When it comes to understanding the various effects of marijuana on the human mind and body, cannabinoids are the key.
Since the dawn of recorded history, people of various cultures for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes have consumed cannabis. But what exactly is it about this beloved plant that sets it apart from the multitude of other herbs that Mother Nature has bestowed upon mankind? In a word, cannabinoids.
Simply put, cannabinoids are a class of chemical compounds that have the extraordinary ability to interact with certain cell receptors throughout our bodies to affect changes in our physiological and mental states. Our bodies (and the bodies of most other animals) contain millions of these receptors, whose job is to absorb certain molecules, process the information contained in those molecules, and then give instructions to different systems in the body based on that information. Think of it this way: each cell receptor is like a tiny lock that can only be opened by a specific chemical key—and as it turns out, we have thousands of such specialized receptors that can only be unlocked by cannabinoids.
TYPES OF CANNABINOIDS
There are three different types of cannabinoids, all of which are able to bond with our cannabinoid receptors: phytocannabinoids, produced by the cannabis plant; synthetic cannabinoids, which are created artificially in a lab; and endocannabinoids, which are produced naturally within our own bodies. Thus far, scientists have identified two different types of cannabinoid receptors within us: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are located almost exclusively in our central nervous and glandular systems and are responsible for alterations in hormone production and brain chemistry—affecting mental states such as mood, memory, motivation, and perception. It’s these receptors that help induce the feelings of euphoria we associate with being “stoned.” CB2 receptors, though found in the brain as well, are also found in our immune, gastrointestinal, and peripheral nervous systems, and are therefore responsible for the more bodily benefits we experience from cannabis.
THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM
The vast network of cannabinoid receptors in our bodies, which seem specifically engineered to interact with cannabinoids, are known collectively as the endocannabinoid system. According to researchers, who only just discovered it around two decades ago, the endocannabinoid system’s primary purpose is to maintain what’s known as homeostasis (a stable equilibrium within the body) by optimizing all of our anatomy’s various functions. This miraculous molecular signaling system serves as a communication bridge between our bodies and our minds, constantly fine-tuning the parameters of how our many physiological systems interact with one another.
Out of the 400+ different chemical compounds found in the female cannabis plant, scientists have so far successfully identified 113 distinct cannabinoids. Sadly, the purposes and effects of most of these cannabinoids remain a mystery, as there’s been hardly any medical research conducted on them in the US, thanks to the government’s bogus classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance (having no medicinal value and high risk of abuse). Despite this roadblock, we now know a fair amount about a few of the more prominent cannabinoids:
Without question, the most abundant and famous (or infamous, depending upon your perspective) cannabinoid is delta 9-Tetrahydrocannabinol—or as it's better known, THC. As the only cannabinoid that's proven to be psychoactive, THC is the compound responsible for getting you “high.” When binding to CB1 receptors in the brain, it helps release dopamine (the neurotransmitter that helps regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure center); when it binds to CB2 receptors, it can help stimulate appetite, reduce pain, nausea, and inflammation, and even shrink tumors.
The endocannabinoid equivalent of THC is the neurotransmitter anandamide (the first endocannabinoid discovered by scientists). Dubbed the "bliss molecule," this neurochemical compound serves as the body’s internal antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug and is credited with producing the fabled, naturally occurring “runner's high.” And THC, like anandamide, also boosts neurogenesis—the process by which new nerve cells are generated. So ironically, rather than killing brain cells (as prohibitionist propaganda has always claimed), THC actually helps you grow new ones. In fact, scientists now believe that increased levels of THC and/or anandamide in older brains may actually help prevent degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The second most prevalent cannabinoid found in marijuana—and the one that’s been all over the news in recent years—is cannabidiol or CBD. Contrary to its federal classification, CBD has been shown to be incredibly safe and non-addictive…and unlike THC, it produces no intoxicating effect when ingested—in fact, research suggests that in high enough doses it may actually counteract some of the psychoactive effects of THC (particularly the less appealing ones, such as paranoia and increased heart rate). It does, however, offer a number of other useful effects, including drowsiness and pain suppression, as well as acting as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-anxiety, and anticonvulsant. It’s even been shown to stop and reverse the proliferation of cancer cells.
