Whether you’re just starting your journey towards making cannabis a part of your wellness routine or a veteran consumer looking to dig into the science of cannabis, questions about what cannabinoids are and what they do are sure to be at the top of your mind.
Cannabis has been used by humans as a tool for health, wellness, and personal development for over 6000 years. Cannabinoids are the molecules contained within the cannabis plant that cause a variety of effects when consumed.
Today, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9-THC, or simply THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the most recognizable and most studied cannabinoids. In total, however, there are estimated to be “over 400 chemical entities of which more than 60 of them are cannabinoid compounds.”
In this post, we’ll dive into the details of what cannabinoids are, how they work, and what they can do for your wellness routine, as well as provide an overview of some of the lesser-known natural and synthetic cannabinoids.
The term “cannabinoid” was introduced by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam in the 1960s to describe the compounds that he and his team, who played a significant role in the modern study of cannabis, discovered and isolated from the cannabis plant.
Mechoulam’s team were the first to isolate the two most common cannabinoids, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The structure of CBD was first published by the team in 1963, and a publication detailing the structure of THC was released the following year.
THC is the main psychoactive compound present in the cannabis plant. Despite being labeled as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government, an ever-growing number of U.S. states have legalized cannabis and cannabis-derived products containing THC for medical and recreational use.
Like THC, CBD is a common compound found in the cannabis plant — especially those classified as “hemp.”
Unlike THC, CBD is legal at the federal level and can even be purchased directly from farmers through the mail, though the Food & Drug Administration is still working to clarify how to best regulate CBD-based products.
THC and CBD are both examples of phytocannabinoids, a term used for cannabinoids that are naturally present in the cannabis plant.
Common minor cannabinoids, which are almost always present in lower quantities than THC or CBD, include cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG), and cannabichromene (CBC).
There are also several less common versions of THC known today, some of which may be included in products intended to skirt laws banning delta-9-THC. These “alternative” cannabinoids include delta-8-THC (which can be synthesized from CBD), delta-10-THC, tetrahyrdocannabiphorol (THC-P), and THC-O-acetate.
Interestingly, Cannabis sativa might not be the only plant that produces cannabinoids. According to another review authored by leading cannabis researcher Ethan Russo, common carrots, kava kava, ginger, and black pepper, among other plants, seem to contain compounds that impact the same bodily system affected by cannabinoids from cannabis plants.
“Perhaps it is appropriate to alter slightly the common adage to reflect, ‘You are what you ingest’, as perhaps there are many more lessons to be learned in the foraged forests and fields that may help to nurture human health,” Russo suggests.
To really understand how cannabinoids work and what they can do, you’ll need to understand the human endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The ECS, considered “perhaps the most significant human biological scientific discovery” in the last several decades by Russo and Marcu, serves to maintain “a state of natural physiological balance” in the brain, skin, cardiovascular system, and elsewhere throughout the body.
There are two main types of cannabinoid receptors that make up the ECS: CB1 and CB2. These receptors respond to endocannabinoids, or cannabinoids naturally produced by the human body, as well as to the phytocannabinoids consumed via the cannabis plant.
CB1 receptors are located primarily in the brain and have been shown to respond at high levels in the parts of the brain associated with the psychoactive effects of THC. These cannabinoid receptors are also present in other parts of the body as well, and may play a role in pain modulation, memory processing, appetite regulation, and immune system function.
CB2 receptors were discovered more recently than CB1 receptors, and there are fewer studies regarding their distribution throughout the body and main functions. With that being said, researchers state that there is strong evidence for a connection between CB2 receptors and the immune system.
Every person’s ECS is unique, and the way your own ECS responds to different cannabinoids at different concentration levels can have a massive impact on your cannabis consumption experience.
Put simply, cannabinoids act upon the ECS to produce a wide range of effects, many of which can help enhance or promote personal wellness when cannabis is consumed with the intention of, for example, recovering after a workout, focusing and creating, improving sleep, relieving mild pain, or improving social experiences.
