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Cannabis 101: What Are Cannabinoids?

Keegan Williams

By Keegan Williams

October 26, 2022

Close up of hands of Young woman with tattoos rolling up a joint of recreational marijuana. Interior of small apartment indoors.

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We throw around the shorthand terms CBD and THC all the time, but you may be surprised to learn that there are more than 100 of these compounds, called cannabinoids, present within the

THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid responsible for the “high” that comes with many cannabis strains, and CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid boasting its own array of potential

, remain two of the most popular and well-known cannabinoids. However, a number of other cannabinoids are seeing their own moment to shine as cannabis research persists and products continue to pinpoint specific symptoms and potential medicinal needs with their cannabinoid offerings.

Having a better understanding of cannabinoids, and the internal system that works to process them, ensures an all-around better understanding of the cannabis plant itself. So, take a leap into the vast world of cannabinoids with High There as we scratch the surface of this ever-present and evolving aspect of our favorite plant.

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What are cannabinoids?

In the simplest terms, cannabinoids are the group of substances found within the cannabis plant. They are a class of diverse chemical compounds which work to activate cannabinoid receptors in the body. As mentioned, THC and CBD are often categorized as the two “main” cannabinoids, though more than 100 others have been identified to date.

Cannabis contains

(the prefix phyto means it was produced by plants), cannabinoids that are present in nature. People generally refer to phytocannabinoids when referencing cannabinoids as a whole, though there is another class: . This variety appears to have a more constant influence on our general health, with “endo” referring to the internal structure of an organism. Endocannabinoids, therefore, can be understood as cannabinoids that our bodies naturally produce.

A third category, synthetic cannabinoids, were created synthetically in a lab. 

Cannabinoids interact with the cannabinoid receptors in our body to regulate a variety of bodily functions, like inflammation, pain perception, mood and memory, along with treatment for a variety of medical conditions. 

Of course, cannabinoids (namely THC) can also be used recreationally, though many have shown promise in treating a variety of medical conditions and symptoms.

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What is the Endocannabinoid System?

We’ve teased it a bit so far, so let’s look a bit closer at the bodily system that makes it all happen: the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Yes, humans do in fact already have a transmitter system for cannabis compounds to explicitly interact with. Though, the primary purpose of he ECS is to regulate and control many of our critical bodily functions.

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The ECS is a vast network of chemical signals and cellular receptors, densely packed throughout our brains and bodies. Our brains have a number of cannabinoid receptors, called CB1 receptors, which control the levels and activity of most other neurotransmitters. 

The cannabinoid receptors regulate a number of activities, giving immediate feedback and adjusting system activity up or down depending on what’s needed (hunger, temperature or alertness, for example). The receptors also have a part in learning and memory, emotional processing, sleep, pain control, inflammatory responses, immune responses and eating.

Our bodies produce endocannabinoids, which are structurally similar to the phytocannabinoids found in cannabis. The cannabinoids in cannabis work with this system by essentially hacking our endocannabinoid systems and influencing these receptors in external ways — results dependent on the cannabinoid in question.

CB2 receptors are another type of cannabinoid receptor, present largely in our immune tissues and having a critical connection to our immune functioning, along with

Unlike CB1 receptors, CB2 receptors don’t cause the high associated with cannabis stimulation, an often unwanted side effect as folks pursue cannabinoid-focused medical treatments. This has made CB2 receptors exciting potential targets of future drug development, though we still have a lot to learn.

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Cannabinoids and Their Acidic Form

You might notice that cannabinoids are sometimes listed with an “A” attached to the end, i.e. THC versus

, CBD versus CBDA — what’s that all about?

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Cannabinoids ending in A denote the acidic forms of their cannabinoid counterparts, basically inactive precursors. If we’re talking about THC in flower, for example, we’re really referring to THCA. The chemical reaction of heating, or dearboxylaing, these precursor cannabinoids removes one carboxyl group from the compounds, allowing them to interact with our endocannabinoid receptors freely.

This is why smoking weed with THC will get you high (the THCA is activated and turned into THC with heat), whereas eating a big bud isn’t going to do much for you. Dispensary-bought edibles already contained activated cannabinoids; this is also the reason that decarboxylating cannabis is such a crucial step when making infused oils or edibles at home — without it, you won’t actually feel the cannabinoids’ effects!

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What are the Main Cannabinoids and Their Benefits?

We’re still learning more about the vast array of cannabinoids, and few have been studied extensively. These are also generally the cannabinoids you’ll see referenced online, or in cannabis-infused products, and those will be the primary focus of our discussion.

We preface the following section, in that there is still additional research to be done before we can confidently claim the efficacy of many of these cannabinoids in treating an array of symptoms, but through myriad studies and anecdotal evidence, these compounds surely show promise in aiding in a number of health symptoms and conditions.

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THC

It’s the staple of cannabis as we know it, especially for folks unafraid of the psychoactive high that comes with. THC is known for its psychotropic, euphoric and calming effects. THC effects are largely due to binding at the CB1 receptor, which is found in brain regions involved in thinking, planning,

, bodily movements, learning and emotions. 

