What Are Cannabinoids?
Cannabinoid is a classification for molecules that interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system. There are two different kinds of cannabinoids: Endogenous cannabinoids, which our body naturally produces, and exogenous cannabinoids, or phytocannabinoids, which are naturally occurring chemical compounds created by the cannabis plant. There are also cannabinoid acids, which we will cover later. It’s not as complicated as it sounds!
Phytocannabinoids are produced by the trichomes of the cannabis plant - tiny hairlike structures on the outside of the flower. When the plant matter is harvested and dried, it is the trichomes that create the fine dust, sometimes called crystal, on the outside of the dried bud. Generally speaking, the more trichomes, the stronger the cannabis. These trichomes are where the plant produces cannabinoid acids.
The Body’s Endocannabinoid System
As research on cannabis and cannabinoids has been restricted until very recently, we don’t know as much about the body’s endocannabinoid system as we do other body processes. The endocannabinoid system was only identified in 1990, when researchers were looking for further information on why we react the way we do to THC.
From what we do know, the endocannabinoid system helps regulate many things, including sleep, mood, appetite, pain, tissue generation, and many cognitive processes like learning and memory.
There are two types of endocannabinoid receptors throughout your body, which cannabinoids will bind to. CB1 receptors are found mostly in your brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are mostly found in your immune cells and intestines. As each cannabinoid receptor performs a different role, which receptor a cannabinoid binds to will determine its effect on the user.
Cannabinoid Acids? What are Those?
You’ve almost certainly heard of THC and CBD. But you may not be familiar with THCA or CBDA. These are the cannabinoid acids.
All cannabinoids, while found in the cannabis plant, are in their acidic form. With heat and/or time, they activate the compounds we know as cannabinoids, like THC. This process is called decarboxylation - and it’s why, for example, you have to ‘decarb’ your cannabis before you infuse it into butter. (It’s also why just eating some dried cannabis isn’t going to give you nearly the same results as lighting it on fire and inhaling the smoke!) Prior to this process, though, the cannabinoids you typically associate with cannabis - like THC and CBD - are chemically different than their decarbed counterparts.
For example, the acidic form of THC, which is THCA, has anti-inflammatory effects on the body, but is not psychoactive like THC is. It’s not until you burn it, bake it, or otherwise decarb it that it activates the THC present in the plant matter.
Cannabinoids and Their Effects
While there are over a hundred known cannabinoids, the most prominent are THC, CBD, CBN, CBC, and CBG. These cannabinoids (and their acidic form) make up the majority of cannabinoid content in the plant matter, and have the most robust research on their benefits and effects on the endocannabinoid system.
THCA & THC
THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid), the precursor to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), has a lot of the same effects as THC, but is missing one key component: the intoxicating effect many users associate with cannabis.
Research on cannabinoid acids in general is just beginning; we don’t know as much as we would like to. However, THCA is believed to have many of the same benefits as THC.
Both THCA and THC:
Stimulate appetite and help relieve nausea and indigestion;
Have anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain fighting) qualities;
Slow cancer cell growth;
Calms muscle spasms;
Can help users fall asleep and have better sleep quality.
Only THC, however, provides the “high” that is associated with cannabis use.
CBDA & CBD
CBDA (cannabidiolic acid) is unique from most other cannabinoids because it doesn’t actually interact directly with endocannabinoid receptors. Instead, CBDA inhibits an enzyme called COX-2, which interacts with the endocannabinoid system. COX-2 is an enzyme that is released when the body is in pain or injured; this inhibition is why CBDA is known for its anti-inflammatory qualities and pain relief. Incidentally, this is the same way that NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen achieve their effects.
Like above, we don’t have as much research on CBDA as we do on CBD. What is interesting, though, is that CBDA is believed to be significantly more effective than CBD at many things.
For example, CBD is used widely to help control nausea and vomiting. CBDA is shown to be more than a thousand times more effective at controlling nausea and vomiting by how it interacts with serotonin receptors. This makes it a popular choice for patients undergoing chemotherapy. Some effects of CBD and CBDA:
May relieve anxiety and depression by interacting with serotonin receptors
Anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects
Slow cancer cell growth and may contribute to death of cancer cells
Neuroprotective (brain protective) and anti-seizure qualities
Helps regulate blood pressure and may prevent heart disease
Helps users fall asleep and have better sleep quality
CBN and CBNA
CBN (cannabinol) is interesting because it’s a cannabinoid that is created when THCA begins to degrade due to age. This is why dried cannabis will lose its potency as it gets older; the THCA in the cannabis slowly turns into CBN over time, which doesn’t have the same intoxicating effects as THC.
It doesn’t go “bad”, though: CBN has its own benefits, similar to CBD. It has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and neuroprotective effects in its own right, and new research indicates that CBN has antibiotic properties, even being shown to be effective against antibiotic-resistant MRSA strains.
Another interesting fact about CBN is the effect is has on sleep: While CBN on its own doesn’t induce drowsiness, CBN paired with THC is shown to make users much sleepier than THC alone.
CBC and CBCA
CBC, or cannabichromene, is another cannabinoid that doesn’t produce intoxicating effects but has a multitude of benefits in it’s own right.
Like many other cannabinoids, CBC is being studied for its effects on cancer cell growth inhibition. Promising studies show that CBC may offer cancer-fighting potential as strong as, or stronger than, THC, without the associated high.
CBC also has neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic effects similar to many cannabinoids. One body of research that stands out on CBC shows powerful anti-acne properties - evidence says that CBC suppresses excess sebum production and can reduce skin breakouts in people with chronic acne.
Evidence also theorizes that what makes CBC special isn’t just its own effects, but how it encourages the effects of other cannabinoids. CBC is believed to have a sort of “entourage effect”, encouraging the benefits of other cannabinoids present and making them more effective.
CBGA and CBG
CBGA (cannabigerol) is the precursor cannabinoid. CBGA is created within the cannabis plant to regulate the process that directs energy through the plant to the flower. While CBGA and CBG are being studied as cannabinoids in their own right, and have health benefits very similar to other cannabinoids, what makes CBGA so special is that it typically doesn’t stay CBGA - it becomes THCA, CBDA, CBCA, and other cannabinoids when combined with enzymes in the cannabis plant.
Like other acidic cannabinoids, CBG is created from CBGA through decarboxylation, although most CBGA becomes THC, CBD or another cannabinoid rather than sticking around to become CBG.
Most research on CBG and CBGA is cantered around this transformation, and scientists are looking into ways to create CBGA synthetically, in order to induce synthetic THC compounds for greater understanding and medicinal use. That being said, CBG has similar effects on the endocannabinoid system as other cannabinoids, and many people are seeking out high-CBG strains specifically for these benefits.