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How Do Cannabinoids Work?

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

Think of the endocannabinoid system as a network of electrical outlets in the central nervous system, including the brain. When various chemicals plug into these outlets, known as cannabinoid receptors, the receptors activate and specific things happen. The receptors control things like movement, mood, memory, pain sensation, and appetite.

What kind of chemicals plug into the brain’s cannabinoid receptors? There are three kinds. First, there are endocannabinoids, which are chemicals naturally produced in the brain. These include endocannabinoids like anandamide, also known as “the bliss molecule” (which is also found in chocolate).

Cannabinoid receptors also react to synthetic, or chemical-based cannabinoids produced in a lab. Finally, the natural cannabinoids in marijuana plants (also known as phytocannabinoids) fit perfectly with cannabinoid receptors to create a variety of effects.

The kind of effects produced depends on the type of cannabinoid that’s introduced. Each strain of marijuana contains a long list of cannabinoids that can create euphoria, treat pain, increase heart rate, and generate drowsiness, among many other effects. These effects are what’s behind the health benefits of cannabinoids. How marijuana will make you feel depends on the type and concentration of cannabinoids it contains.

The Most-Researched Cannabinoids

To understand the effects of marijuana, it’s helpful to examine each cannabinoid individually. This is because there are many different types of cannabinoids and each one has different benefits and side effects. Some cause drowsiness, some suppress hunger, and others are excellent at calming anxiety. While each cannabinoid is useful by itself, scientists have found that cannabinoids enhance each other when taken together.

Depending on the source, cannabis contains anywhere from 66 to as many as 113 cannabinoids. This makes compiling an exact list of cannabinoids a tricky endeavor, as most aren’t well-known or well-researched. Most research today is focused on the bigger players in the cannabinoid lineup. The “big six” are THC, CBD, CBG, CBC, CBN, and THCV. Except for THC and CBD, most are considered minor cannabinoids, which means they have concentrations of less than 1%. THCA and CBDA, the chemical precursors to THC and CBD, are also considered minor cannabinoids and have only recently been the subjects of extensive research.

The following list includes information about some of the most widely-researched cannabinoids, as well as their typical side effects and potential medical uses.

CBC (Cannabichromene)

CBC (cannabichromene) is considered one of the minor cannabinoids in marijuana. This means that it’s typically found in concentrations of less than 1%. This also means that it’s not as widely known. While CBC may not be found in marijuana in large amounts, it still has some very useful effects.

First of all, it’s important to know that CBC is totally non-psychoactive, which means it’s not one of the cannabinoids that gets people high. This is because it doesn’t bind well to the receptors responsible for euphoria. What it does do, however, is bind to receptors that help lessen pain and release natural antidepressant chemicals in the brain.

CBC is also one of the cannabinoids responsible for “the entourage effect.” In short, this means that it helps other cannabinoids do their jobs even better.

By itself, CBC serves many useful medical purposes, from killing pain and lessening inflammation to helping with depression and promoting brain health. Researchers are also studying its potential to prevent the growth of cancer cells.

CBD (Cannabidiol)

In the early 60s, Dr. Raphael Mechouam decided to study marijuana to figure out which of its ingredients got people high. The first cannabinoid he discovered was CBD (cannabidiol), which has no intoxicating effects. (A year later, he finally discovered the active ingredient behind the marijuana high: THC.)

CBD has always taken a backseat to THC in terms of cannabinoid fame – until recently, that is. Over the past few years, people have discovered the health benefits of CBD and the compound has become increasingly popular. Today, sellers are marketing high-CBD strains of marijuana, as well as CBD oils and extracts made from marijuana and hemp.

The thing that sets CBD apart is its health benefits and very few negative side effects. While THC gets people quite high, CBD causes non-intoxicating relaxation while killing pain, calming anxiety, and lifting the veil of depression. CBD and THC are the cannabinoids found in marijuana at the highest concentrations, so many people like to choose marijuana strains based on their THC-to-CBD ratio.

The effects of CBD can include:

  • Relaxation

  • Drowsiness

  • Light-headedness

  • Dry mouth

  • A drop in blood pressure

  • Diarrhea

  • Changes in appetite

CBDA (Cannabidiolic Acid)

CBDA, or cannabidiolic acid, is the cannabinoid precursor to CBD. You can find CBDA in raw marijuana material from strains that are bred to be high in CBD, as well as in hemp.

