As more cannabis-related products fill up store shelves and Instagram feeds, our understanding of the plant continues to grow. In particular, research has focused on the main chemical compounds of cannabis: cannabinoids.
Cannabinoids are at the heart of all things cannabis, and they have even taught us about our own bodies! By studying the interaction between humans and cannabinoids, we have learned more about our brain’s structure and composition, as well as the many effects cannabinoids can have.
So, what are cannabinoids, really? How do they work with my body? We are here to answer your big cannabinoid questions. Keep reading!
What Are Cannabinoids?
In the simplest terms, cannabinoid acids are the active chemical compounds found in cannabis, and once they are decarboxylated (activated), they become cannabinoids. You might also see them referred to as phytocannabinoids, but don’t get confused; these are the same thing! “Phyto-” is simply a prefix that means “from a plant.”
How Many Cannabinoids Are There?
You’ve probably heard of the two most famous cannabinoids (THC and CBD), but there are actually 113 or more cannabinoids in cannabis! All the unique types of cannabinoids are responsible for different benefits and effects within the body, and we still don’t fully understand the extent of cannabinoids.
What we do know is that cannabinoids are responsible for all of the physical and psychological effects of cannabis, a discovery that ended up leading to a significant breakthrough in understanding human brain chemistry! In their research, scientists saw that cannabinoids were clearly interacting with receptors in our body, leading to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Even though the system is named after the cannabis plant, the ECS is a system within the nervous system of all humans. Endocannabinoids (endo- means within) are just cannabinoids produced in the body as a part of the ECS. Now, our knowledge of the ECS is still relatively limited, but we do know that it functions using two primary receptors, and these receptors are the key to the whole human-cannabinoid conundrum!
Everything we understand about cannabis and humans revolves around two structures; the CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors. Ignoring cannabis for a second, these receptors bind to endocannabinoids produced by the body to signal various messages to the brain.
CB1 receptors are found primarily in the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors are found mainly around the structures of the immune system. Though these are the primary receptors that we know about so far, there are likely more receptors that we haven’t discovered yet! On their own, they help the ECS function, but when you add in outside cannabinoids, the magic really starts to happen!
To help us explain it all, let’s take a look at some of the most well-known cannabinoids and how they tie into this whole equation.
Cannabinoids and the Human Body
As we mentioned before, you’ve probably heard of THC and CBD, two of the most prominent cannabinoids found in cannabis. THC, or Tetrahydrocannabinol, is the cannabinoid in charge of the intoxicating effects of cannabis. If you have ever smoked weed (legally), that was THC at work! Conversely, CBD has no psychoactive effect on humans and helps us calm down, relieve pain, and ease stress.
So if we get both CBD and THC from cannabis, how do they affect different things?
The difference between THC and CBD helps us understand the ECS, cannabinoids, and cannabis as a whole!
THC works in the body by binding to the CB1 receptors instead of our own (endo)cannabinoids. The replacement of cannabinoids is what causes the psychoactive effects of cannabis.
CBD, on the other hand, blocks cannabinoids from entering our CB1 and CB2 receptors, which causes the calming and relaxing effect CBD can provide. Because it doesn’t directly bind to the ECS, CBD cannabis products are entirely non-psychoactive.
While THC and CBD usually take the spotlight — remember there are at least 111 other cannabinoids present in cannabis, and they all interact with us in different ways! We are still studying the health effects of cannabinoids, and new information is constantly surfacing from this research.
A Brief Recap
Don’t worry this isn’t a pop quiz, but that was a lot of information to take in! Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
What are Cannabinoids? Chemicals from cannabis that make a physical impact on the human body.
How do Cannabinoids Affect My Body? Cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) by binding to different chemical receptors in our bodies. The ECS is a part of our nervous system and helps regulate a variety of bodily functions and reactions.
The Final Word - Even though we’re still working on smoothing out all the wrinkles of how cannabinoids work, we know that different cannabinoids (like THC and CBD) bind to different receptors in order to create different effects. As we understand the unique cannabinoids better, we will have a better understanding of how they do their thing.