In this dawning of the cannabis age, science and nature meet to bring solutions to some of the body and mind’s most pressing problems. Pain, insomnia, nausea, anxiety, PTSD, autism, and cancer are just the tip of the iceberg regarding what cannabis can effectively treat. By now, you may be dizzy with all the talk of cannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system, and what that means.
Understanding how and why cannabis works the way it does can be overwhelming. What is a cannabinoid, and why does it produce specific effects in the body and mind? We are diving deep into this topic today in hopes that you will better understand what makes this plant tick.
The pressing question: What is a cannabinoid?
A cannabinoid is a class of chemical compounds the cannabis plant produces naturally. In sum, there are over 100 cannabinoids in the plant, each having a specific molecular composition. These compounds interact with receptors in our brain, producing particular desired effects. Suppose a specific cannabinoid has properties that can relieve pain. In that case, it will connect with the receptor in your brain that feels pain. It is a match made in heaven. Yes, we could get into the weeds and get all scientific on you, but we thought you would appreciate the simple answer to this question.
The body’s endocannabinoid system explained
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) comprises networks of cell receptors in the body that interact with the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Without these receptors, the cannabinoids would have no place to land in the body, rendering the plant relatively useless to the body.
Did you know that the body can produce its own cannabinoids? Yes, it does. These self-made compounds are called endocannabinoids. This discovery was made not long ago in 1988, and researchers are still learning more about how this system in our bodies works. The more research is done, the more we understand and the more fascinated we become with this wonderful world of cannabis.
What are cannabinoid receptors?
Let’s think of legos for a second. Yes, the toys shaped like little plastic bricks that fit perfectly into each other to build whatever you wish. Think of this entire system as a system of legos each fitting perfectly into the other. For a cannabinoid to work in the body, it must be connected to the appropriate receptor.
The two classes of receptors
CB1 receptors exist primarily in the brain, the eye and retina, and the reproductive systems of both males and females. While CB2 receptors are more centered in the immune system, specifically the spleen. These CB2 receptors are the ones mainly responsible for the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis when matched with the CBD cannabinoid.
Phytocannabinoids: Naturally occurring cannabinoids
The naturally occurring cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant are called “phytocannabinoids.” And because they are structurally analogous to our body’s endocannabinoids, they can easily bind with our bodies’ CB1 and CB2 receptors. But they are different. The phytocannabinoids found in the plant produce effects that can only come from the plant itself, such as the feelings of being high people often associate with THC.
Have you ever seen crystals on the buds of the cannabis plant? These thick, sticky, resinous structures are called trichomes. These trichomes are where the cannabinoids live in their highest concentrations. The size of the trichomes can vary from plant to plant. And the density of the trichomes indicates how rich the plant is in its cannabinoid concentration. Yes! We love trichomes!
Your almost complete guide to cannabinoids
Now that we have brought you up to speed on cannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system, and trichomes, it’s time to tell you more about what these cannabinoids actually are and what they do. We will keep it brief, only highlighting the more notable of the 100+ cannabinoids found in the plant. We thought you would appreciate us keeping it simple.
There is no doubt that THC is the most well-known cannabinoid. It is known for its intense psychoactive effect most people refer to as feeling “high.” THC works by binding to the body’s CB1 receptors, increasing dopamine in the brain and producing euphoric effects. THC alters memory, mood, perception, motor function, and cognition. There are also many therapeutic uses for THC, such as pain relief.
Not everyone wants to feel high. But many people want to benefit from the medical benefits that the cannabis plant provides. This makes CBD an effective cannabinoid amongst many consumers today. CBD is not psychoactive yet provides a plethora of medical solutions. Additionally, CBD, when combined with THC, reduces or completely counterbalances THC’s psychoactive effects.
CBD’s non-psychoactive characteristics make it legal in all 50 states. This has opened up this plant’s benefits to many people worldwide. CBD can now be found just about everywhere and comes in many forms. This cannabinoid is taking the world by storm, from edibles to CBD-infused cocktails and supplements.
CBD is extracted from hemp plants that contain just small amounts of THC. Due to the popularity of CBD amongst mainstream consumers, breeders today are cultivating CBD-dominant strains of the cannabis plant. Often referred to as 1:1, these THC-CBD strains are most desired by medical marijuana patients.
CBG is known as the mother cannabinoid. This is because it starts off strong in the growing plant, and as the plant matures, it gives birth to THC and CBD, leaving only 1% of CBG at harvest time. But that 1% is quite impressive with its function in the body. CBG is not psychoactive on its own and has shown promise in treating many different medical conditions.
