“Cannabinoid” is a word that you may not have heard until recently, but now it seems like it’s everywhere you turn. Just try going to the store without seeing some kind of CBD product!
That’s because scientists are tirelessly researching the cannabis plant to learn its vast potential for health benefits. The specific parts of the plant that they are extracting for these studies are known as cannabinoids.
There are over 100 known cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant, and it is likely that there are even more yet to be discovered. The vast majority of cannabinoids are found at very low levels, which makes it difficult for scientists to detect and study them. The most abundant cannabinoids include THC, CBD, CBG, CBN, CBC, THCa, and THCv.
In this post, we’re going to take a deep dive into these seven main cannabinoids, including their potential health benefits and uses. But before we dig in, it’s important to understand what cannabinoids are, how they are created, and to debunk a myth or two along the way.
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
- What is a Cannabinoid?
- How Are Cannabinoids Created?
- Hemp vs. Marijuana - Are These Cannabinoids?
- 1. THC - Tetrahydrocannabinol
- Potential Uses & Health Benefits of THC
- What Is The Entourage Effect?
- Concerns With THC
- 2. CBD - Cannabidiol
- Potential Uses & Health Benefits of CBD
- 3. CBG - Cannabigerol
- Potential Uses & Health Benefits of CBG
- 4. CBN - Cannabinol
- Potential Uses & Health Benefits of CBN?
- 5. CBC - Cannabichromene
- How Does CBC Work?
- Potential Uses & Health Benefits of CBC
- 6. THCA - Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid
- Potential Uses & Health Benefits of THCa
- 7. THCV - Tetrahydrocannabivarin
- Potential Uses & Health Benefits of THCv
What Is A Cannabinoid?
A cannabinoid is a blanket term for a group of more than 100 different chemical compounds that interact with cannabinoid receptors in the human body. Cannabinoids are secreted by cannabis flowers. It is actually these cannabinoids that give cannabis its medicinal and recreational properties.
Research continues to understand why cannabinoids produce calming, pain-relieving, and anti-inflammatory effects, but we do already know a lot about how the process works.
Studies show that CBD and other cannabinoids interact with proteins and cells in the brain in the recently-discovered endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is responsible for naturally producing endocannabinoids in our bodies.
Endocannabinoids are lipid-based retrograde neurotransmitters that bind to the vast network of cannabinoid receptors throughout our brain and central nervous system. When our endocannabinoids bind to these receptors, most commonly the CB1 and CB2 receptors, they can mediate physiological processes like pain, nausea, appetite, mood, anxiety, inflammation, sleep by regulating our circadian rhythms, and even memory.
The cannabinoids that are extracted from the cannabis plant imitate the feelings that the endocannabinoids in our bodies naturally produce to provide the health benefits that users enjoy. Cannabinoid supplements can fill gaps where our natural production is lacking and balance out our ECS therapeutically.
Our CB1 and CB2 receptors are activated by cannabinoids when they are smoked, vaped, or ingested. The effect a user feels will depend on the specific cannabinoid and which receptor the cannabinoid binds to.
Some, like THC, will bind to receptors in the brain, while others, such as CBN, will bind to CB2 receptors found throughout our bodies. This is why different products that feature different cannabinoids will offer specific types of relief. As more is learned about various cannabinoids, more products and treatments may become available.
How Are Cannabinoids Created?
The process of creating a cannabinoid product is actually fairly complex, which is why they are only now emerging on the scene en masse. However, the process of creating cannabis-related products goes something like this…
It’s important to note up front that the cannabis plant does not directly form the cannabinoids that it is associated with. Rather, cannabis actually synthesizes cannabinoid acids.
In order to create the desired effect that a consumer seeks from a cannabis-related product (say, for instance, the pain-soothing or calming effects of CBD), these cannabinoid acids must be activated. This is a process known scientifically as decarboxylated and is typically carried out by using heat.
CBDa + heat (decarboxylation) = CBD
Cannabinoid acids are identified by attaching an “A” to the cannabinoid. Therefore, you have THCa, CBDa, and so on. THCa and CBDa are the most abundant cannabinoids in most strains of the cannabis plant, while all others are found at much lower levels.
Several cannabinoids can be derived from the same starting compound. When a cannabinoid acid is exposed to heat, it will lose the “A” and turn into a neutral plant cannabinoid.
