What’s the Deal With Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids have been gaining press exposure for years and often with mixed views. You may see Facebook ads and email spam claiming “natural cannabinoids”, “legal cannabinoids”, “synthetic cannabinoids”, and a hundreds of other variations in the headlines about the health effects.

This article only covers the general basics. Covering the topic of cannabinoids could easily become an entire book, if we covered all of the possible information.  However, as we discuss cannabinoids here, we will also link much of the material to science and informational sites, ranging from Wikipedia to the NIH (National Institute of Health).  So, take your time, explore our information, make stops along the way, and check it all out.  We’re sticking to the science, however, two distinct problems arise with discussing Cannabinoids:

  • There’s an abundance of junk science sites on the Internet, which either tell half truths or blatantly fabricate information about cannabinoids.
  • There’s been a stigma attached with publishing scientific papers about cannabinoids, cannabis, and marijuana usage for medical purposes until most recently, which created some gaps in research over time.

What are Cannabinoids?

The easy version of this question:  cannabinoids are compounds that act on certain cell receptors in our bodies (CB1 & CB2, in particular), and usually these compounds are found in the cannabis plant.  Cannabis also often referred to often as “marijuana”, although that’s not technically correct. Marijuana is actually the dried flowers and certain leaves from plants of the cannabis family.  Some cannabinoids are also found in other places.  For instance, endocannabinoids are found in the human body.  Also, certain phytocannabinoids are found in plants other than the cannabis family. Then, there’s synthetic cannabinoids produced in laboratories.

The most commonly thought of cannabinoid is THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant family associated with “getting high”.  However, that’s only one of the 110+ cannabinoids, and particularly it’s thought to originate as a plant defensive mechanism.  As a side note when mentioning THC:  while smoking marijuana allows the user to partake in THC (i.e. “getting high”), it’s actually not the naturally occurring form.  Drying, heating, or exposing the plant to certain acids converts Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) to THC.  THCA in it’s undried natural state contains none of the psychoactive properties of THC.

Many people claim the use of “cannabis oils” as a treatment for a variety of medical conditions, as if though the oils are a single component that cures everything.  In reality, each one of the cannabinoids has a different potential effect on various bodily systems.  Some of the most common cannabinoids (and most researched) are as follows :

  • THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinol – Acid)
  • THCV (Tetrahydrocannabivarin)
  • THCVA (Tetrahydrocannabivarin – Acid)
  • THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol)
  • CBD (Cannabidiol)
  • CBDA (Cannabidiol – Acid)
  • CBDV (Cannabidivarin)
  • CBDVA (Cannabidivarin – Acid)
  • CBC (Cannabichromene)
  • CBG (Cannabigerol)
  • CBGA (Cannabigerol – Acid)
  • CBGV (Cannabigerovarin)
  • CBN (Cannabinol)
  • CBNV (Cannabinovarin)

Why Does Cannabis Have So Many Things That Affect The Human Body?

At first blush, looking at 110+ cannabinoids contained in plants of the cannabis family, it’s easy to think this must be a miracle plant, some people going so far as to view it as a somehow the perfect match to all medical needs of humans, because there are so many ways it helps up.  However, part of that impression comes from the newness of research in cannabinoids and it’s effect on various diseases.

Everything we are exposed to has an effect on our bodies.  For instance, cabbage contains: Vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, Folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Iron, Magnesium, Calcium, Manganese, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium, Zinc, Fluoride, and potentially a sulfate that has an anti-microbial effect.  We’ve heard of all of those before (except possibly the sulfate). Consequently, these sound pretty familiar compared Cannabigerol (CBG).  Now, some terms you probably haven’t heard associated with a common cabbage, but are included in it:  indole-3-carbinol, anthocyanins, sulforaphane, and glucosinolate.  Indole-3-cabinol is currently under study for potential inverse associations with prostate and breast cancer (as in, it may be a preventative.)

Suddenly, the common cabbage sounds a lot more interesting!  And, we haven’t even really dug very deep for that.  Many of our foods and environment around us have similar associations.  In addition, many phrarmaceuticals are derived from natural sources:  aspirin comes from Willow bark, quinine from Cinchona, Vincristine (for leukemia) from Rosy Periwinkle, Vinblastine (for Hodgkin’s disease) is also from Rosy Periwinkle, Taxol (for Ovarian cancer) from a fungus found in Pacific Yew, Morphine from the Opium Poppy, Tubocurarine from Curare, Reserpine (for hypertension) from Snakeroot, and Digoxin (for cardiac arrhythmia) from Foxglove. That’s merely a quick list. As much as half of the drugs in the history of modern medicine are also derived from natural sources.

Now, before you think “Oh, so cannabis isn’t that special after all?”, the common cabbage and all the naturally derived medicines are mentioned to help control your expectations.  Many people get excited (good or bad) because of the term cannabinoids being used.  The stigma attached to cannabis brings visions of miracle cures, emotions from political beliefs, or the assumptions of evils associated with marijuana usage.  In reality, it’s simply another plant with another potential pallette of drugs that medical providers and naturopaths may be able to use to improve the health of patients.

In Part II we’ll be discussing the potential medical benefits of cannabinoids, and how they are applied.

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About The Featured Image:  the structure of CBG, CBC, CBD, THC, CBN, CBE, iso-THC, CBL, and CBT in a collage form.  Each separate image used with Creative Commons 3.0 permissions (CC-by-sa)  from Wikipedia.