Updated on January 31, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
You likely know many of the effects of marijuana, but have you ever wondered how one plant can do so many things? From a pleasurable high to effective treatment for a variety of medical conditions, cannabis owes many of its best qualities to cannabinoids. The cannabis plant naturally creates a variety of these compounds, each with specific benefits and potential side effects.
Ongoing research continues to shed light on the potential medicinal benefits of the various compounds. Learning about the different types of cannabinoids and the effects they cause gives you a better understanding of the plant itself and how it could help you with medical conditions.
Simply put, cannabinoids are one of many compounds found in the marijuana plant. These naturally occurring compounds have perhaps the most significance when it comes to marijuana’s effect the body. Cannabinoids claim responsibility for alleviating many ailments, as well as giving you a high. Each cannabinoid is slightly different in both the type and the effects. The concentration of each cannabinoid varies, as well.
Of the 500 natural compounds in the cannabis plant, at least 85 of them fall into the cannabinoid category. Certain cannabinoids stand out for having particular beneficial effects on the body, while most cannabinoids are virtually unknown.
The compounds develop naturally in the cannabis plant, but growers and medical marijuana manufacturers can alter the plant or create synthesized cannabinoid products to produce higher levels of particular cannabinoids. The purpose of this practice is to increase the effects of a particular cannabinoid, making the marijuana strain or synthesized cannabinoid product more appealing to a particular audience.
Your body naturally produces cannabinoids, known as endocannabinoids, which support a variety of body functions, such as your sleep patterns, emotions, movements and appetite. The system within your body is known as the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoids play a vital role in keeping you healthy and providing internal stability, or homeostasis.
Essentially, the naturally occurring chemicals in your body facilitate cell communication. Problems with your endocannabinoids can manifest in the form of physical problems and other issues due to the imbalance in your body.
Cannabinoids interact with receptors throughout the body, including the immune system and the central nervous system. The body has two types of receptors: CB1 receptors in the brain and central nervous system and CB2 receptors in the immune system. The cannabinoids in marijuana mimic the natural compounds in your body, binding to receptors inside the body. This binding process is the reason you feel the physical effects of using marijuana, such as feeling relaxed, feeling buzzed or having a slower reaction time.
Different types of cannabinoids tend to bind with receptors in different locations in the body. This is part of the reason certain cannabinoids have particular effects. For example, THC, which is responsible for causing a high, binds well with receptors in the brain. This helps amplify that high feeling.
When you smoke or vape marijuana, the cannabinoids go directly into your lungs quickly and then immediately on to the heart, which gets the cannabinoids to the brain quickly. In the brain, the cannabinoids lock on to the receptors, which initiates the buzzed feeling. The timeframe from first smoking the marijuana to it reaching the brain and beginning the effects takes about 2.5 minutes.
When ingesting an edible containing cannabis, the process takes longer for THC to take full effect. It can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours to feel the effects. However, once the marijuana kicks in, the effects are much more intense than other forms of using marijuana.
The different cannabinoids in cannabis affect the receptors differently, depending on the specific cannabinoid and the location in the body. The foundation of medicinal marijuana is targeting the type of cannabinoids to specific receptors in the body for maximum effect on a particular problem. Marijuana manufactured as medicine includes a larger amount of specific cannabinoids to treat particular symptoms. Understanding the effects of cannabinoids helps with the specific treatment course when you use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
While the specific benefits vary from one cannabinoid to the next, many common benefits are found in many types of these compounds. These benefits are often the reason people seek marijuana for medical reasons. Some of the primary benefits of cannabinoids include:
Cannabinoids fall into two different categories: psychoactive and non-psychoactive. This classification influences the way a particular compound affects your body. Psychoactive cannabinoids give you the high feeling often associated with using marijuana. THC is the primary psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana. Cannabinol, or CBN, is another psychoactive compound found in cannabis.