Cannabinoid acids are not known to produce any of the intoxicating effects associated with THC, but they do have their own antibiotic and insecticidal properties. This is likely due to the fact that the cannabis plant uses these compounds to defend itself.
Before we move on to the different cannabinoids, it’s time to make an important clarification, that being where hemp comes into play.
Hemp vs. Marijuana - Are These Cannabinoids?
Hemp and marijuana are the sources of much confusion, although neither are cannabinoids at all. They are actually different classifications of the cannabis plant. Hemp refers to varieties of cannabis that contains 0.3 percent or less of THC content, while marijuana is a term used to classify varieties of cannabis with more than 0.3 percent of THC.
Hemp, therefore, refers to non-intoxicating cannabis that is harvested for a wide range of industrial products and has been for thousands of years. In fact, scientists believe hemp may have been the first crop ever cultivated by mankind. Hemp can be used to produce things like rope, clothing, paper, housing material, and many others.
Meanwhile, marijuana is a classification of cannabis that can induce psychotropic or euphoric effects on its user. Marijuana is a widely misunderstood term and those within the cannabis industry don’t even use it. What is important to understand is that marijuana refers to cannabis that will get its user high.
However, cannabis is not generally categorized as either hemp or marijuana, because it overly simplifies this diverse plant.
With that background out of the way, let’s begin our breakdown of cannabinoids with the one that does get users high — THC.
1. THC - Tetrahydrocannabinol
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the most common and most researched cannabinoid in cannabis. THC is known for the intoxicating effects it produces when consumed.
THC produces its psychoactive effects when it attaches to the cannabinoid receptors (specifically the CB1 receptors) in our brains that control our thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination, and time perception. It stimulates cells in the brain to release dopamine, which creates a sense of euphoria. THC also can interfere with the hippocampus — the part of the brain that is responsible for the formation of new memories.
THC is able to produce its “high” and psychoactive effects when the cannabinoid acid, THCa is heated and converted into Delta-9 THC. Some side effects include dry eyes and mouth, an increased appetite, and more.
Potential Uses & Health Benefits of THC
There are many potential medical uses of THC, particularly via medical marijuana. Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states.
THC has strong anti-inflammatory capabilities and is able to produce signs of relaxation and sedation. It has been used to treat muscle spasms, as a muscle relaxant, and has even been studied for its potential to fight leukemia and shrink lung tumors. Promising research shows that THC may help in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and with glaucoma, insomnia, and chronic pain.
Most commonly in the United States, medical marijuana is used for pain control. It isn’t strong enough to treat severe pain, such as post-surgical pain, but can be quite effective in the treatment of chronic pain. THC/medical marijuana is safer than opiates in that it is impossible to overdose from THC and it is far less addictive.
Medical marijuana has been used to treat pain for those who have multiple sclerosis and appears to be helpful with general nerve pain. Few other treatments exist in this area and those that do have strong sedative effects. Medical marijuana is also known to be a strong muscle relaxant and can lessen tremors in Parkinson’s disease. Other medical conditions that medical marijuana has been used to treat include fibromyalgia, endometriosis, interstitial cystitis, and many other conditions that cause chronic pain.
Medical marijuana has even been used to help with nausea, weight loss, glaucoma, and PTSD in veterans returning from combat zones.
Beyond medical marijuana, there are also FDA-approved, synthetic, THC-only medicines on the market, such as Marinol (dronabinol) and Cesamet (nabilone). These pharmaceuticals are often prescribed to treat cancer-related nausea or pain.
However, these medicines may not be as effective as medicines that include both THC and CBD. These cannabinoids combine to produce health benefits through what’s known as the entourage effect.
What Is The Entourage Effect?
When you smoke marijuana, you aren’t just consuming THC. Your body actually will be taking in hundreds of different botanical compounds. Each has its own unique effects and benefits, and the user’s behavior and feelings may be affected by the presence of other compounds.
When multiple cannabinoids are combined, they work together to be even more effective than just one cannabinoid on its own. This is a phenomenon known as the entourage effect.
A 2010 study showed that patients with cancer pain reported having less pain when given a THC/CBD combo versus a pure THC extract. Since cannabis also produces dozens of other cannabinoids such as CBC, CBG, and CBN, in addition to aromatic compounds called terpenes, there are endless amounts of possible synergies to take advantage of the entourage effect.
