What are Cannabinoids?

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As with anything, and especially with cannabis, there is more than meets the eye. Relatively simple at first glance, the cannabis plant grows from seed, stretches through a vegetative phase, and begins to flower. Under the watch of an experienced grower, the flowers are harvested, dried, and cured, before becoming ready to consume. This process increases in complexity the deeper we look, and a simple flowering phase becomes a vast ecosystem on a molecular level where all inputs combine to create unique chemical compounds within the plant, called cannabinoids.

Cannabis contains over 480 chemical compounds and 66 of them, including the more well-known molecules THC, CBD, and CBN, are classified as cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds found in cannabis that interact with your body’s Endocannabinoid System (ECS), which is a biological system known to regulate the variety of physiological and cognitive processes in the human body.

What does the Endocannabinoid System do?

Our ECS is essential for regulating everyday bodily functions. Cannabinoids act as chemical messengers that bind to cell receptors throughout the body and unlock them to start and stop processes in the body.

CB1 and CB2 are the body’s two major cannabinoid receptors. CB1 receptors are mainly found in the brain and central nervous system and are thought to regulate stress, anxiety, appetite, and nausea. CB2 receptors are more associated with anti-inflammatory and healing properties in other major organs.

It’s no coincidence that the ECS is named after cannabis. Cannabis helped lead scientists to discover the existence of our body’s natural endocannabinoids, called endogenous cannabinoids, which were only located after the discovery of phytocannabinoids (plant-derived ones) in the 1960’s.

It’s no coincidence that the ECS is named after cannabis.

Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam identified CBD and psychoactive THC in 1964 in Lebanese hashish -- this prompted other scientists to look into whether we naturally produce anything similar that creates a euphoric high, like runners high. Anandamide, which is named after the Sanskrit word for bliss, was finally identified in the 1980s.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

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THC is often the most abundant, and well-known cannabinoid in cannabis. Tetrahydrocannabinol (or (–)-trans-delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol if you want to get technical) is known for creating a sense of euphoria, intensifying sensory experiences, and increasing social interaction.
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Effects depend on the levels of THC consumed and the consumer’s own body chemical makeup, but these psychotropic experiences are caused by THC molecules attaching to CB1 receptors in the brain. THC also binds to cell receptors that are responsible for time perception, motor skills, and reaction times.

What are the medical benefits of THC?

Many medical studies have begun looking at the so-called ‘entourage effect’, which describes THC working in combination with a variety of other cannabinoids such as CBD. Here are some of the ways that THC is currently being used in the medical world:

  • THC is found in the commercial medicine Sativex (in combination with CBD), an anti-spasmodic spray for multiple sclerosis patients, that can help with spasticity, pain and spasms.
  • THC has been scientifically shown to be effective in the stimulation of appetite and the quelling of nausea. In fact, it’s now synthetically produced as dronabinol (marketed as Marinol in North America), which is an anti-nausea treatment for people undergoing chemotherapy and is an appetite stimulator for AIDS patients.
  • THC could act as a pain reliever instead of opioid-based medicines to provide a non-addictive solution.

Cannabidiol (CBD)

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Cannabidiol is the second most common phytocannabinoid. It’s sometimes called the non-psychoactive cannabinoid in comparison to THC.

What does CBD do?

CBD is causing a buzz in the wellness world as it appears to be able to bond with receptors beyond the ECS, such as the brain’s serotonin 1A receptor, which reduces stress, anxiety and depression.

Research has suggested that CBD can reduce the possible anxiety-inducing effects of THC, as it can reduce activity in the CB1 receptor that causes anxiety. Paradoxically, CBD may also increase cannabinoid activity by inhibiting the breakdown of the body’s natural anandamide, and therefore increasing levels of the euphoric chemical.

CBD may also be able to interact with opioid and dopamine neurotransmitters (our reward centres) and could be a potential treatment for drug addiction.

What are the benefits of CBD?

CBD is commercially available, often in a hemp-derived oil form, that is sold as a health and wellness product. It is said to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and in combination with THC may help treatments of rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. It is also being considered as a treatment for anxiety resulting from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Cannabinol (CBN)

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Cannabinoid research is still relatively new but as legalization becomes more widespread, studies can be performed to expand our knowledge surrounding CBD, THC and others. CBN (Cannabinol) is one of the lesser-known cannabinoids that is increasingly getting more attention for its potential.

What does CBN do?

CBN is a cannabinoid that naturally occurs when THCA (the acid that becomes THC after heat is applied) is exposed to oxygen over time. It’s found mainly in older flowers and while it doesn’t appear to have psychoactive properties on its own, it’s thought to cause a sedative effect in combination with THC.

CBN is produced by the degradation of THC -- simply, it’s what is produced when cannabis grows past the ideal stage in the flowering phase to provide the classic high. For most producers, it’s not been ideal to allow the plant to grow past this point so historically there hasn’t been as much interest in this cannabinoid.

CBN is produced by the degradation of THC -- simply, it’s what is produced when cannabis grows past the ideal stage in the flowering phase to provide the classic high.

What are the benefits of CBN?

CBN is being studied for potential sedative, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving effects, usually in combination with other cannabinoids such as THC. Potential benefits of CBN include:

What’s the future of cannabinoid research?

With many jurisdictions mandating third-party testing for cannabis potency, it’s becoming easier to understand the cannabinoids in your cannabis. As legal production methods and supply chains are brought online around the world, cannabis packages are increasingly listing dominant cannabinoids and terpenes that each strain yields. This information, along with new methods of consumption, like vaping, which use different temperatures to vaporize different cannabinoids, gives cannabis consumers a more granular selection of the cannabinoids they choose to consume.
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