Non-psychoactive cannabinoids don’t cause the high feeling. They do have other effects on the body, sometimes very significant effects, but they aren’t responsible for giving you the buzzed feeling. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one of the most prominent non-psychoactive cannabinoids in marijuana. People who use marijuana for medicinal purposes benefit from the non-psychoactive cannabinoids when they don’t want the buzz.
While there are more than 85 different types of cannabinoids, only a handful get the spotlight when people talk about the effects of marijuana. Those primary cannabinoids often receive the most attention in research regarding cannabis, which means we know more about how they work and their effects. That doesn’t mean these are the only beneficial cannabinoids, however.
The benefits and side effects of cannabinoids vary significantly. When doing your research, keep in mind that individuals respond differently to various cannabinoids. With the use of medical marijuana, the concentrations of various cannabinoids also influence the effects in your body. The side effects of a particular cannabinoid might be more noticeable with higher concentrations, for example.
Another consideration is your perspective. Some effects of a particular cannabinoid are a positive for certain people. Other people don’t want that effect, so they see it as a negative. For example, a cannabinoid that creates that high feeling is a positive for someone who wants to feel a high, such as a recreational marijuana user. Someone who wants to reap the medicinal benefits of marijuana without feeling high sees it as a negative.
Drowsiness and appetite stimulation are two other examples. Someone who has trouble sleeping appreciates the drowsy effect, while someone who wants to use marijuana but stay alert sees it as a negative. A person who needs to eat more for health reasons benefits from cannabinoids that stimulate the appetite, while someone who doesn’t want to eat more won’t benefit from that effect.
Understanding the different types of cannabinoids helps you maximize the positive effects while minimizing the unwanted ones.
The most common cannabinoids in cannabis are THC, THCV, CBG, CBC, CBN, and CBD. Since the 1980’s, the discovery of cannabinoid receptor cells has produced multitudes of research of the effects and workings of canabinoids. It was first hypothesized that cannabinoids produced their physiological and behavorial effects via non-specific interaction with cell membranes. It is now known that cannbinoids interact with specific membrane-bound receptors commonly found in mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. At present, there are two known types of cannabinoid receptors, termed CB1 and CB2.
When considering cannabis as an alternative medicine, it is important to remember that each cannabis strain has a unique chemical composition with varying amounts of THC, THCV, CBG, CBC, CBN, and CBD. Each strain can affect each person differently. Additionally, cultivation artists are taking cannabis strains and altering their genetic DNA by breeding the best characteristics from each plant. Thus, there are thousands of different variations of the cannabis plant.
Probably the most known cannabinoid found in marijuana is THC. This psychoactive cannabinoid is responsible for producing the sense of euphoria associated with cannabis consumption. However, more recently CBD has also been gaining in popularity particularly for medical applications.
Nonetheless, there are more cannabinoids that are currently being studied including:
If you’ve heard of any cannabinoid, it is likely tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It is the most widely known of the cannabinoids and is typically found in high concentrations in most strains of the plant. THC causes the buzzed high you feel after using marijuana due to its psychoactive properties. It is the main psychoactive compound found in the plant, and marijuana is often cultivated to have higher THC levels.
THC starts in the cannabis plant in its acidic form as THC-A. This compound does not cause a high at all. Once you add heat to the mix, THC-A converts to THC, giving it the power to give you a high. THC has such a pronounced effect on the user due to its strong ability to attach to brain receptors.
Some benefits of THC include:
Potential side effects of THC include:
The side effects of THC often come with a dose that is too high, so lowering the dose can help minimize the effects. Side effects often vary from one person to the next.
Another common and influential cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD). This non-psychoactive compound calms your high, helping to balance the effects of THC. CBD is known for many medicinal benefits and is legal in more states than THC. Some medical marijuana users like the option to treat symptoms with minimized feelings of euphoria or lethargy in strains grown to offer higher CBD levels.
Potential benefits of CBD include:
While CBD tends to have fewer side effects than THC, some users do experience some side effects, including:
The drowsiness can be a positive or negative effect depending on your goals. If you want to sleep better, the drowsiness falls under the benefits column. If you want to remain alert, drowsiness becomes a negative effect of CBD.