You can read more about the entourage effect in this thorough review by Dr. Ethan Russo. CBD is the most common and effective compound to synergize with THC because CBD helps curb the potential side effects of THC, such as anxiety. In fact, a 2011 survey found that only 1.8 percent of 953 patients preferred synthetic THC isolates to inhaled or infused methods.
Concerns With THC
Another reason using compounds rather than THC isolate is preferred is because there is some concern with using THC in medicine. This is due to the fact that THC can produce contrasting effects on people.
THC might make one person sleepy and relaxed while it could cause another to be restless, nervous, or even anxious. Unfortunately, research is not yet able to identify what causes these imbalances. It could be due to our individual body chemistries, different concentrations of THC, or some combination of the two.
2. CBD - Cannabidiol
The second most common and popular cannabinoid is cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD has burst onto the scene in recent years and is now being used to treat everything from anxiety to depression, to skin and digestive issues. It has vast potential for both mental and physical treatments.
A recent poll by Gallup showed that about 14 percent of Americans are using CBD supplements. It is more popular with younger people, but over eight percent of people over 65 have tried CBD as well, according to the same poll.
CBD has enjoyed a recent boom thanks to an amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill that completely removed CBD and hemp from the list of “scheduled” drugs that are outlawed by the Controlled Substances Act. This means hemp-derived CBD is not an illegal drug and CBD supplements made from industrial hemp are now legal in all 50 states.
However, the FDA has placed strict limitations on CBD products and how they can be marketed. Despite these restrictions, CBD products are everywhere, even becoming more popular as a post-workout recovery supplement for athletes.
CBD is non-psychoactive, making it the perfect counterbalance to THC because it actually prevents THC from binding with our CB1 receptors. So instead of getting high, users feel a calming sensation.
The quantity of CBD and THC in a cannabis plant are actually inversely related, meaning that plants that are high in THC will be low in CBD, and vice versa. Because of this, hemp farmers are able to breed plants that are high in CBD and low in THC, while marijuana farmers can do the opposite, harvesting plants that are high in THC and low in CBD.
Since CBD oil is extracted from hemp plants, it is often referred to as CBD hemp oil. It’s worth noting that CBD oil can in fact be extracted from both marijuana and hemp plants. However, you need a medical license to buy CBD that comes from a marijuana plant because it is then considered a marijuana product. Hemp CBD oil is available on the market for anyone, license free.
Potential Uses & Health Benefits of CBD
CBD has a great number of potential health uses, and it seems like the list is growing each day as research continues. It is perhaps most well-known for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Among its many potential health benefits, CBD has been used:
- To relieve chronic pain - CBD can treat pain symptoms in many different forms, including chronic pain, and hard-to-treat ailments such as headaches (particularly migraines), arthritis, and even diseases affecting the central nervous system that cause pain as a symptom, such as multiple sclerosis.
- To treat anxiety and depression - CBD can help as well, particularly to improve depression and anxiety. These calming effects are caused by CBD’s interactions with serotonin receptors in the brain. CBD can reduce stress, effectively help with social anxiety, and improve mood.
- To moderate mood swings - CBD has also been recognized for its anti-psychotic effects, and is being studied for the possible treatment of bipolar disorder. CBD even appears to reduce the psychotic symptoms associated with schizophrenia. CBD has vast potential for the treatment of these and other mental disorders.
- To help control the frequency of seizures - CBD has been recognized for many years for its anti-seizure capabilities, making it a promising treatment for epilepsy. It has been shown to be especially effective in those people who have been having a difficult time treating their seizures or are resistant to other treatments.
- To fight cancer tumors and treat the side effects associated with cancer - CBD can be effective in reducing pain and nausea in cancer patients and can also stimulate appetite. Beyond symptoms, CBD is also showing promise for the treatment of several types of cancer directly, such as inhibiting cancer cell growth and metastasis.
- To treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease - Thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities, CBD has shown great promise for use in protecting the brain. Studies are ongoing to determine if CBD can be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases as well as to help the brain heal from injury. The same studies suggest that CBD can be used to help reduce brain damage from a stroke or other neurological injury. It is also being looked into as a possible treatment for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis.