CBG is used for:
- Treating cancer
- Bowel and bladder diseases
- Pain management
CBN is an exciting cannabinoid. Unlike CBD and THC which are born from the mother cannabinoid, CBG, CBN is actually made from the natural degradation of the THC cannabinoid. Light and air exposure (oxidation) cause the THC to break down, and it continues to do so as it is dried and cured. So, the older the dried flower, the less THC and more CBN it has. This is why storing cannabis in airtight containers away from light is crucial to preserving the THC.
Cannabinol (CBN) is not psychoactive; its presence actually means a loss of potency. Most fresh plants only have trace amounts of CBN. Given it’s sedating properties, cultivators are adding this cannabinoid to formulations that help people with insomnia.
- Pain relief
Oh, what a difference one letter can make. CBC, like CBD, is non-psychoactive and has anti-inflammatory effects on the body. But, unlike CBD, it has no effect on the psychoactive aspects of THC. The two cannabinoids do work in harmony together, however, for the common good of the strain. When there are multiple cannabinoids working together to produce a unique role in the body’s endocannabinoid system, we call this the ensemble effect. This means acting alone; they perform one way. Working together, they are even more powerful.
This ensemble or entourage effect is why scientists and those focused on medicinal use encourage the “whole plant” approach. Sure, isolates and concentrates focusing on one aspect of the plant (THC) are great. But, some benefits are lost when isolating only one cannabinoid and ditching the rest of the plant.
CBC is interesting because it binds to other receptors in the body that are beyond the body’s endocannabinoid system. Its antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic properties make it an excellent option for topical use.
THCV is another cannabinoid compound found in cannabis plants.
And while its name is similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it has some critical differences in how it interacts with the endocannabinoid system.
Research shows that THCV acts as an antagonist at the CB1 receptors in the brain. This would lead one to believe that it reduces the psychoactive effects that THC produces in the mind. Still, other research indicates that THCV can be a potent cannabinoid rendering some intense psychoactive properties. But, these “highs” are short-lived.
But there are other factors at play here with this cannabinoid. THCV can behave similarly to CBD when combined with THC to lessen the psychoactive effects at lower concentrations. In higher doses, however, it is a psychoactive stimulant.
THCV works directly within nerve cells in the brain, helping fight seizures. And while most cannabinoids come with cravings, this one actually fights cravings for food and other addictive substances. Research is ongoing to discover precisely how this cannabinoid works to support these claims and continue unearthing its performance in the brain and body.
Delta 8 THC: Delta 8 Tetrahydrocannabinol
Delta 8 is the new kid and the rule-buster on the block. Yes, this is a psychoactive cannabinoid that you can buy legally online. Why? How? One word: loophole. The 2018 Farm Bill defines THC, which is illegal on the federal level, as Delta 9 THC. This very definition ruled out Delta 8 and made it legal.
But there are more exciting elements of Delta 8. Delta 8 is an isomer of Delta 9 (THC), making it less intense than Delta-9-THC. But it does carry some unique medical benefits which appeal to people that do not desire the psychoactive effects of Delta 9.
Research shows that Delta 8 THC can kill cancer cells in mice. It can also reduce tumor size. In a study done in Jerusalem, Delta 8 proved successful at treating cancer in over 480 cases, which is promising. It has also shown anti-nausea properties and increases appetite making it a go-to for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
CBDV is another non-psychoactive cannabinoid that works best when combined with another cannabinoid, specifically CBD. This cannabinoid is found mainly in the Indica species of the plant carrying low THC concentrations.
The CBDV cannabinoid reduces the severity of seizures considerably, making it an excellent treatment for epilepsy. Additionally, it helps with nausea and vomiting and the reduction of inflammatory responses in the body. It has shown much promise in treating mood disorders as well.
THCA & CBDA: Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid & Cannabidiolic Acid
THCA is one of the most common cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. It is non-intoxicating in its raw form. So, you could, in fact, eat the raw plant and not feel high at all. When heated, however, it loses its “A” or the acid attached to it and becomes intoxicating THC. This is why the “decarboxylation” process (heating the plant to activate the TCH) is so important.
The medical benefits of this THCA are anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea, and neurological.
The raw, unheated, and acidic forms of this cannabinoid are still being studied. But what has recently been uncovered is that they may just be able to stand alone providing sufficient anti-nausea and anti-inflammatory effects. The CBD (CBDA) acidic form has shown good progress in treating cancer.
And there you have it. You can now have an educated and informed conversation about cannabinoids with your budtender to best meet your medical and recreational needs.
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