  • CBN has some antibacterial properties, particularly on resistant bacteria strains.
  • It is known to promote bone growth and might be used for the treatment of osteoporosis.
  • In a study on rodents, CBN was found to delay the onset of ALS
  • Like THC, it boosts appetite and can act as a sedative. Some studies show that CBN only has sedative properties when combined with THC or terpenes. Nevertheless, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that cannabinoids oil can help with sleep disorders. So, what is CBN oil good for? Users say sleep disorders.

CBC 

Cannabichromene (CBC) is another non-intoxicating cannabinoid, which is commonly found in tropical cannabis strains.

The CBC cannabinoid, like THC and CBD, comes from cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). The plant enzymes turn it into cannabichromene carboxylic acid (CBC-A) and then into CBC after being exposed to heat or UV rays.

  • Studies are being conducted into the effect of CBC on brain cell regeneration and could someday be developed into one of the cannabinoids for Alzheimer’s disease
  • It is believed that CBC works best when combined with other cannabinoids to reduce pain and inflammation. 
  • CBC has a  great effect on acne. It reduces AA (arachidonic acid) levels that cause the formation of fat, which in turn causes acne.

Sadly, like other minor cannabinoids, it still hasn’t been studied properly. 

CBD-V

Cannabidivarin (CBD-V) is similar in its chemical structure to CBD and shares some of its healing powers. Like CBD and others on the cannabinoid chart, it is non-intoxicating and can typically be found in strains that are high in CBD, but low in THC.

  • CBD-V was only discovered 50 years ago, but already shows promise for its anticonvulsant properties.
  • Research is also being conducted in the effect of CBDV on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), more specifically on some particular symptoms such as behavior and communication.
  • CBD-V can also be used as a potential treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) by improving muscle functions.

What are cannabinoids without their synergy? Although each of the many types in the cannabis plant has its own properties and effects, they work best when combined. Which brings us to the entourage effect and what it actually is. The entourage effect simply means that a person can benefit the most not from a single component of cannabis, but from the whole plant.

FAQs

What Are Cannabinoids - FAQs

What are terpenes? 

Terpenes are aromatic organic hydrocarbons that are present in most plants, like the cannabis plant, and even insects. In other words, they are chemical compounds that determine how plants smell. 

When used together, cannabinoids and terpenes also produce the entourage effect. Terpenes can enhance the health benefits of cannabinoids, i.e. increase the high effect of THC or the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD.

How long does marijuana stay in your system?

It depends on your body weight, how often you take the drug and the type of drug test administered. Usually, THC can be detected from 3 days up to a month in urine. It takes at least 50 nanograms per milliliter to detect cannabinoids in urine levels. CBD half-life, on the other hand, is 18 to 32 hours.

What is the marijuana threshold?

In terms of drug tests, each controlled substance has a threshold level, i.e. an amount of the substance you need to have in your system to test positive. For marijuana, that threshold is 50 ng/ml, although it depends on the test. For instance, in a saliva test, it only takes 25 ng per ml of marijuana to test positive. 

Are cannabinoids legal?

The legal status of cannabinoids may seem like a fuzzy area, but that’s because there is so much about the cannabis plant that we don’t know.  Cannabinoids, like CBD, that come from industrial hemp plants and have less than 0.3% of THC are legal throughout the USA. However, marijuana-derived cannabinoids are currently legal in the 33 states that have legalized medical marijuana and the 11 US states where recreational marijuana use is legal.  

Are there any FDA approved cannabinoids since 2018?

At the moment there are two FDA-approved cannabinoids, dronabinol and nabilone. They are synthetic substances similar to THC. 

The first, dronabinol, is an active ingredient of Marinol and Syndros, which are used to treat anorexia and wasting syndrome in HIV patients. Nabilone, the active ingredient of Cesamet, on the other hand, is used to help cancer patients manage chemo side effects, like nausea and vomiting.

The FDA has approved the use of Epidiolex, in which CBD is an active ingredient, for the treatment of epilepsy.

There are cannabinoids in breast milk, fact or myth?

It’s a fact. Breast milk contains 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). 2- AG is an endocannabinoid that binds to CB1 receptors in the brain, just like THC. If it wasn’t for this cannabinoid, babies wouldn’t know how to eat as CB1 receptors control both the suckling response and tongue muscles. 

Bottom Line 

Cannabis is a very complex plant, the full potential of which is yet to be uncovered. Science has barely scratched the surface when it comes to cannabinoids and their effects on the human body. We need to determine what are cannabinoids exactly and how they can help people’s lives and health. The only way to do that is through more research. Who knows what scientists will discover when they dig a little deeper into the amazing plant that cannabis is.