What Are Cannabinoids and how do they work?

The percentage of THC and CBD is all the hype these days, as if those are the only two components in the cannabis plant, however, this wonderful flower of ours is way more complex than that. Aromas and flavors come from terpenes and flavonoids, while most of the medicinal and psychoactive elements come from cannabinoids. There is also the “entourage effect” (source) where many of the components including cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids all act together synergistically to adjust the overall psychoactive and therapeutic effects of cannabis. Basically, that little nug of weed that you’re bidding up has a whole lot of magic in it. There is a little biology and chemistry here (even anatomy!) so I’m going to try to simplify everything as much as I can based on the research that I’ve done. 

What are cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are chemical elements that are found in the cannabis plant. Although there are at least 113 different cannabinoids isolated from cannabis (source), we’re going to stick to the two that we all know best for now, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is the primary psychoactive compound and cannabidiol (CBD) which is another major chemical of the plant. It’s part of the plant’s “dna” if you will, and scientists are in the process of doing research on other cannabinoids and the benefits that they may possess. 

When it comes to the actual cannabis plant, cannabinoids are secondary metabolites. What it means is that they are chemicals the plant produces that don’t have a primary role on the plant’s growth and development. However, the leading theory is that secondary metabolites act as an immune system for the plant, turning aside parasites, predators and pests. (source)

How do they work?

To put it in simple terms, THC is what gets you high. Humans (and many animals) have cannabinoid receptors that are located in the brain and in the central nervous system (we’ll get to that), THC binds to these receptors, this is how we can reap the benefits of cannabinoids for health and for enjoyment as well. 

When it comes to cannabis and the ephurian feeling that’s associated with it, the “high” if you will, we’re talking strictly about CB1 receptors. The difference between CBD and THC is how both cannabinoids interact with these CB1 receptors. Because the THC molecule is perfectly shaped to interact with these receptors, the connection happens seamlessly and when it does, THC stimulates these receptors. THC is actually called a CB1 receptor agonist by researchers because of how it works to activate them. CBD on the other hand, has trouble interacting with those receptors, it isn’t a good fit.

I know, that was complicated….let me try and break it down a little more. Think of it like a phone charger, you can’t connect an iphone charger to an android phone right? This is kind of what’s happening when CBD tries to interact with CB1 receptors, however THC is a perfect fit. 

One thing to note is that cannabinoids work together. A good example is the cannabinoid that’s called tetrahydrocannabivarin (what a tongue twister, THCV is the shorter version), it’s prevalent in certain central Asian and southern African cannabis strains (source). It is actually an antagonist of THC and reduces the psychoactive effects of it (source). The popular CBD on the other hand, has been shown to play a role in suppressing the short-term memory loss that’s associated with THC. (source)

How does cannabis produce cannabinoids?

Cannabis doesn’t directly produce cannabinoids, Instead, it manufactures several cannabinoid acids (THCA, CBDA, etc). These cannabinoids need to be “activated” (decarboxylated), which is done by heat, in order to yield the good stuff that consumers are really after (THC, CBD). Obviously everybody know about THCA and CBDA, but there are many other cannabinoid acids that are produced by this plant:

  • CBGA (Cannabigerolic acid)
  • THCA (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid)
  • CBDA (Cannabidiolic acid)
  • CBCA (Cannabichromenenic acid)
  • CBGVA (Cannabigerovarinic acid)
  • THCVA (Tetrahydrocanabivarinic acid)
  • CBDVA (Cannabidivarinic acid)
  • CBCVA (Cannabichromevarinic acid)

Intoxicating effects cannot be produced by cannabinoid acids, but they can do other interesting things for the cannabis plant, many of them have antibiotic properties. This flower needs to defend itself from pests and other things, this is likely why these acids are produced in the first place. 

When you expose cannabinoid acids to heat energy, they lose the “A” portion and become neutral, rather than acidic, plant cannabinoids. They are concentrated in a resin that’s produced in structures known as trichomes, which to the naked eye, are the little white crystals that you see on your buds. Interestingly enough, the cannabinoid profile on a “frosty” looking nug is usually high!

There you have it, a little breakdown of cannabinoids. And this is just some of the compounds of this cannabis plant, there are also terpenes, flavonoids and over 100 cannabinoids that are still understudied. We know all of the benefits that this plant possesses already, and we haven’t even touched the surface yet!

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