Studies are also ongoing to test the potential of CBD as a sleep aid and to provide relief from vomiting and nausea. As scientists continue to research CBD, we’re learning more and more about this cannabinoid’s vast potential to produce a wide variety of health benefits and its ability to aid in the treatment of numerous physical and mental ailments.
3. CBG - Cannabigerol
While THC and CBD are far and away the most well-known and researched cannabinoids, others are emerging for their potential health benefits. One of these other cannabinoids is cannabigerol, or CBG.
Like CBD, CBG is non-psychoactive and found in small concentrations in the cannabis plant. CBG is sometimes referred to as the “mother of cannabinoids” because many cannabinoids start out as a form of CBG. CBGA provides the original material for not only CBG, but also THC and CBD. The fact that CBG is used to synthesize other types of cannabinoids explains why the amount of CBG in a cannabis plant declines as the plant ages.
After CBG oil is extracted from the cannabis plant, it is often mixed with a carrier oil, such as MCT oil, to produce an edible or topical product.
Potential Uses & Health Benefits of CBG
Research into CBG is still in its infancy, and most studies and clinical trials to date have been conducted on animals. That being said, the limited studies have shown that CBG could help in the treatment of various health issues.
Here are some of CBG’s potential benefits.
- CBG has been shown to reduce intraocular pressure in the eye, which might be a useful treatment for those who have glaucoma.
- A 2010 study shows that CBG may have stronger pain-relieving properties than THC.
- CBG may function as a natural muscle relaxant, which could make it useful for the management of sports injuries or chronic pain.
- Antidepressant and anti-anxiety relief
- Antifungal and antimicrobial properties that are so potent that CBG can help fight off MRSA.
- Fighting against cognitive decline — a 2015 study can help those dealing with serious neurological conditions such as Huntington’s disease. This gives CBG potential as a treatment option for people with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
- Help with bladder dysfunctions
- Stimulate bone marrow growth to strengthen bones and heal fractures, perhaps even to protect against osteoporosis
- Further CBG animal studies suggest that CBG may slow the progression of certain cancers, including breast, colon, and prostate cancers. CBG may also stimulate appetite, thereby helping to counteract one of the effects of chemotherapy.
- Evidence suggests that the way CBG interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system might also make it a viable treatment option for psoriasis.
As studies continue and move into human phases, we will learn more about the vast untapped potential for CBG. But, as you can see, there is reason for much optimism.
4. CBN - Cannabinol
CBN is unique in that it is actually produced by aged THC.
CBN is formed when THC is exposed to air and light over time and oxidizes. It is derived from stale cannabis and the breakdown of THC molecules.
When THC is decomposed, heated, and exposed to oxygen, it converts to CBN. More specifically, CBNa is produced from the aging of THCa and exposure to UV light. THCa-rich cannabis plants can also produce CBN naturally if they are left to age for several weeks. Live, growing cannabis plants do not contain any CBN.
Potential Uses & Health Benefits of CBN?
Interestingly, CBN was previously believed to be a waste byproduct unworthy of further examination until a study revealed its potential as a powerful sedative.
In fact, CBN is the most powerful sedative among the cannabinoids and is most often seen in sleep aid products to help treat insomnia. One study showed that CBN is the most sedative of all cannabinoids, with 2.5-5mg of CBN showing the same results as 5-10mg of diazepam (Valium). CBN and CBD together provide an even better sedative thanks again to the entourage effect. However, a more recent CBN study seems to temper these claims due to potential misattribution and the aforementioned entourage effect.
- It is also considered to be a powerful anti-inflammatory agent that can help treat pain as it alters pain signals sent by neurons to the brain.
- CBN can help to boost appetite and has potential as both an anti-bacterial and anti-convulsive treatment.
- CBN may even help our bones heal.
Perhaps most exciting in the ongoing CBN research is its potential to stop the growth of cancer cells. CBN has also been found to work synergistically with other cannabinoids to cease the growth of a specific form of lung tumor called Lewis lung carcinoma. It may even help to treat glaucoma.
CBN is slightly more psychoactive than CBD, but is still much less so than THC. CBN primarily binds to the CB2 receptor but may also interact with the CB1 receptor.
5. CBC - Cannabichromene
CBC was actually discovered over 50 years ago, but has just recently been researched extensively. Of all of the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, CBC is actually the third most abundant behind CBD and THC. Like CBD and THC, CBC also stems from CBGa.