Cannabinol (CBN) forms through an oxidation process when THC is exposed to air. This means bud left out in the air longer than normal ends up with a higher concentration of CBN. Many users keep their marijuana in tightly sealed containers to keep air away from it, since the exposure decreases THC levels. Like THC, CBN is a psychoactive, but it performs at a much lower level than THC. CBN also differs from THC in its tendency to bind to receptors throughout the body rather than receptors in the brain.
CBN offers an advantage over THC in another way. While it is a psychoactive cannabinoid, CBN causes little to no psychoactive effects. THC content can be as high as 30 percent, but CBN typically hits 1 percent or less. While this decreased psychoactive effect dose not appeal to recreational marijuana users who look for the high, it is an advantage to those who want the medicinal benefits without the high.
Some positive effects of CBN include:
Potential drawbacks of CBN include:
The sedative effect of CBN makes it a popular cannabinoid for people who suffer from insomnia or sleep issues. For some people, the drowsiness created by CBN is a drawback, but many people want the sleep-inducing effects of CBN. The cannabinoid offers effects similar to pharmaceutical sedatives in smaller doses. Just 5 mg of CBN offers the same sedative effects as 10 mg of the mild pharmaceutical sedative called diazepam.
The non-psychoactive compound cannabigerol (CBG) serves as a foundation for THC and CBD. Because it forms early in the growing cycle, CBG typically isn’t found in large quantities as the plant matures. CBG receives less attention in studies on cannabinoids, but it offers the potential for significant medicinal uses. Strains of marijuana with higher CBG levels tend to minimize the negative effects of THC in many users.
Possible benefits of CBG include:
This non-psychoactive cannabinoid is less known than some other types, but it still offers some impressive benefits. Even though it isn’t widely known, CBC ranks as the second most available cannabinoid in marijuana – even higher than the more popular CBD.
CBC may help in the following ways:
|Cannabinoid||Effects, features & Medical Applications|
Responsible for the ‘’High’’-effect (psychotropic): it amplifies all sensory functions such as sight, hearing, color sensitivity and increases sexual arousal and a greater sense of well being. Produces strong feelings of euphoria. Sharpens the mind (cerebral) and promotes creativity. Analgesic (pain relieving), sedative, relaxing, energetic, promotes creativity.
1964, Gaoni and Mechoulm, Weizmann Institue Rehovot.
Known Medicinal Benefits:
A psychoactive cannabinoid found along with THC in cannabis, research has shown that, in low doses, THCV will increase the effects of THC (strongly potentiating THC, provoking a heavy, stronger and faster “High”-effect) but in larger doses THCV is believed to oppose the effects of THC. Recent research into THCV has focused on its ability to reduce appetite.
Discovery: 1970, Edward Gil and colleagues, UK
Known medical benefits:
CBD works antagonistically in the micromolar range; it has an opposite effect of THC. It reduces the psychoactive effect, or the ‘’high’’ of THC, but in contrast, it will prolong slowly but increasingly this effect strongly. Not psychoactive. Effective against anxiety and stress (sedative). Strong muscle relaxation, especially on the smooth muscle fibers thus reducing muscle spasms.
1940, first isolated by Adams and colleagues, and stereochemically determined in 1963 by Mechoulam and Shvo.
Known Medicinal Benefits:
Mildly psychoactive, sedative, analgesic. CBN is, just like aspirin, a non-narcotic type analgesic, but 3x as strong. CBN is a breakdown product of THC. During storage (aging) CBN will slowly increase as THC deteriorates. CBN is effective at relieving tension headache.
1896, Wood and colleagues in Cambridge, the first natural cannabinoid to be obtained in pure form
Known Medicinal Benefits:
Sedative, CBG tends to be higher in cannabis species without much THC (hemp varieties) and has hitherto been found only in trace amounts in most marijuana strains. CBG is the precursor form of a few of the other cannabinoids including THC and CBD. While little research has been conducted on CBG, it has been found to have medical properties including acting as a sedative, sleep inducer. Anti-microbial properties make it effective in treating bacterial infections.
