What are Cannabinoids? CBD, THC & Beyond!
In this comprehensive guide, will give you:
- An introduction to cannabinoids
- An explanation of what cannabinoids do
- An idea of how they might support your health and well-being
Prepare to be enlightened!
The Science of Cannabinoids - Dr. David Bearman, pain medicine physician and certified cannabinoid medicine specialist gives a quick overview of cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system (ECS). He serves as the Executive Vice President of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine. Cannabis Medicine: A Guide to the Practice of Cannabinoid Medicine offers an overview of cannabis, cannabinoids, and ECS for both health care professionals and discerning cannabis consumers.
Cannabis — including marijuana and hemp — may be simple and green on the outside. But inside, they’re complex and practically bursting with a wealth of hard-working goodness. One type of heavy hitter contained in cannabis is the cannabinoid.
What are Cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are bioactive plant compounds, aka phytocompounds, that naturally occur in cannabis. Of the over 600 known phytocompounds in cannabis, at least 140 are cannabinoids.(1) The most in/famous cannabinoids are probably THC and CBD (Maybe you’ve heard of them?), though others are quickly gaining traction.
All species and subspecies of cannabis have cannabinoids. However, each type of cannabis has its own unique collection of cannabinoids. For example, marijuana and hemp each feature many cannabinoids, but in different proportions.
In plants, cannabinoids protect the organism from harmful UV rays, drying out, invasive insects, etc.
Once introduced to our bodies, cannabinoids interact with our endocannabinoid system as neurotransmitters. (Neurotransmitters are chemical-encoded messages that get relayed by a receiver.) In this capacity, they signal to your brain and body to respond in certain ways.
Again, each cannabinoid brings its distinct offering of possible effects to the party. Overall, though, it’s believed that the protective behavior cannabinoids have on their plant is somewhat ported over to those who consume them. Put a pin in this — we’ll come back to it momentarily after we showcase a few individual cannabinoids.
Types of Cannabinoids
There are three different types of cannabinoids, two nature-made and one man-made.
Phytocannabinoids (aka Plant Cannabinoids)
These are cannabinoids that are made right in the cannabis plant. When you see the word “cannabinoid,” it’s usually referring to phytocannabinoids. From here on out (after this section defining each kind of cannabinoid) we’re going to focus on phytocannabinoids, which we’ll refer to as just cannabinoids.
Phytocannabinoids are only found in cannabis. But, recent research has discovered that quite a few other plants exhibit cannabinoid-like effects due to the compounds they contain.(2) This includes common items like chocolate, turmeric, echinacea, broccoli, black pepper, clove, and more. These plants either engage directly with the body like cannabinoids or mediate the effects of cannabinoids.
Endocannabinoids (aka Endogenous Cannabinoid)
These are cannabinoids your body makes on demand. Because endocannabinoids are churned out on an as-needed basis, researchers don’t really have a clue what a “typical” level of them is.(3)
As of now, we know of two endocannabinoids:
Anandamide (AEA) has characteristics that make it similar to THC. AEA interacts with the same receptors as THC and — as the “bliss molecule” — helps generate the euphoric feelings associated with THC.(4) Anandamide helps your body manage stress, cognition, pain, inflammation, immunity, fetal development, and more.(5,6)
- 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG) mainly hangs out in your central nervous system. It’s connected to emotions, cognition, energy, pain, inflammation, and then some.(7)
Synthetic Cannabinoids (aka Man-Made Cannabinoids)
Mama Earth hasn’t cornered the market on cranking out cannabinoids. Human ingenuity has made it possible for super smart people in lab coats to synthesize and produce artificial cannabinoids.
Man-made cannabinoids are designer replicas of phytocannabinoids. However, when created in a lab or manufacturing facility, only the “desirable” properties are kept. This approach is intended to preserve the beneficial traits (and their effects) while stripping out “undesirable” qualities.
Synthetic cannabinoids are used in a variety of products.
Cannabinoid Uses & Effects
Are you wondering how cannabinoids do what they do and exactly how they work? That’s a natural direction for your brain to go!
All types of cannabinoids operate in a similar fashion. Once you’ve consumed them, they work with your body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) to yield all sorts of results.
Bear in mind, though, that each specific cannabinoid may produce its own distinct outcomes. Plus, any other plant compounds — terpenes, flavonoids, minerals, vitamins, etc. — that are tagging along in the cannabis may alter, amplify, or add effects.
For an in-depth intro to the ECS, be sure to read What is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)? [Guide for Beginners] next.
Chemical formulas of natural cannabinoids Image.
Cannabis doesn’t start out with stockpiles of cannabinoids. Through a process called biosynthesis, the plants produce these chemical compounds. It’s like the plant has a little internal factory.
But, like a full-scale, real-life manufacturing plant, cannabis’ factories need raw inputs to transform into finished outputs (cannabinoids). These ingredients feeding into the production line are called precursors.
In the case of cannabinoids, the precursors are acids.(8,9) The following are the prime-time cannabinoid acids:
- Cannabigerolic acid (CBGA)
- Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA)
- Cannabidiolic acid (CBDA)
- Cannabichromene acid (CBCA)
Cannabis makes THCA, CBDA, and CBCA from CBGA.(10) Sometimes these precursor substances are lumped in with cannabinoids. And you will see products that feature these cannabinoid-creating acids.
Five Major Cannabinoids
How sources define “major” is fairly subjective. This quartet represents the most prevalent, popular, researched, discussed, and/or commercialized cannabinoids. Let’s take a closer look at each.
