Introduction To The Primary Cannabinoids
While THC and CBD are the cannabinoids that people are most familiar with, they’re only two of over 100 cannabinoids that are currently known in the hemp plant. Each of these is only slightly different in chemical composition, but can have vastly different effects. We’ve only just begun to understand the individual and combined effects of cannabinoids, and to this day have only done substantial research on a few. We still have a long way to go to fully understand all of the compounds, effects, and full therapeutic potential of the hemp plant. Beyond these cannabinoids, hemp also produces an astonishingly diverse assortment of terpenes—the aromatic compounds that give hemp, and many other plants, its scent.
Cannabinoids are a class of chemical compounds that act on the body's endocannabinoid system. There are cannabinoids that are derived from plants (phytocannnabinoids), cannabinoids that our body produces (endocannabinoids), and those that are made in a laboratory (synthetic cannabinoids). As of 2010, over a hundred cannabinoids have been characterized in the cannabis plant—though many of these compounds are present in quantities so small that it’s difficult to study them. Scientists have been studying and characterizing a dozen or so phytocannabinoids since the 1960s, though much of the research has been conducted in other countries due to restrictions from the DEA in the United States.
Terpenes are aromatic compounds produced by many plants. They are widely used in everyday products for their scents and other properties. “Essential oils” are simply another name for extracted terpenes. Lavender, balsam, rosemary, and vanilla are just a few of the many various plants that get their aroma from terpenes.
Similarly, the ratio of terpenes found in different hemp cultivars are what lend each plant its particular brew of aromas. Hemp produces an astounding array of these terpenes, naturally producing the same terpenes that are found in everything from pine trees to lavender to black pepper. But scent isn't the only benefit these compounds offer! Studies have uncovered antiseptic, antiviral, analgesic, sedative, and anti-inflammatory properties in terpenes—and it’s likely that there’s much more to learn about the ways terpenes function. In particular, the combination of cannabinoids and terpenes seems full of promise.
Full Spectrum, Broad Spectrum & Cannabinoid Isolates
A full spectrum product is made from a hemp extract that includes all of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and many of the other compounds that naturally occur in the hemp plant.
A broad spectrum product is made from a full spectrum extract that has undergone a refinement process to remove the THC from the extract. (This process generally results in the loss of the vast majority, if not all, of the terpenes and some of the other cannabinoids.)
A product made from a cannabinoid isolate contains just the isolated cannabinoid; everything else has been removed.
THC is the most widely known and thoroughly studied cannabinoid. The most commonly occurring phytocannabinoid in the majority of cannabis plants, THC was one of the first compounds to be isolated from the cannabis plant by landmark cannabis researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his team in the 1960s.
While best recognized for its role as the psychoactive compound that is responsible for the distinctive “high” of cannabis, THC has been shown to have a range of other functional benefits and physical effects. The potential usefulness of THC in helping treat a number of physical and mental health conditions has been explored in cell, animal, and human studies—although U.S. federal restrictions have made conducting these studies more difficult.
THC has been demonstrated to relieve pain, nausea, and inflammation. One study from 1991 reported that THC demonstrated 20 times the anti-inflammatory power of aspirin, and twice that of hydrocortisone. THC has also been shown to be useful as a muscle relaxant (important for conditions where involuntary muscle spasms and seizures are an issue) and appetite stimulant (helpful for patients whose conditions or medications make eating difficult).
THC’s intoxicating effects are varied and depend on the amount taken. The pleasant effects of euphoria and sedation are useful in treating anxiety, stress, and sleep problems. The effects of THC on sense of time, memory, pleasure, and concentration can be helpful at certain levels, but can also be experienced as adverse side effects past a specific point—limiting THC’s therapeutic benefit for some. Again, serving and desired effect are key.
The majority of cannabis plants are dominated by THC levels that range from 2% to 20%, with a few very potent cultivars—or varieties—reaching even higher concentrations. There are other forms of THC present in the plant (such as its acidic form or as delta-8 THC, both chemical variations of THC that are formed naturally inside the plant), but none of them have nearly the same levels of intoxicating potency of THC.
- Demonstrated relief against pain and nausea.
- Psychoactive cannabinoid responsible for the cognitive changes and “high” associated with cannabis intake.
- Shown to have properties of anti-inflammation, muscle relaxation, sedation, anticonvulsion, and appetite stimulation.
- Potent effects on memory, concentration, pleasure, coordination, sensory and time perception, and appetite.
- Adverse side effects can include anxiety, paranoia, memory loss, disorientation, nausea, and memory lapses.
- Ability to alter cognition, consciousness, mood, and energy level.
CBD shares many of THC’s pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, antinausea, and sedating properties, but is considered the therapeutic cannabinoid because it can provide these benefits without intoxication. This is useful when people want the health effects of CBD without impairment from THC. CBD is the second-most abundant cannabinoid in cannabis plants after THC; in cultivars where THC is low, CBD is typically the most dominant cannabinoid.