1964 Gaoni and Mechoulam
Known Medicinal Benefits:
Non-psychoactive cannabinoid that also potentiates THC. It interacts in an as yet unknown way with THC to make the ‘’high’’ more intense and pronounced. it is also considered a strong sedative and analgesic.
1966 independently reported by Claussen and colleagues as well as Gaoni and Mechoulam.
Known Medicinal Benefits:
D9-THC has two acidic analogs: D9-THCA A and D9-THCA Bc. D9-THCA
D9-THCA A, first extracted by Korte and coworkers (1965), was isolated as a pure compound in 1967 by Nishioka’s group. In 1969, Mechoulam and coworkers reported the isolation of D9-THCA B.
Known medical benefits:
The first cannabinoid acidc to be discovered, Together with CBD, CBDA is the main component of glandular hairs (up to 15%). In fresh plant material, 95% of CBD exists as its acid.
Discovery: 1955, Isolated by Krejci and Santavy.
Known Medical Benefits:
|References||Angelo A. Izzo1,4, Francesca Borrelli1,4, Raffaele Capasso1,4, Vincenzo Di Marzo2,4 and Raphael Mechoulam3. (2009) Non-psychotropic plant cannabinoids: new therapeutic opportunities from an ancient herb. TIPS-730. 13
Department of Experimental Pharmacology, University of Naples Federico II, Naples, Italy 2 Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry, National Research Council, Pozzuoli (NA), Italy 3Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products, Hebrew University Medical Faculty, Jerusalem, Israel 4Endocannabinoid Research Group, Italy
R.J. Glas Alpha Nova Pharma Wageningen
Located within our bodies are cannabinoid receptors known as CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are primarily located in the brain. These receptors specifically cluster in the basal ganglia and in the limbic system, which includes the hippocampus. In addition, you can locate these receptors in the cerebellum and in both male and female reproductive systems.
The CB2 receptors are primarily found within the immune system and is found with the higher frequency in the spleen. These receptors are linked to being responsible for anti-inflammatory actions and potentially a wide array of therapeutic effects.
The endocannabinoid system are neuromodulatory lipids. The receptors of these lipids are located in the brain and has an impact on several physiological processes including appetite, mood, memory and pain.
The cannabinoids found within the cannabis plant are almost identical to the endocannabinoids produced in the body except for slight structural differences. In other words, your body has a predisposition to interact with cannabinoids found in cannabis.
The endocannabinoid system is also responsible for regulating our immune system and in many cases endocannabinoid deficiency could be the root cause of several conditions and diseases. In the case of endocannabinoid deficiency, people can increase the production of endocannabinoids by ingesting cannabis.
It’s easy to see the benefits of cannabinoids when you start breaking down the different types. Cannabinoids have individual strengths that are great on their own, but the combined effect of cannabinoids seems to boost the positive effects of the individual compounds. Research shows that this entourage effect can drastically change a person’s reaction to marijuana.
While all marijuana comes from the cannabis plant, the specifics of that plant vary widely. There are thousands of different strains of marijuana. The chemical profile of each strain varies from the next. This means the cannabinoids and other compounds in the plant, such as terpenes, ketones, alcohols and fatty acids, come in different concentrations depending on the strain. For this reason, you might have drastically different experiences when you use two different strains of marijuana.
The concentration of those chemicals can also change the intensity of the effects of a particular cannabinoid. Research often shows that putting particular cannabinoids together can change the effectiveness or overall effects compared to using only one cannabinoid.
Having an understanding of individual cannabinoids helps you better understand how marijuana affects your body and potentially offers medicinal effects for specific conditions. If you’re ready to take advantage of the positive benefits of marijuana, get started by searching for a medical marijuana doctor or a local dispensary.