The CBC concentration in cannabis rarely exceeds 0.2-0.3% on a dry weight basis, which is much lower than the other major cannabinoids. This makes CBC more difficult to extract and is a major reason it is not seen and studied more. Like CBD, CBC is non-psychoactive, meaning it will not get you “high,” and also has numerous potential health benefits
How Does CBC Work?
When CBGA is exposed to heat or ultraviolet light, it is converted into CBCA, and then finally to CBC during decarboxylation. When it is converted, CBC binds with the vanilloid receptor 1 (TRPV1) and transient receptor potential ankyrin 1 (TRPA1). These receptors are both linked to pain perception.
CBC activates these receptors, which causes increased levels of the body’s natural endocannabinoids like anandamide to be released.
Potential Uses & Health Benefits of CBC
CBC has a few potential health benefits that are causing optimism in the health community. The most promising use may be to treat pain and inflammation. CBC has been shown to block pain and fight inflammation without activating cannabinoid receptors. This effect is even more effective when CBC is combined with THC for the entourage effect.
CBC also has potential as a cancer-fighting agent. CBC is able to inhibit the uptake of anandamide, which means it may be useful in cancer treatment. A recent study showed CBC is the second-most-potent cannabinoid for inhibiting the growth of new cancer cells behind THC, but without the psychotropic qualities that make THC difficult for use in the treatment of chemotherapy.
CBC also stimulates brain growth, helps to improve brain function, and can treat migraines.
Other potential uses of CBC include:
- inflammation in the intestinal tract
- to treat osteoarthritis
- as a treatment for acne and other skin conditions.
- depression - CBC can boost mood when used in conjunction with THC and CBD.
6. THCA - Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid
THCa is a veritable infant when it comes to research. And while it sounds just like THC, THCa actually is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid. THCa is found in live, raw cannabis. It is converted to THC as the plant dries, a conversion that is expedited by heat (such as smoking or vaping).
But when THCa is not converted to THC, it has different properties.
Potential Uses & Health Benefits of THCa
Preliminary research and anecdotal evidence suggest that THCa will become more prominent in the future. Studies are starting to unveil THCa’s potential health benefits, which may include:
- Anti-inflammatory properties to help treat arthritis and lupus
- The treatment of neurodegenerative diseases
- Nausea and appetite
- Pain and muscle spasms
7. THCV - Tetrahydrocannabivarin
More is actually known about THCv than its predecessor on this list, THCa. THCv is found in very low quantities in the cannabis plant but is capable of producing strong psychoactive effects.
THCv is a compound in cannabis that offers a very unique array of effects and medical benefits that sets it apart from other cannabinoids like THC or CBD. THCv has become popular both for medical marijuana patients seeking a particular type of relief as well as casual consumers who are looking for a specific effect.
THCv is set to make waves in the cannabis world as its full potential is revealed over time, but here’s what we know now.
Potential Uses & Health Benefits of THCv
THCv is very similar to THC is molecular structure and psychoactive properties, but it somehow provides very different and unique effects. For starters, THCv has a boiling point of 428 °F (220 °C), which means vaporizers will need to turn it up higher than they would for THC.
As far as health benefits go…
- THCv has shown potential as an appetite suppressant. Unlike THC, which stimulates appetite, THCV may actually dull it. This may make THCv an attractive option for people attempting to lose weight.
- THCv may also help with diabetes — research shows that THCv has an ability to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance. THCv can even curb anxiety attacks in PTSD patients without suppressing emotion.
- THCv also appears to help treat tremors, motor control, and brain lesions that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Research is still in progress to reveal this potential.
- Lastly, THCv is known to stimulate bone growth and is being looked into as an option for the treatment of osteoporosis and other bone-related conditions.
THCv has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and help treat epilepsy. These effects are compounded when THCv is combined with CBD.
As you can see, the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant are worthy of the buzz they receive due to their incredible potential. Cannabinoids can be isolated to help treat various ailments or used in tandem to take advantage of the entourage effect.
Cannabinoids are being looked into seriously in part because of the current opioid epidemic. Since some cannabinoids are strong pain relievers and are far less dangerous and addictive, they may present a safer option as more is learned about them.