CBD has been reported to have a modulating, or balancing, effect on some of the less-desirable effects of THC, such as anxiety, increased appetite, and sedation. CBD has also been shown to have powerful antibacterial properties against MRSA—a common bacteria that is hard to treat in humans because it has evolved to be resistant to common antibiotics. In studies in cells, CBD has been reported to kill some types of breast cancer cells.
One of CBD’s most remarkable attributes is its usefulness in treating convulsions—particularly seizures in patients with epilepsy. CBD has proven effective in difficult-to-treat seizure disorders in children, reducing seizures by nearly 50% in rare forms of childhood epilepsy. This research finding has put CBD on the map as a powerful compound with therapeutic potential. Because it is free from THC’s intoxicating effect, CBD is easy to use (no legal barriers for giving it to children) and can be given to a wider population of people looking for relief.
Many people take CBD on a short-term basis to treat acute issues. Others take it over a longer period of time, allowing levels of the cannabinoid to build in their body, as a way to address issues such as chronic inflammation.
- Non-intoxicating, so it provides functional benefit without the “high” of THC.
- Shown to be pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea, sedating, and antibacterial.
- Significantly reduces seizures in rare forms of epilepsy.
- Reduces THC’s side effects. (e.g. feeling anxious)
CBG was the first cannabinoid ever identified, and is another non-intoxicating cannabinoid that has demonstrated several benefits. While CBG isn’t typically found in high concentrations in the cannabis plant, there are new cultivars being developed that are loaded with CBG—with some even producing 100% of their cannabinoid content as CBG alone!
CBG has been shown to have strong antibacterial activity against MRSA, a common bacteria that have become resistant to many antibiotics. CBG has moderate antifungal properties, as well, so it could prove useful in fighting infections caused by fungi. And like CBD, CBG has also shown the ability to attack cancer cells in research using human cells. Other studies have suggested that CBG might also have antidepressant and pain-relieving properties based on its effects on cell processes relevant to mood and pain. These features have been supported by a small number of CBG studies in rats.
- First cannabinoid identified in cannabis.
- Found in low concentrations—although some cultivars are being developed that have 100% CBG content.
- Demonstrated antifungal, antibacterial, cytotoxic (helps kill cancer cells), antidepressant, and pain-relieving properties.
Cannabinol was the first cannabinoid to be isolated. It is formed as a byproduct of THC’s exposure to sunlight or air, so it’s been described as a “degradation” product that marks a plant or product as “past its prime.” While it’s true the concentration of CBN in cannabis plants and products will increase with age, this cannabinoid expresses a number of interesting properties that scientists interested in medical cannabis are researching. CBN levels tend to hover between 0.1% and 1.6% in a live plant. CBN exhibits very mild psychoactive effects, though only around 10% the level of THC. CBN also has demonstrated anticonvulsant, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-nausea effects.
CBN has been considered an option for aiding sleep promotion, but the science is still developing. An older 1975 study in volunteers showed that CBN didn’t seem to have any sedative effects on its own, but showed strong effect when combined with THC. While some very small studies in volunteers have reported that CBN has the strongest sedative effects of any of the cannabinoids, there is still a need for research studies to investigate its potential use as therapy for insomnia and other sleep disorders.
CBN has also shown potential as a pain-reliever, antinauseant, and sleep promoter in human, animal, and cell studies. Early research has also discovered antibacterial and neuroprotectant properties.
- Can reduce the feelings of anxiety THC may cause.
- Lower psychoactive potency (10% compared with THC).
- Sleep-inducing benefits via strong sedative effects on the body.
Cannabichromene is another one of the cannabinoids that was identified early on in scientific investigations into cannabis. It is typically found at levels between 0.05% to 0.3% in a live plant, and has exhibited modest abilities both as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory agent. Studies in human cells and in rats have taken a closer look at CBC to try and better understand how it works and what it’s effective against. It seems clear that CBC not only acts against pain and inflammation, but that it also works well with the other cannabinoids to boost their overall therapeutic potential. CBC is also one of the non-intoxicating cannabinoids, suggesting that it’s another compound from cannabis that promises big benefits without posing concerns over side effects such as disorientation or anxiety.
- Has shown modest abilities as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory agent.
- Boosts therapeutic potential of other cannabinoids.
The Entourage Effect: Better Together
Taken alone, each of these cannabinoids produces a different effect on the body. But the real power of the cannabinoids is based on the way that they work in combination with each other, and with the other naturally occurring compounds in hemp. This phenomenon—where a combination of the cannabis plant’s compounds produce a greater result than the sum of their individual effects—is known as the “entourage effect.”
Cannabinoids that are non-intoxicating are particularly interesting to scientists and doctors because children and older adults can take advantage of them without worrying about cognitive impairment. The balance of cannabinoids and terpenes—not the sole concentrations of any one chemical in particular—determines what effects you feel. It isn’t the action of one cannabinoid that determines the overall therapeutic effect; but rather the way the various bioactive compounds work together—just as nature designed it.