What are cannabinoids, and what do they do?

What are cannabinoids, and what do they do?

Cannabinoids are a naturally occurring chemical compound found in abundance in cannabis plants. Known for their varying effects when ingested, these compounds directly interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system. We’ll break down the differences between commonly found cannabinoids, what they do, how they do it, as well as the roles they fulfill within both the human body and in the cannabis plant.

Cannabinoids – what are they?

Cannabinoids, or more specifically, phytocannabinoids are found naturally in cannabis plants and are the most commonly referred to and discussed type of cannabinoid. Endocannabinoids comparatively are our bodies naturally produced cannabinoids, produced by our organs and tissues.


Cannabis is the most abundant resource of phytocannabinoids on the planet, providing over 150 different individual cannabinoids from its genus alone. Interestingly however, cannabis plants do not directly produce cannabinoids on their own. Instead, they provide cannabinoid acids – common examples include CBDA and THCA. Cannabinoids acids must go through a process called decarboxylation to produce the psychoactive and therapeutic effects they’re known for. THCA for example has an extra carboxyl ring in its chemical structure. When heated or exposed to oxygen over a prolonged period, this extra carboxyl ring breaks down, or de-carboxylates the chemical compound. This process converts THCA into THC.

Recently, new findings have shown that phytocannabinoids are not unique to cannabis as previously thought – cacao, black truffles, black pepper, strawflower, liverworts, and more examples have also been found to naturally produce phytocannabinoids.

Endocannabinoids are found naturally within our bodies as part of our endocannabinoid system. Our bodies can synthesize endocannabinoids to help us handle pain, sleep, memory, stress response, and more. Anandamide and arachidonoylglycerol are the two most commonly found endocannabinoids produced by our bodies in synergy with our endocannabinoid system.



How do cannabinoids effect the body?

Cannabinoids directly interact with our bodies through the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a complex, widespread neuromodulatory system that plays important roles in our central nervous system development, synaptic plasticity, and our response to endogenous and environmental stimuli. In simple terms, the endocannabinoid system is a cell-signaling network that extends throughout our entire body made up of cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids, and enzymes used to break down our naturally produced endocannabinoids once they’ve been used.

Our endocannabinoid system is primarily composed of two types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. These receptors are located throughout many of our organs, spinal cord, and our peripherals. When stimulated by endocannabinoids, these receptors stimulate responses in feelings of sleepiness, energy, hunger, calm, and more.

Our endocannabinoid system doesn’t only just respond to endocannabinoids, however. Phytocannabinoids, those found in cannabis, are extremely similar to endocannabinoids at a molecular level. When introduced into the body, phytocannabinoids induce response from our endocannabinoid system through CB1 and CB2 receptors. The effects produced by various phytocannabinoids depend on our own bodies’ unique endocannabinoid “tone”, as well as the specific phytocannabinoid to be ingested.

Cannabinoids are most commonly introduced to the human body through smoking or vaping, but there are other methods of delivery gaining in popularity such as edibles (oral consumption) and creams (transdermal). The method of introduction to the body can also change the way the endocannabinoid system interacts with the cannabinoids. Inhaled cannabinoids effects can almost be felt immediately, whereas orally ingested cannabinoids can take up to an hour or more as they pass through our digestive system and eventually get processed and introduced to the bloodstream in our liver. The bioavailability, or how effectively a chemical compound can deliver an active effect to the body, differs between each method.

THC, CBD, and other popular cannabinoids

THCA and CBA are the most commonly produced cannabinoid acids within the cannabis plant. When exposed to heat or oxygen to induce decarboxylation, they change into THC and CBD respectively.

Both THC and CBD are psychoactive cannabinoids, which alter nervous system function and can alter the way we feel. THC is the well-known culprit of the “high” effect you may feel when ingesting cannabis. CBD on the other hand does not contribute to the high effect, instead primarily reduces inflammation within the body and can also have therapeutic pain-relieving effects.

Other lesser cannabinoids that show promise of therapeutic or medicinal qualities include CBN, CBG, THCV, and D10 THC. Over time, these lesser-known cannabinoids will hopefully gain more focus and interest as we learn more about their effects on the body and endocannabinoid system.


Wrapping up

Cannabinoids are the driving force behind cannabis usage amongst recreational, medical, and therapeutic spaces, and much is still yet to be learned and discovered of the many ways they can benefit us. In the future, we hope to see how cannabinoids can be formulated to best match an individuals’ specific needs as we continue to explore and discover the amazing qualities of the cannabis plant and our endocannabinoid system.


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