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What are cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are naturally occurring chemical compounds that are found in cannabis, and often unique to the plant. Of the over 480 different compounds present in the plant, just over 100 are termed cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are similar to endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids), which are produced by the human body and regulate internal health and immune system functions. Endocannabinoids work by signaling to other cells and can produce similar, modest euphoric feelings naturally, like a runner’s high.

How do cannabinoids work?

The source of marijuana’s distinct effects was a perplexing question until rather recently. It wasn’t until the 1980s that research into cannabis found cannabinoids bind to receptors found throughout the brain and body.

To date, two different classes of receptors have been identified:

  • CB-1, commonly found in brain cells and the central nervous system.
  • CB-2, usually found in the body and immune system.

Similar to the behavior of other chemical compounds, cannabinoids interact with receptors like a key and lock would. Cannabinoids, being the key, bind with receptors that contain metabolic enzymes that break down the cannabinoids, thus unlocking the effects like organic endocannabinoids would.

The fascinating part is that different cannabinoids produce different effects according to the type and location of receptor they interact with.

Importantly, cannabinoids aren’t directly produced by cannabis. Cannabinoid acids are concentrated in cannabis resin, which need activation by decarboxylation (heating). Smoking, vaping or cooking cannabis starts a reaction that produces cannabinoids form the secretions of cannabinoid acid.

How many cannabinoids are there?

The stars of the cannabinoid bunch are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Most every adult American has heard of these compounds, whether they use medical/recreational marijuana or not. However, the number of cannabinoids expands far beyond THC and CBD. Estimates vary, but just over 100 different cannabinoids have been identified, with many more thought to exist. Given this variety, the interactions between cannabinoids themselves are also of great interest.

Let’s take a look at the most common types of cannabinoids:

Delta-9 THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol)

Believe it or not, THC is one of the few cannabinoids that will get you high. It’s in the minority, in reality, and other psychoactive cannabinoids don’t have nearly the same potent effect as THC.

That said, it is one of the most abundant cannabinoids in modern cannabis products and strains, having been the first to be isolated. Typically, THC binds with CB-1 receptors in the brain and can produce strong psychoactive effects.

Delta-8-THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol)

Delta-8-THC is an isomer (identical molecule/compound) of delta-9-THC, with a slight difference in chemical structure. Delta-8-THC occurs naturally in very small concentrations, but can be extracted and concentrated from both hemp and marijuana plants.

CBD (Cannabidiol)

The second-most well-known cannabinoid, CBD is the opposite of THC in many respects. CBD is not known to produce intoxicating effects associated with THC. CBD is more partial to binding with CB-2 receptors found throughout the body.

CBG (Cannabigerol)

A less common and known cannabinoid, CBG is attracting new interest among researchers and cultivators for benefits that are still being researched. Like CBD, CBG has been used to combat pain without having the intoxicating effect of cannabinoids like THC. It is found in smaller quantities than other cannabinoids in cannabis plants. In most strains of the plant, only 1% of CBG can be found compared to 20 to 25% of CBD or 25 to 30% of THC.

CBC (Cannabichromene)

CBC is another non-psychoactive, minor cannabinoid that’s drawing interest among researchers.

CBN (Cannabinol)

CBN is believed to be psychoactive, but only marginally so compared to THC. CBN often present at a very low level in hemp and marijuana, so an understanding of CBN is still being built.


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