THC is the compound that produces the “high” commonly associated with cannabis use.
Consuming THC “is associated with relaxation and enjoyment, but can also lead to unpleasant effects such as anxiety, psychotic symptoms, depression, apathy, and impairment of memory,” one research group reports.
Among Jointly users, high doses of THC have been particularly helpful when it comes to managing everyday pain. Mid-level doses are reportedly effective for Jointly users looking to relax and refresh or to relieve everyday stress. Low doses of THC were found to be effective for some users looking to improve their sleep.
Due to the side effects of THC, especially those related to feelings of anxiety or depression, high doses can actually be counterproductive for some wellness-related goals.
Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t produce any intoxicating effects and shows little affinity for the CB1 receptors stimulated by THC.
On its own, CBD has demonstrated anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antipsychotic properties, and its neuro-protective characteristics have generated interest in how CBD can be used to treat disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson disease, Huntington disease, and multiple sclerosis.
Additionally, researchers have found that CBD can counteract side effects caused by THC.
“CBD possesses the unique ability to counteract the intoxicating and adverse effects of cannabis, such as anxiety, tachycardia [i.e., increased heart rate], hunger and sedation ,” state researchers Ethan Russo and Jahan Marcu.
Russo and Marcu also note that one of the few FDA-approved cannabis-derived medications currently on the market, Sativex, utilizes a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD.
Some Jointly users have found CBD to be effective for pain relief in high doses, as well as for relaxation and relieving stress. Notably, some users report that small doses of CBD caused them to have trouble sleeping.
One minor cannabinoid, CBN, is growing in popularity as a sleep aid, with renowned cannabis concentrate brand STIIIZY introducing their proprietary 2:1 THC to CBN ratio gummies in November 2022.
Other minor cannabinoids have distinct properties as well. CBG, for example, may have an impact on ECS receptors related to “pain, inflammation and heat sensitization.” CBC, which is typically only present in small concentrations relative to other cannabinoids, stimulates CB2 receptors and may affect inflammation and pain.
In addition to the naturally-occurring phytocannabinoids found in cannabis plants, there are a variety of synthetic cannabinoids that consumers might find on the market — especially in states where legal restrictions on delta-9-THC have pushed the market towards alternative compounds.
Perhaps the most notorious of these synthetic cannabinoids is the broad category of K2 or Spice, two common brands of “synthetic marijuana” that mimic the effects of real cannabis. Unlike natural cannabis, products containing K2 or Spice-type synthetic cannabinoids have been associated with “cardiovascular events, psychosis, seizure, and death.”
While the potential adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids that fall under the category of K2/spice warrant significant caution from consumers, there are also several human-produced cannabinoids that are much more similar to naturally occurring cannabinoids.
These synthesized cannabinoids are typically very similar to naturally occurring cannabinoids in terms of chemical structure and the effects produced when consumed.
For example, Delta-8-THC occurs naturally in cannabis in small amounts, but methods for synthesizing delta-8-THC from CBD have been available for several decades.
It was only in recent years, with the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill that made the cultivation and inter-state sale of CBD-rich hemp legal, that delta-8-THC began to appear as a common alternative to delta-9-THC in states where the delta-9 remains illegal.
Researchers have demonstrated that delta-8-THC is about half as potent as delta-9-THC, with a higher concentration of the former compound needed to produce effects similar to what is expected from the latter.
Delta-10-THC is another synthesized cannabinoid commonly produced as a byproduct of the process for synthesizing delta-8-THC from CBD. Researchers report delta-10-THC to likely be less potent than delta-9-THC, but note that there haven’t been any clinical trials comparing the potency of the two compounds.
THC-O, also called THC-O-acetate, is a relative newcomer to the synthesized cannabinoid market. THC-O can commonly be found in vape cartridges, edibles, and tinctures, and some reports state that THC-O is up to three times more potent than delta-9-THC. Conclusive research is limited, however, despite THC-O having been a subject of U.S. government research as far back as the 1940s.
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