Rounding out the “big three” cannabinoids, we have cannabichromene or CBC. Since it doesn’t bind to the brain’s CB1 receptors, CBC in itself produces no psychoactive effect; it does, however, bind to pain receptors, which can both trigger the release of anandamide and allow it to remain in the bloodstream longer, thus enabling and augmenting the mild, natural high the endocannabinoid provides. Among the benefits CBC is believed to bestow are antioxidant protection and pain relief, and treatment of osteoarthritis and acne. Plus, it’s second only to CBG in its cancer-killing power (see below).
In the cannabinoid family tree, non-psychoactive cannabigerol—also known as CBG—is like the trunk from which the other cannabinoid branches grow. By the time a typical cannabis strain reaches the consumer, CBG comprises only a minuscule fraction of its overall cannabinoid profile…but in the first few weeks of the flowering cycle, that percentage is far greater. That’s because as the plant matures, enzymes within it gradually break down nearly all of the CBG into either THC, CBD, or other cannabinoids. Like its biochemical offspring, CBG also shows potential as an anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, appetitive stimulant, neural protectant, and cancer fighter, and is believed to be especially useful in the treatment of glaucoma.
A close relative of CBD chemically speaking, cannabinol or CBN also has some medical potential. Aside from serving as a mild sedative that’s effective in treating insomnia, it may also have some potential as an antibiotic, an analgesic, and as an aid in the growth of bone cells. Much like THC, CBD, and CBN, which are derived from the enzymatic decomposition of CBG over time, CBN is not present in the plant initially—rather, it forms as a byproduct over time as THC molecules break down due to exposure to the elements (e.g. light and oxygen).
Of course, it must be pointed out that before any of the cannabinoids described above can be effective as an intoxicant or medicine, they must first be “activated.” That’s because cannabinoids, as they occur in the raw plant, are acidic in nature—chemically speaking, that means that there’s an extra carboxyl ring attached to its molecular chain. Those additional acids prevent the body from metabolizing the cannabinoids (metaphorically speaking, the key is too big to fit in the lock). In other words, if you eat a whole raw cannabis plant, you’re far more likely to get sick than high. So to be precise, THC in its original form is actually THCA, CBD is really CBDA, etc.—it’s only after they’ve been exposed to certain levels of heat (such as through burning or baking), pressure, and/or time (e.g. curing) that the cannabinoids drop their “A” addendums and become activated, allowing us to enjoy their medicinal effects. This activation process of shedding that extraneous carboxyl group is call decarboxylation.
THE ENSEMBLE EFFECT
Thanks to the marvels of modern science, cannabis professionals now have the power to map the entire genomes of strains—including its unique cannabinoid and terpene profiles (more about terpenes in our next installment). It also allows them to test for, isolate, and extract individual cannabinoids and terpenes from the plant, which can then be infused into various products in a very calculated and targeted manner. On its face, this may seem a highly beneficial practice; however, many believe that isolated cannabinoids like CBD or CBC, though somewhat helpful on their own, are far more effective when combined with other cannabinoids (even if only very small amounts are present). This “sum-is-greater-than-the-parts” approach, in which various cannabinoids act together in synergy to affect a better result, is frequently referred to as the Ensemble Effect or Entourage Effect. According to this theory, which evidence from recent studies is beginning to bear out, “full-spectrum” or “whole-plant” cannabis products that include a wider variety of the plant’s chemical compounds are the most therapeutic.
Now that you have a better understanding of your cannabis’ molecular makeup and what each compound does, it will be easier for you to choose a strain or product that’s fine-tuned to your individual needs, desires, and tastes the next time you head into a dispensary.