1 - Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
A cannabinoid of many names, this one goes by: tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, delta-9, D9, Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, Δ-9-thc, Δ9. These are just the official chemical names — if you read our post What is Cannabis? Demystifying Hemp & Marijuana Once & For All, you’d know there are plenty more unofficial aliases.
Likely most reputed for its psychoactivity — ability to get you high — sound research and oodles of anecdotal observations suggest that it may also help with:
- Brain health
- Muscle spasms
This is the most abundant cannabinoid in most marijuana strains.
2 - Cannabidiol (CBD)
Cannabidiol, also known as CBD, is well known for its ability to help people relax and deal with stress. It's also being investigated for its therapeutic potential for a host of health and wellness concerns, such as:
- Anxiety and depression
- Digestive disorders
- Neuromuscular diseases
- Sleep disturbances
- Substance use disorders
Currently, Epidiolex is the only FDA-approved CBD-based prescription drug. It’s reserved for only the most intractable cases of a few seizure disorders.
This is the most prevalent cannabinoid in most hemp varieties.
3 - Delta-8-THC (D8)
D8 occurs in nature, but in such small quantities that it’s not commercially viable. So, for use in delta-8 products, it’s usually made in a lab. Delta-8-THC can be created from CBD or THC; because CBD is federally legal, D8 is frequently derived from CBD.
The main selling point of D8 is that it is also psychoactive, yet offers a mellow high, gentler than that of THC. Delta-8 enthusiasts also report that this cannabinoid doesn’t come with THC’s side effects — like paranoia or anxiety.
4 - Cannabinol (CBN)
This cannabinoid has a slight psychoactive kick, probably because it’s derived from THC. CBN is most abundant in the older, harvested cannabis flowers.
CBN shows promise as an:
- Appetite stimulant
- Sleep aid
If you haven’t noticed this cannabinoid sneaking into cannabis products yet, you will.
5 - Cannabigerol (CBG)
The majority of this cannabinoid is converted into THC or CBD during the development of the cannabis plant. Still, the trace amounts of it that remain have been anecdotally associated with:
- Alleviating pain
- Easing nausea
- Reducing inflammation
- Supporting eye health
- Being antibacterial
- Combatting cancer
This cannabinoid, too, is quickly finding its place in cannabis products.
The Main Minor Cannabinoids
You can do the math: 140 total cannabinoids less the major 5 = 136 others we haven't covered yet. We don’t have the room — and suspect you don’t have the time, interest, or mental bandwidth for — a run-through of 130+ minor cannabinoids. If you are interested in learning more, focus on the most popular, commercialized, and understood cream of the crop:
- Cannabichromene (CBC)
- Cannabielsoin (CBE)
- Cannabifuran (CBF)
- Cannabicyclol (CBL)
- Cannabitriol (CBT)
- Cannabinodivarin (CBV)
- Cannabiripsol (CBR)
- Cannabicitran (CBT-C)
Cannabinoids are plant compounds found in cannabis. There are over 140 known — each with unique features and potential effects. Wellness enthusiasts and advocates seek out different cannabinoids in an effort to support their mental and physical health. Available cannabis products may contain multiple cannabinoids.
FAQs Buzzin’ Through the Hive
What are cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are naturally-occurring compounds found in cannabis plants. There are over 140 known cannabinoids, each with its own distinct properties and potential effects. Each variety of cannabis has a unique cannabinoid profile.
What is THC?
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is a major cannabinoid. It’s the most abundant cannabinoid in most marijuana strains. The most noted characteristic of THC is probably that it is a psychoactive compound, meaning it can make you high.
What is CBD?
CBD (cannabidiol), another major cannabinoid, is the main cannabinoid in hemp. It’s touted for its calming effects. Studies also suggest it may also be an effective anti-inflammatory and pain reliever.
- Grinspoon, P. (2021). Beyond CBD: Here come the other cannabinoids, but where’s the evidence? Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/beyond-cbd-here-come-the-other-cannabinoids-but-wheres-the-evidence-2021032322190
- Gertsch, J, et al. (2010). Phytocannabinoids beyond the Cannabis plant - do they exist? British Journal of Pharmacology. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1476-5381.2010.00745.x
- Raypole, C. (2019, May 17). A Simple Guide to the Endocannabinoid System. Healthline; Healthline Media. https://www.healthline.com/health/endocannabinoid-system
- Scherma, M, et al. (2018). Brain activity of anandamide: a rewarding bliss? Acta Pharmacologica Sinica. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41401-018-0075-x
- Bird, E. (2020). Body’s natural cannabinoid may erase traumatic memories. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/bodys-own-natural-cannabinoid-may-erase-traumatic-memories
- (2013). Annandamine Molecule - The bliss molecule. World of Molecules. https://www.worldofmolecules.com/drugs/anandamide-molecule.html
- Baggelaar, MP, et al. (2018). 2-Arachidonoylglycerol: A signaling lipid with manifold actions in the brain. Progress in Lipid Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plipres.2018.05.002
- Gülck, T, et al. (2020). Phytocannabinoids: Origins and Biosynthesis. Trends in Plant Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2020.05.005
- Tahir, MN, et al. (2021). The biosynthesis of the cannabinoids. Journal of Cannabis Research. https://doi.org/10.1186/s42238-021-00062-4
- (2022). Cannabinoids: Beyond THC and CBD. Encore-Labs. https://www.encore-labs.com/cannabinoids-beyond-thc-and-cbd