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What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are a cornerstone of pain relief and healing with cannabis. They are a class of chemical compounds derived from hemp and cannabis that interact directly with the cannabinoid receptors found throughout the human endocannabinoid system. The benefits of medical marijuana can be attributed to the phenomenon of cannabinoids activating the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain and body. When CB1 and CB2 receptors are activated, we can improve how our body’s different systems and organs function.

Cannabinoids and terpenes develop in the resin glands, or trichomes, on the flower and leaves of cannabis plants. Many other plants produce cannabinoids, but they are found in the highest concentration in cannabis. Terpenes and cannabinoids work together to develop a strain’s particular flavor and resulting high, a phenomenon known as the entourage effect. The different compounds interact synergistically to amplify the benefits of the plant’s individual components. Essentially, the whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts. Today, growers aspire to breed strains with high concentrations of both compounds due to their prized therapeutic effects.

HOW DO CANNABINOIDS WORK IN THE BODY?

The majority of medical marijuana research focuses on the study of cannabinoids. They are similar in structure to the neurotransmitters, which we call “endocannabinoids”, located in our peripheral and central nervous system. The network of these endocannabinoids in our bodies is called the endocannabinoid system.

There are two types of receptors, CB1 and CB2 receptors, that these neurotransmitters communicate with. When receptors are activated, they influence how our body systems and organs function. Proper communication between the two can affect how we feel emotionally and physically. For instance, THC binds with CB1 receptors which are found in abundance in certain regions in the brain. This is why humans experience an intoxicating high when they consume THC.

The ECS controls the human body’s core physiological processes like pain, mood, appetite, memory and more. When this nervous system falters, the compounds derived from cannabis can help our bodies regain their natural balance and stability. When we consume cannabis, these compounds can communicate on a cellular level with certain neurotransmitters. This concept is the foundation of cannabis as medicine.

WHY DO HUMANS PRODUCE CANNABINOIDS?

According to our historical understanding of cannabis, humans have used the medical benefits of the plant for around 3,000 years. However, the endocannabinoid system didn’t develop in order to help humans function better. Yes, we have a dynamic, biological connection with the plant. One that allows us to reap its therapeutic benefits. But, humans aren’t the only species to have an ECS. In fact, it is present in all vertebrate species – any animal that has a backbone has an ECS. Scientists have discovered that this system actually existed long before humans.

Researchers have developed theories about the initial development of the ECS. Many think that the abundance of CB1 receptors in the brain suggests that it took hundreds of millions of years for this level of endocannabinoid signaling to evolve.

According to Dr. John McPartland, a renowned cannabis expert and botanist, the ECS first started developing 600 million years ago. To put that in perspective, sponges were considered a complex life form at that time. When deciphering the evolution of cannabis, researchers estimate that the plant evolved approximately 34 million to 6 million years ago which places it millions of years after the ECS began developing in animals.

So, why did the endocannabinoid system evolve in the first place? We’re honestly not all that sure. We know that endocannabinoids and their receptors are located all throughout our internal systems. We also know that they play a crucial role in how the brain signals the rest of the body, but beyond that, it remains somewhat of a mystery.

WHY DOES THE CANNABIS PLANT PRODUCE CANNABINOIDS?

Based on the evolutionary timeline of the endocannabinoid system and the cannabis plant, it’s clear that cannabinoids didn’t develop for the benefit of humans. However, there are a few existing theories. Many scholars believe that cannabinoids contribute to the overall health of the cannabis plant. The chemical compounds have antioxidant properties which can serve as a protective mechanism. In plants, antioxidants can neutralize harmful free radicals that UV rays produce. These compounds may help protect the plant’s cellular structure.

Another theory is that cannabinoids, especially THC, may have developed to prevent animals and possibly pests from eating the plant. Most animals are susceptible to THC’s psychoactive effects, so perhaps these compounds developed as a deterrent.

CANNABINOIDS AS A MEDICINE

Cannabinoids have been used as a form of medicine for thousands of years. Many different cultures and religions have recorded the plant as a form of medical treatment. Despite all of the proven medical benefits, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. Interestingly, the U.S. government owns a patent for the medical properties of cannabinoids. Patent No. 6,630,507 titled “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants” was issued in 2003 to the United States of America by the Department of Health and Human Services. The patent states:

“The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.”


Hampson, A. J., Axelrod, J., & Grimaldi, M. (2003). U.S. Patent No. 6,630,507. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Even though multiple government agencies have publicly acknowledged the benefits of cannabis, the plant remains a Schedule I substance. Luckily, the tides are changing and cannabis reform laws are progressing every day, opening up the field to scientific research.

In general, medical cannabis treatments aim to connect certain cannabinoids with the right receptors. When this occurs, we are better equipped to offset the damages from external factors, like disease and stress. Studies have illustrated that when we get sick from certain conditions, our bodies lack the correct amount of endocannabinoids. This is called a Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency. Cannabinoids derived from cannabis are able to mimic our naturally produced endocannabinoids to help get our bodies back on track.

The goal with cannabis as a medicine is to achieve homeostasis which means to cultivate a healthy internal environment. Cannabis may have powerful preventative qualities. Some researchers believe that if we can maintain a homeostatic (or balanced) environment, we won’t develop certain conditions or symptoms. Though more research is needed, mounting evidence suggests that cannabinoids, along with proper nutrition, exercise and overall self-care, may be key to keeping our bodies balanced and functioning at their best.

