Have you ever wondered why cannabis is so versatile and why it has so many uses in wellness and medicine? We’re still only at the very beginning of our journey into understanding cannabis and discovering what it can do as a medicinal plant. But so far, more than 500 different substances have been found in the cannabis plant, including terpenes and flavonoids, which are mainly responsible for the smell and taste of the flowers and are found in other plants as well.
Yet arguably more important are the more than 144 cannabinoids that have also been identified in the cannabis plant, of which cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are the most well-known for their effects on the body’s endocannabinoid system, which you might have already heard of too.
In this article, you’ll learn more about familiar cannabinoids like CBD and THC, as well as the other, less prominent cannabinoids.
How do cannabinoids work in the body?
Everyone has ‘em but for a long time nobody knew we did — and we still have lots more to learn about ‘em. We’re talking about the cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. It wasn’t until the 1990s that they were identified in the body and mapped out into a human body organ system called the endocannabinoid system. These cannabinoid receptors interact with substances that your body produces called endocannabinoids (examples include
2-arachidonoylglycerol aka 2-AG, anandamide and virodhamine) to regulate pain, hunger and digestion, your immune defense, muscle tension and blood pressure and much more remain in balance and function properly.
If the level of endocannabinoids in your body gets out of balance, it can contribute to a variety of health problems like arthritis, depression, insomnia and Crohn's disease. This is where the cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, called phytocannabinoids, can come in and play a crucial role. Phytocannabinoids resemble the body’s own endocannabinoids—so much that they can even bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors and thus influence the endocannabinoid system. In other words, the supply of cannabinoids can restore the balance in the body and possibly alleviate ailments.
Which cannabinoids are in the cannabis plant?
Over 144 different cannabinoids have been identified in the cannabis plant. These substances are produced by the plant itself and then environmental factors such as heat, light and oxidation convert them into new forms, which then take on different names and properties. For example, THC actually begins its life in the cannabis plant as a cannabinoid called cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). Then it becomes tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) when the cannabis plant continues to mature into the late stages of flowering. It finally becomes THC when it is activated through exposure to heat or light. THCA also converts to THC when stored at room temperature for a long enough time. All very similar names — with an additional letter to denote a different form of the substance. The addition to the chemical formula may seem small, but it can have a big effect, such as on the degree of psychotropicity which, of course, affects the substance’s therapeutic potential.
Note: A cannabinoid with an “A” at the end of its abbreviation indicates the acidic form, which can exhibit different properties. Acidic forms of cannabinoids are converted to the neutral form via decarboxylation.
Decarboxylation is the process that activates compounds in cannabis such as THC. This process is done by heating the plant. Because THC exists in its acid form as THCA in flowers, burning it removes the acid, leading to the pure form of THC.
This is the acidic form of tetrahydrocannabinol, also called THC-A or THC-acid, and it doesn’t have any psychoactive effects. In some parts of the U.S., it can be bought as a crystalline powder in dispensaries. Most consumers heat it up to convert THC-A to THC and thus activate the psychotropic effects. There are also capsules available in some regions that are believed to have therapeutic benefits, yet there isn’t any scientific evidence to support this claim.
Another popular cannabinoid is THCV, or tetrahydrocannabivarin. It’s very similar to THC, but has a slightly different mode of action. It can be used to treat anxiety disorders and can even reverse the effects of THC, which itself can sometimes induce anxiety. There is also evidence that it helps in weight loss by reducing appetite and increasing metabolism. Some studies point to the benefits it can have on insulin production and to promote new bone cell growth. THCV’s effects on people with Parkinson's need further research.
Short for cannabidivarin, this cannabinoid is still relatively unexplored, but if you’re familiar with CBD, this relative may be worth a look as its effects are similar. Molecular cells studies have shown that CBDV can reduce chemically induced seizures and a study in rats also demonstrated CBDV’s effectiveness against nausea symptoms.
CBC or cannabichromene can be used as an antibiotic against resistant germs. When combined with THC, studies also showed that CBC had analgesic effects in rats and anti-inflammatory properties. In the brain, it can counteract neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's by promoting the growth of brain cells that are responsible for learning and memory functions.