How does CBDA turn into CBD? This happens through the process of decarboxylation. Curing marijuana or exposing it to light can start the decarboxylation process, but the fastest way to complete it is by heating the material. People do this by smoking or vaping marijuana, as well as by baking the raw flowers at around 230 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 40 minutes. Decarboxylized marijuana will turn a medium brown in color. The process activates the compounds inside, allowing people to enjoy the effects and health benefits of the cannabinoids within them.

CBG (Cannabigerol)

Although THC and CBD start out as THCA and CBDA, there’s still one more cannabinoid from which those two originate. The parent cannabinoid to all of them is CBGA, the precursor to CBG (cannabigerol).

How does it work? An enzymatic process turns CBGA into THCA, CBDA, or CBCA. Plants that convert their CBGA into high amounts of THCA will naturally be lower in the other cannabinoids. For this reason, breeders are working to harness the power of CBG by manipulating genetics to produce marijuana plants higher in that cannabinoid.

Like most of the other cannabinoids, CBGA and CBG aren’t psychoactive. Scientists are exploring CBG’s potential to treat everything from glaucoma to colorectal cancer

CBN (Cannabinol)

Although some CBN (cannabinol) comes from the CBNA naturally present in cannabis, most often it comes from the THCA in the plant breaking down. When THCA oxidizes, it turns to CBNA. This means that the compound is often found in old, stale marijuana. Like the other cannabinoids, when CBNA is heated, it loses its “A” and becomes CBN.

While CBN is a minor player among the different types of cannabinoids, it’s a powerful compound with some pretty significant health benefits. CBN can do many of the same things THC can do – including kill pain and reduce eye pressure in glaucoma patients. The difference? CBN does these things with fewer of the psychoactive effects of THC (CBN can either be mildly psychoactive or not psychoactive at all). In addition to this, CBN is the cannabinoid with the strongest sedative properties.

Medical Benefits of Cannabinoids

For years, most people only thought of marijuana as a way to get high. At the same time, others were discovering that marijuana was a wonderful treatment for a wide array of medical conditions. Some found that it helped ease their pain. Others consumed it to calm their anxiety. From migraines to Parkinson’s symptoms, reports that marijuana is effective medicine have been growing for years.

Scientists have been confirming a lot of the anecdotal evidence through solid research. Far from being just a fun recreational drug, doctors are discovering that marijuana is excellent medicine. And it owes its medicinal effects to the health benefits of cannabinoids.

Individual Cannabinoids vs Whole Plant Medicine

When scientists conduct tests on cannabinoids in a laboratory setting, the procedure and results are quite different than someone smoking a pipe or a joint filled with marijuana. Researchers often isolate specific cannabinoids and use them in a concentrated form to see how they might be used to treat various symptoms or diseases.

High doses of CBN might be used to treat anxiety in rats, for example, or scientists may test cannabinoids on cancer cells under a microscope. Using cannabinoids in this direct and concentrated way can generate amazing and promising results.

This isn’t to say that whole-plant marijuana isn’t medically useful. For some conditions, in fact, it can be even more useful. Something that has mystified researchers, as well as pharmaceutical companies attempting to create synthetic versions of individual cannabinoids, is the fact that in many cases, lone cannabinoids don’t work as well as when they’re used in the absence of the others. This interesting phenomenon is known as “the entourage effect.”

Harnessing the Power of Cannabinoids

With marijuana becoming more widely legal and accessible, a growing number of people are working to learn more about the ingredients that make marijuana work. As research continues, the scientific and medical communities – as well as the recreational marijuana world – is ready to know more about how patients and users can harness the power of cannabinoids. Pharmaceutical companies have already become players in the game, making their own synthetic versions of these natural compounds in order to treat conditions that range from nausea to epilepsy.

What’s clear is that researchers have only scratched the surface of the health benefits of cannabinoids and how these ingredients might be used. From customizing the highs of recreational users to comforting, healing, and saving lives in the medical field, cannabinoids are proving to be useful tools, indeed.

Author: Dorothy Harris


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