LIST OF MAJOR CANNABINOIDS IN CANNABIS

Different types of cannabinoids have different effects. Certain ones can provide pain relief while others have anticonvulsant properties. The benefits of these chemical compounds are diverse, but more scientific studies are needed to truly understand their versatility and therapeutic effects.

Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid 

Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THC-A) is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid. THC-A is the most abundant cannabinoid in raw cannabis. When THC-A is heated to a high enough temperature, it immediately converts to THC. This process, called decarboxylation, also occurs naturally as fresh cannabis dries and cures. Decarboxylation is simply what happens when carbon dioxide is released from the plant. Some patients juice raw cannabis to access the benefits of medical marijuana without consuming THC. Additionally, exposure to air for extended periods of time can cause THC-A to lose hydrogen atoms. When this occurs, THC-A can convert to cannabinol acid (CBN-A). Like THC-A is the precursor to THC, CBN-A is the precursor to the cannabinoid CBN.

A 2011 study found that THC-A was able to inhibit two enzymes, COX-1 and COX-2, that contribute to symptoms like fever, pain, and swelling. Anti-inflammatory medications, like aspirin, are taken to target these enzymes. The study showed that THC-A was able to inhibit these enzymes by up to 30%, illustrating significant anti-inflammatory properties. The compound has illustrated antiemetic and neuroprotectant properties as well. A 2018 study discovered that THC-A was able to combat colon cancer and polyp cells, showing potential anti-tumor properties.

Tetrahydrocannabivarin

Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THC-V) is a potentially potent psychoactive cannabinoid. Research studies are examining its effects upon certain psychological conditions such as PTSD. It may have anxiolytic properties and has also shown promise as an effective treatment for certain types of psychosis. Limited studies have indicated that THC-V can decrease appetite.

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most well-known cannabinoid and the main psychoactive compound in cannabis. While the intoxicating effect of THC was the first realized benefit of cannabis, extensive studies have found vast medical benefits of the compound. It is an extremely versatile cannabinoid. Notably, THC has significant antiemetic effects. Many cancer patients use it to reduce nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy treatments. It can also be used to stimulate appetite, making it a useful medical agent for wasting syndrome and anorexia.

THC can be especially valuable for inflammation reduction and pain management. The analgesic properties are useful for treating chronic pain stemming from multiple conditions. Patients struggling with sleep-related issues may also benefit from THC. Studies have found that the compound can reduce rapid eye movement during sleep which may help limit PTSD-related nightmares, providing more restful sleep. Many patients also claim that it helps them fall asleep easily. Other common uses include protecting the nervous system, reducing muscle spasms and providing a sense of relaxation and stress relief.

Cannabidiol

Cannabidiol (CBD) is another versatile cannabinoid with multiple therapeutic effects. The non-intoxicating properties make it more applicable to those who need and want to stay clear-minded. One of the most appealing aspects is how CBD can actually mitigate the unwanted side effects of THC, like intoxication and increased heartbeat. CBD has powerful analgesic properties and anti-inflammatory properties. The compound can also be useful for treating certain mental health conditions. Evidence shows that CBD can be an anxiolytic and antipsychotic agent.

Some of CBD’s most studied attributes are its antiseizure and antispasmodic properties. You might have heard of the high CBD strain, Charlotte’s Web. It was developed for a young girl named Charlotte who suffered from Dravet’s syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. A tincture derived from this strain helped reduce the hundreds of weekly seizures Charlotte endured to only a few. This was an unbelievable feat that catalyzed the medical marijuana movement. It is also a prime example of how impactful cannabinoid therapy can be.

Cannabinol

Cannabinol (CBN) naturally occurs when cannabis is exposed to heat and light. It is typically found in amounts of less than 1%. It has very minimal psychoactive properties. Some say that CBN has sedative properties. One study found that CBN may promote bone growth, making it a potential treatment for osteoporosis. A few studies have also found that it may have anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-convulsant benefits.

Cannabigerol

Cannabigerol (CBG)  is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that is found in minimal amounts (less than 1%) in medical marijuana. CBG is the chemical precursor to THC and CBD. CBG has indicated potential in chronic pain management. Evidence shows that it may be a useful antibiotic and antifungal agent, as well as a muscle relaxant. One study found that CBG may have potential as an anti-cancer agent. Along with THC-A, the compound was able to inhibit the growth of colorectal cancer cells in mice which slowed the colon cancer growth. It was also able to block receptors that cause cancer cell growth.

Cannabidivarin

Cannabidivarin (CBD-V) is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid with significant anticonvulsant and antiseizure effects. It is being researched for its potential in treating epilepsy. Like CBD, CBD-V is not psychoactive, so it could provide anxiety relief to patients who don’t want a mental high. It may also be useful for patients suffering from other mood disorders.

In Summary

Understanding the different types of cannabinoids is essential to using medical marijuana as a treatment. Scientific research shows that the current proven benefits medical marijuana are vast. From pain relief to anti-inflammation to antispasmodic, it’s clear that the cannabis plant has many properties that can help alleviate a range of symptoms.

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