What Are Cannabinoids? THC, CBD and More

Written by BlackbirdGo May 10, 2018
The Plant

As more states across the U.S. legalize cannabis, the ensuing media coverage has generated a lot of buzz around specific cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

You may be wondering what these miracle compounds are all about. Do all weed plants contain cannabinoids? How do cannabinoids interact with the body? And perhaps more pressingly, why does weed make you feel the way you feel?

Let’s start with the basics.

What’s In Your Weed?

Cannabinoids are naturally-occurring chemical compounds that develop in the cannabis plant. There are currently over 100 known cannabinoids commonly found in weed, the most famous being THC and CBD. These cannabinoids are at their highest concentrations in the trichomes of a flowering cannabis plant, but they’re usually present throughout all parts of the plant. THC and CBD may be the biggest names in cannabis, but they’re not the only compounds found in weed.

There are too many cannabinoids to list in an article like this, and the science can get a bit tricky as you learn more and more about these compounds. Many cannabinoids are actually the result of other compounds in cannabis that have aged or oxidized, meaning many different cannabinoids can be present in a given sample at varying concentrations (depending on the degree of degradation at a given time).

Here are some of the most commonly found compounds in cannabis and their basic effects on the human body:

  • THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) - causes the intoxicating effects of cannabis.
  • THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) - non-psychoactive compound that turns into THC (and thus becomes psychoactive) as the plant dries and/or is heated.
  • CBN (cannabinol) - as THC is exposed to oxygen, it breaks down over time and is converted into CBN. This compound may still be somewhat psychoactive and is thought to be responsible for some of the sleepy, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects of some cannabis strains. In fact, studies suggest that CBN may be comparable to benzodiazepines like Valium when it comes to to treating the symptoms of anxiety!
  • CBD (cannabidiol) - another non-psychoactive cannabinoid, CBD relieves pain, reduces anxiety, and may offer a host of other health benefits.
  • CBDA - (cannabidiolic acid) - reduces inflammation and may prevent the migration of cancer cells throughout the body.
  • CBC (cannabichromene) - non-psychoactive CBC offers pain-relieving and anti-inflammation properties. Studies suggest that CBC offers comparable relief as the rheumatoid arthritis drug phenylbutazone without any of the side effects.
  • CBDV (cannabidivarin) - structurally very similar to CBD, this compound may help prevent or treat seizures.

After reading through the relationship between these commonly-found cannabinoids, you may start to get a better picture of how these compounds coexist inside the plant. For example, non-psychoactive THCA turns into THC once the plant matter is dried, heated, or combusted. Over time, THC turns into CBN. Each cannabinoid performs a specific role within the plant, and they offer varying effects when you ingest them.

Your Body Chemistry

So far we’ve covered some of the most common cannabinoids in weed and the effects they can have on humans. But the reason cannabis has any effect on humans at all is really remarkable. It starts with your body’s endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system contains a network of receptors spread throughout your body. Despite what the name may suggest, your endocannabinoid system didn’t evolve just so you could get high; it’s part of a complex system of regulation. Your body is constantly trying to regulate its internal processes to aim for homeostasis - an even, balanced state of existence. The endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in that process, regulating functions like body temperature, cellular production, and metabolic processes involving your energy and metabolism. In short, your endocannabinoid system makes sure that your body’s chemistry remains stable without moving too far in any direction.

Are you with us so far? Here’s where it gets really interesting!

The way your body regulates all those important functions is by manufacturing and releasing cannabinoids - basically a set of molecules that interact with the receptors in your endocannabinoid system. And as you may have guessed, the naturally-occurring cannabinoids in weed mimic the shape and size of the compounds your body naturally produces!

This doesn’t mean that your body can “get high on its own supply.” It means that, through an amazing coincidence, the chemical compounds in weed fit into the receptors in your body, allowing you to feel the effects and relief that cannabis offers.

It’s All Coming Together

While there are other receptors, your body has two main types of cannabinoid receptors that interact with the compounds in weed: CB1 and CB2.

CB1 receptors are concentrated in the brain, but there are other CB1 receptors in your eyes, your heart and lungs, your reproductive organs, and the lining of your colon. These sites, spread throughout the nervous system and beyond, are the primary points where weed compounds interact with your body.

CB2 receptors tend to be less distributed throughout the body. They’re most concentrated in and around your body’s immune system.

There are certain compounds in weed that do not get you high - like the famed cannabinoid CBD. You can ingest pure CBD and experience the beneficial effects that this naturally-occurring compound has to offer, but studies suggest that you get greater benefits from ingesting CBD, THC, and the various other cannabinoids and terpenes that are found in the plant all in unison - which is what happens when you smoke, vape, or consume whole-plant cannabis and its extracts.

Knowing how weed works with your body makes it easier to fine-tune your cannabis experience. Whether you’re a medical patient or a recreational user, learning about the science behind cannabis and the various functions your body performs will help ensure that cannabis can better meet your needs.

- US National Library of Medicine
- US National Library of Medicine
- Steep Hill Lab
- SC Labs
- Pub Chem: Open Chemistry Database
- ScienceDirect
- Herb
- Leafly
- Leafly
- Leafly