CBCV, short for cannabichromevarin, is similar to the cannabinoid CBC and it is said to have similar effects. Yet unfortunately, there are hardly any studies to date on this cannabinoid.
CBG stands for cannabigerol, which is a common cannabinoid found in both cannabis and hemp plants. It’s not psychotropic so it’s well suited for people who don’t want to experience psychotropic effects with cannabinoids.
Research suggests that CBG can be an effective pain reliever and provide anti-inflammatory effects. A study in animals found that it has neuroprotective properties to protect against, for example, Huntington's disease, which is a hereditary disease that affects the brain and causes involuntary, uncoordinated body movements. CBG’s therapeutic potential for colon cancer, prostate cancer and oral cancer have also been investigated.
CBG can be used to possibly lower the pressure inside the eye for serious eye conditions such as glaucoma. This cannabinoid is also a beacon of hope in the fight against resistant bacterial strains such as MRSA, and a study in mice concluded that CBG “may have therapeutic potential as an antidepressant and/or for the treatment of psoriasis.” Studies in rats have also found that it affects neurotransmitters (and thus mood) perhaps leading to the development of new types of antidepressants.
CBGV, short for cannabigerovarin, has been shown to demonstrate pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties in mice. This cannabinoid shows promising relief from dry skin and other inflammatory diseases. CBGV could also have positive effects in cancer therapy and there’s some evidence that it inhibits the growth of leukemia cells.
CBN or cannabinol is created during the decay process of THC-A. That doesn't sound particularly sexy, but many people still appreciate the effects of this cannabinoid. Some believe it’s a sedative. However, CBN doesn’t have any proven sedative effects in its pure form, but the jury is still out on what happens when it’s combined with THC.
Studies (primarily with rats) show that CBN can stimulate appetite, fight glaucoma and act as an antibiotic. There’s also hopeful research in mice with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) that the onset of ALS could be delayed by CBN. However, further studies, especially on humans, are urgently needed to confirm the claim.
Cannabicyclol (CBL) is created when cannabichromene (CBC) is heated up — and it’s more often found in cannabis that has been in storage for a while. The state of research on this cannabinoid is very thin because the concentration of CBL in cannabis plants is very low. Some scientists believe it will have positive effects on inflammation and on tumor cells, but much more research is still needed in this area.
What are synthetic cannabinoids?
A blessings and a curse
As cannabis enjoys growing popularity for recreational use — and now also for medicinal purposes — laboratories can also produce synthetic cannabinoids, which activate the same receptors in the body as phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant. Some of these synthetic substances have gone through rigorous drug approval processes and are available to patients as treatment options. Other synthetic cannabinoids, however, have not undergone any testing and are not approved, even though some are currently sold on the street (illegally) as designer drugs. This doesn’t do much to help polish up the already tarnished image of cannabis, with little regard for cannabinoids’ actual therapeutic effects.
Let's first look at the positive side: Dronabinol and Nabilone are two cannabis-based medicines made from synthetic cannabinoids and are approved in many parts of the world to treat nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy and anorexia and weight loss in AIDS patients. These cannabinoids were created and tested under laboratory conditions and are approved as prescription drugs.
On the flip side, Spice and K2 (as they’re called on the street) are illegal drugs that only mean trouble. Nobody knows exactly what’s in them or which cannabinoids are at work within them. Sometimes it might not even be cannabinoids at all, but rather other active ingredients mixed in, such as hallucinogens and synthetic opioids. The side effects here can be dramatic; respiratory disorders and kidney damage have been linked to these synthetic, questionably-cannabinoid substances.
It seems that patients who use cannabis as a medicine continue to prefer natural cannabinoids over synthetic cannabinoids, perhaps because Mother Nature has created a balance between the cannabinoids in the plant that the laboratories can’t likely replicate. In order to get a closer look at all the active ingredients in cannabis, individual components would, of course, have to be examined in isolation. Then again, maybe isolated cannabinoids are worth more when they’re combined together in an “entourage effect,” like how with many things in life, the whole is often greater than the sum of its part. In any case, there is still a lot to learn about the many cannabinoids out there and their countless possible applications.