What are Cannabinoids?
THC, CBD, CBG… It seems that every day a new acronym hits the market, but what do they mean? And how are they different?
WHAT EXACTLY IS A CANNABINOID?
These acronyms are cannabinoids. They’re a group of compounds that was first discovered in cannabis plants in the early 1940s, beginning with THC, CBD, and CBN¹. So far, over 113 distinct cannabinoids have been isolated, with more surely to be found.
Since their initial discovery, researchers have identified cannabinoids in other flowering plants, liverworts, and some fungi, as well as in mammalian bodies². Those found in plants are distinguished as “phytocannabinoids” and those produced endogenously in the body, “endocannabinoids.”
In plants, it’s thought that cannabinoids, as well as terpenes (the compounds that give cannabis its scent) act as an insect deterrent and UV protectant².
HOW DO CANNABINOIDS WORK?
Cannabinoids primarily interact with receptors in the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), however they’ve also been found to interact with other receptors and ion channels throughout the body.
The ECS is thought to be the system that maintains homeostasis, or balance, throughout the body. It’s responsible for a variety of biological functions ranging from memory and mood to metabolic processes².
In the late 1980s, researchers at Saint Louis University first found the receptors in our body where cannabinoids interact³. Named after the compounds that led to their discovery, Cannabinoid Receptors 1 & 2 (CB₁, CB₂) provide the backbone of the Endocannabinoid System.
CB₁ receptors are found predominantly, but not exclusively, in the central and peripheral nervous systems. CB₂ receptors occur mainly on immune cells, but have also been detected in the central nervous system¹.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF CANNABINOIDS?
While benefits vary depending on which cannabinoid (or combination of cannabinoids) you take, the most common reported uses in medicine are³:
- Pain relief
- Appetite stimulant
- Bone stimulant
- Muscle relaxant
With 113 different cannabinoids, it can be hard to keep them straight. Below is a list of the current key players:
CANNABIGEROL The Mother of Cannabinoids. Nicknamed the “Mother of All Cannabinoids,” cannabigerol (CBG) is the precursor to CBD, CBC and THC. Multiple studies have shown the potential for CBG as a neuroprotective, suggesting use in treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s⁴, MS⁵, and Parkinson’s⁶.
CBG is reported to potentially have modulatory effects on THC, counteracting adverse effects like anxiety and decreasing the feeling of being high. While you won’t necessarily feel CBG, users do report feeling more clear-minded and alert.
CANNABIDIOL The Jack Of All Trades. CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that is becoming a more common treatment method for a variety of health issues.
CBD interacts with receptors outside of the ECS, giving it its almost super-like powers. While the exact mechanisms aren’t fully understood yet, CBD has shown great potential as an anti-anxiety⁷, anti-depressant⁸, and pain reliever⁹. It also modulates the potential adverse effects of THC, reducing anxiety and the feeling of being high¹⁰𑁋a literal buzz-kill.
To treat seizures caused by two different rare forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndrome, doctors have started to prescribe Epidiolex𑁋a cannabis-derived CBD isolate. The FDA approved the drug for market in 2018 after concluding it’s safe and effective for its intended use¹¹.
CANNABINOL The Fine Wine. This non-psychoactive cannabinoid is produced as THC ages, making it most prevalent in older cannabis plants. Research on the cannabinoid is still limited, however existing studies suggest potential use as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and bone growth stimulator. When combined with THC, it can increase sedative effects⁴.
DELTA-9-TETRAHYDROCANNABINOL The One That Gets You High. Most commonly referred to as just THC, Delta-9 THC is the most-studied compound in cannabis plants and is most popular for its ability to get you high. Delta-9 has shown great potential as an anti-nausea medication as well as a pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and muscle relaxant⁴.
The FDA has currently approved two synthetic THC drugs used to treat nausea in cancer patients and anorexia in AIDS patients¹¹.
DELTA-8-TETRAHYDROCANNABINOL The Chill One. Quickly gaining popularity, Delta-8 is a mellowed-out, less potent form of THC. Often likened to an Indica, users report feeling sleepy and relaxed upon consumption. Common uses for Delta-8 include sleep aid and anti-inflammatory.
DELTA-10-TETRAHYDROCANNABINOL The Go-Getter. Similar to Delta-8 and Delta-9, Delta-10 THC interacts with CB1 receptors in the brain to produce euphoric effects. Not much research has been on the specific effects and benefits, though we should expect more in the coming years. However, anecdotal reports suggest that Delta-10 produces energy and mood boosts similar to that of a Sativa strain of Delta-9¹².
THE ENTOURAGE EFFECT
Along with cannabinoids, cannabis contains hundreds of other compounds, including terpenes and flavonoids, which are responsible for scent and flavor respectively. All of the individual compounds interact with the body, and each other, in a variety of ways leading to a greater positive effect. This series of synergistic interactions is the basis of the Entourage Effect¹³.
Now you may be thinking, cool, but why does it matter and how does the entourage effect affect me?
For patients who turn to THC for its medicinal benefits, they may not necessarily want the added high, especially when taken in high doses. In those cases, the introduction of CBD into the system can help reduce the intoxicating effects. This same idea can be used to treat feelings of anxiety sometimes brought on by overconsumption of THC¹⁰.
It’s becoming more common to find ratioed products with a balance of CBD:THC that provide benefits of both cannabinoids while allowing users to choose the level of high they’d like to experience.
If CBD and THC are such a powerful combination, what does that mean for the other cannabinoids and compounds? While more research is needed to fully understand how the different compounds work together𑁋as well as individually𑁋many users report better experiences with full spectrum products that include all of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids that grow naturally in the plant¹⁰.
In the future, perhaps you’ll be able to pick and choose the cannabinoids and terpenes you ingest, creating a fully curated experience with benefits tuned to your specific needs.
Cannabis and all of its compounds𑁋cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids and more𑁋are an exciting realm with endless possibilities.
As research develops and more products make it to market, understanding the different cannabinoids and their benefits will help you make an informed decision when it comes to finding the product that works best for you.
- Pertwee, Roger G. “Cannabinoid pharmacology: the first 66 years.” British journal of pharmacology vol. 147 Suppl 1,Suppl 1 (2006): S163-71. doi:10.1038/sj.bjp.0706406
- Phytocannabinoids: Origins and Biosynthesis: Trends in Plant Science
- Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects
- Neuroprotective Properties of Cannabigerol in Huntington's Disease: Studies in R6/2 Mice and 3-Nitropropionate-lesioned Mice
- A Cannabigerol Derivative Suppresses Immune Responses and Protects Mice from Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis
- Benefits of VCE-003.2, a cannabigerol quinone derivative, against inflammation-driven neuronal deterioration in experimental Parkinson's disease: possible involvement of different binding sites at the PPARγ receptor
- Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
- Cannabidiol induces rapid-acting antidepressant-like effects and enhances cortical 5-HT/glutamate neurotransmission: role of 5-HT1A receptors
- Cannabidiol modulates serotonergic transmission and reverses both allodynia and anxiety-like behavior in a model of neuropathic pain
- A tale of two cannabinoids: The therapeutic rationale for combining tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol
- FDA and Cannabis: Research and Drug Approval Process | FDA
- What is Delta-10-THC and Why do I Need to Know About it?
- The “Entourage Effect”: Terpenes Coupled with Cannabinoids for the Treatment of Mood Disorders and Anxiety Disorders