That said, THC can cause mind- and mood-altering effects as it binds to our CB1 receptors. While some respond poorly to THC, which has the potential to exacerbate symptoms of

, others have found it helps to treat these mental health symptoms, and others like depression.

While studies on THC and sleep have come up with mixed results, some consumers have taken to the cannabinoid for improved sleep. THC has also proven useful as an appetite aid, helping to reduce nausea and vomiting and overall improving quality of life among some users.

Along with CBD, THC has been studied as a potential aid in chronic pain management. While there are numerous studies on the topic,

, comprising thousands of academic papers, found that THC and CBD may both assist in managing chronic pain.

CBD

This cannabinoid has seen a huge surge in popularity, especially following the U.S. legalization of hemp with 2018’s Farm Bill. The cannabinoid similarly shows promise in treating a number of symptoms, just without the high associated with psychoactive cannabinoids like THC.

It’s often considered the second-most common cannabinoid, next to THC, and

have found that can reduce negative side effects some users experience with THC, namely anxiety and paranoia. There’s also that CBD can reduce stress, a leading contributor to poor mental health, and aid in , though ultimately more research is needed to pin down the cannabinoid’s relationship with these symptoms.

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CBD has also proven effective in treating severe forms of epilepsy. A number of other diseases are already being treated, or show promise in being treated, by CBD and other cannabinoids, including anorexia, chronic pain and inflammation, multiple sclerosis, neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, cardiovascular disorders, cancer, obesity and metabolic syndrome-related disorders.

CBG

Sometimes referred to as the “mother of all cannabinoids,” the minor cannabinoid CBGA is the foundation of a number of other major cannabinoids, namely THCA, CBDA and CBCA. It’s considered a more scarce cannabinoid for this reason: Once a harvest is over, most cannabis plants have already converted most of their CBGA to another cannabinoid. 

It’s generally found in very low concentrations, less than one percent by dry weight, while strains rich in THC and CBD can have levels ranging from 20-30 percent. Though, breeders are continually experimenting with alternative methods to maximize the CBG content of plants.

is non-psychoactive, known for its therapeutic effects like increasing energy levels, enhancing productivity and relieving stress. It’s thought to be effective in treating glaucoma, because it effectively . Mice studies have also shown that CBG is effective in decreasing and Crohn’s disease and that it could like Huntington’s disease.

The cannabinoid could also offer assistance as a

, is being eyed for its and could show promise in treating and .

CBN

You might have seen the CBN acronym, on its own or with other cannabinoids, on products tailored toward relaxation or sleep. Research is still catching up, but some understand CBN as a “weaker version of THC;” unlike CBD, CBN can come with mild psychoactive reactions. 

CBN is largely known as

, making it especially interesting as we look at alternatives to treat insomnia and other sleep-related conditions. It’s also shown promise as and cannabinoid.

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Some preclinical studies suggest that CBN can be therapeutic in treating epidermolysis bullosa, a group of rare diseases causing the skin to blister easily, and that CBN may have anti-inflammatory activity that could benefit healing chronic wounds, where healing may have otherwise been prevented by prolonged inflammation.

Like CBG, research has also shown that CBN could be useful to treat eye conditions like glaucoma, with research finding that CBN topicals led to a high level of cell survival when exposed to elevated pressure conditions (high pressure is associated with glaucoma, so lowering the pressure is a way to slow the condition).

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also found CBN, along with CBD and a mix of the two cannabinoids, decreased muscle sensation, suggesting it could provide pain relief for chronic muscle disorders.

Exploring the World of Cannabis and Cannabinoids

Of course, we hope this guide acts as an entry-level exploration into the world of cannabinoids. Our list of cannabinoids obviously doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, when looking at the wide array of known cannabinoids out there today. And while we worked to cover the essentials, this list is clearly not exhaustive. 

Additionally, it’s important to note once more that research is still catching up. While we have a number of good jumping off points to confirm that many of these cannabinoids hold potential in treating a number of health conditions and symptoms, there’s still much more work that must be done. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

, or any cannabinoids, for medical use. However, it has approved several drugs containing individual cannabinoids. Currently, cannabinoids aren’t supported through chemical human tests, even though compounds like CBD are known to be effective in treating conditions like severe childhood epilepsy.

Moving forward, we rely on the continuous, evolving nature of cannabis reform and the plentiful preliminary studies to continue revealing the potential possibilities of these curious compounds. However, given the direction we’re moving, society is bound to continue unearthing more valuable intel on cannabinoids as time goes on — and we can’t wait!

We only scratched the surface of different known cannabinoids. Refer to the chart below for some more basic properties of popular cannabinoids.

Cannabis Cannabinoids horizontal business infographic illustration about cannabis as herbal alternative medicine and chemical therapy, healthcare and medical science vector.
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Keegan Williams

About The Author

Keegan Williams

HIGH THERE MISSION

WE’RE A CREATIVE COMMUNITY — EXPLORING THE SCIENCE, CRAFT, AND CULTURE OF CANNABIS.
WE BELIEVE THAT WE HAVE A COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY TOWARDS ERADICATING THE STIGMA, MISINFORMATION, AND INEQUITIES SURROUNDING THIS PLANT, SO WE CAN UNLOCK ITS TRUE POTENTIAL FOR ALL.

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