Whether you are new to the idea of using marijuana or you have been getting high for years and years, you might not fully understand the components within the drug that affect your mind and body. Within cannabis, there are unique compounds not found in other plants; these are called cannabinoids, and so far, scientists have identified up to 113 of them.

You might be familiar with more popular cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, but you likely haven’t heard of THCV, CBC, CBN and CBG. If you are interested in learning more about what cannabinoids are and how they function, keep reading.

Where Cannabinoids Come From

Many plants contain exclusive compounds that affect how that plant grows, smells, tastes and functions — and cannabis is no exception. Though cannabis contains over 500 distinct compounds, the ones that are unique to the plant are called cannabinoids and studied to better understand their purpose.

As with other plants, it is believed that cannabinoids developed to help the cannabis plant defend against threats. Indeed, wild cannabis is notoriously hardy and resilient: It is naturally resistant to mold and mildew despite preferring a dry environment; it resists pests as well viral and bacterial infections that plague similar crops, and it is extremely tolerant of direct sunlight and harsh UV rays, which might cause other plants to get scorched and wilt. It is incredibly likely that cannabis’s cannabinoids contribute to most or all of these unique features. You can find countless resources for how to grow your own cannabis at home.

The most well-known and most plentiful cannabinoid is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the dominant psychoactive cannabinoid responsible for getting users high. First isolated and described in 1964, THC is easily the most researched cannabinoid of the 113 known today because scientists (and lawmakers) desired to know more about how THC specifically interacted with the body and why it produced such marked effects. Marijuana carefully cultivated in grow operations has a much higher THC content than wild cannabis because it was bred to produce a more powerful high. Today, you can easily procure high-THC marijuana from any recreational California dispensary.

The next most common cannabinoid is cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not produce psychoactive effects. Though cannabidiol was the first cannabinoid discovered, way back in 1940, researchers still aren’t certain how CBD functions within the brain and body. Even so, CBD is proving promising as a treatment for a bevy of health conditions, and it is the active ingredient in an FDA-approved medication designed for childhood epilepsy sufferers.

Besides THC and CBD, there are four other cannabinoids that seem to have some affect on human health: tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), cannabichromene (CBC), cannabinol (CBN) and cannabigerol (CBG). Besides CBN, which seems to develop as THC degrades in the presence of oxygen, these cannabinoids are present in small amounts in most strains of marijuana, and studying them will surely reveal more about their nature and their applications in medicine and recreation.

How Cannabinoids Interact With the Mind and Body

For the most part, cannabinoids interact with the mind and body though a system discovered thanks to marijuana research. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was first identified in the early 1990s when scientists found and cloned two unique types of receptors, CB1 and CB2 receptors, that were binding with cannabinoids in users’ systems. After further study, researchers recognized that the ECS worked alongside other systems in the body to facilitate communication from the brain and maintain homeostasis, or internal balance.

The ECS produces its own compounds, called endocannabinoids, to manage various other systems of the body. Receptors are located in the brain, autonomic nervous system, reproductive organs, immune system and digestive system, indicating that endocannabinoids have an affect on these parts of the body. Currently, there is a good amount of peer-reviewed research on the ECS (much of it concisely available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endocannabinoid_system).

Accordingly, when users partake in cannabis — by inhalation, ingestion or any other method — researchers can see cannabinoids flocking to ECS receptors and interacting with the system in different ways. THC, for example, binds in high density to CB1 receptors, which are primarily located in the brain and nervous system. As a result, THC overstimulates the ECS and thwarts endocannabinoids from achieving homeostasis. In many ways, the disruption of the ECS has positive results, perhaps by encouraging euphoria or interrupting signals of pain and nausea. Both CBG and CBN binds to CB2 receptors; the former is thought to have antibacterial effects, which might have applications in cancer treatment, and the latter works alongside THC to produce psychoactive effects, perhaps enhancing feelings of sedation.

In contrast, CBD doesn’t seem to bind to ECS receptors directly, but instead the cannabinoid stimulates the ECS to produce more endocannabinoids, thereby helping the body to heal itself. Meanwhile, CBC doesn’t interact with the ECS at all, instead binding to other receptors, like the vanilloid receptor, with the effect of relieving pain by reducing inflammation.

Cannabinoids are fascinating compounds, and we have much to learn about them in the coming years. The more resources we devote to understanding the mental and physical effects of cannabinoids, the sooner we can benefit

Cite this article as:
Editorial Staff, "THC, CBD, CBC, CBG — What Cannabinoids Are and What They Do," in Medicalopedia, June 9, 2020, [Permalink: https://www.medicalopedia.org/8952/thc-cbd-cbc-cbg-what-cannabinoids-are-and-what-they-do/].