What Are Cannabinoids?

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You've probably heard of THC and CBD, the most popular cannabinoids. 

To understand a little more about cannabis beyond the basics, consider the many compounds in the plant the human body responds to.

A large part of the story is the hundreds of chemical compounds produced by the plant as a natural defence against environmental elements. These compounds are called cannabinoids, and there are more than 100 of them found in cannabis. When humans ingest cannabis, those cannabinoids interact with a network of receptors in the body known as the endocannabinoid system.

What is the endocannabinoid system?

There are two primary types of cannabinoids: endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids. The human body naturally produces endocannabinoids, while phytocannabinoids are produced and stored in the tiny, translucent hairs that grow on the flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant, called trichomes. 

Both of these cannabinoids are fat-soluble, which means the molecules can be dissolved into a carrier oil (such as MCT oil) and absorbed sublingually (under the tongue), where the cannabinoids are absorbed into body fat.

Both types of cannabinoids effect cell receptors in the brain and body due to something called the endocannabinoid system, the place where plant cannabinoids meet the body. 

The body is filled with cannabinoid receptors that are primed to bind with cannabinoids. So far, two have been identified: CB1 and CB2. These receptors are found in the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nervous system and many other biological systems in the human body. They respond to locally manufactured endogenous cannabinoid compounds, as well as phytocannabinoids from cannabis.

One of the critical differences between endogenous cannabinoids and phytocannabinoids is the latter type occurs only when and where needed. The body doesn't have the massive amounts of endogenous endocannabinoids circulating through its system all the time; they're acting very locally. Phytocannabinoids, on the other hand, hit receptors all over the body when ingested.

The two primary cannabinoids: THC and CBD

Two primary cannabinoids are being focused on in pre-clinical, clinical, and public health studies: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

The most researched cannabinoid is THC, which contributes to the psychoactive effects experienced. When cannabis is described as "potent," it's the THC. 

CBD is another cannabinoid, known for its non-intoxicating effects and studied for possible therapeutic benefits. CBD occurs in all kinds of cannabis varieties, including hemp, although breeders haven't focused on CBD-rich strains until more recently due to growing interest in the benefits of that cannabinoid.

As for the rest of the more than 140 cannabinoids found in cannabis, not much is known. 

Prohibition had the effect of stunting research into the areas of cannabinoids and their therapeutic benefits.

The entourage effect

It's used to describe how phytocannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) work together, and that together the two work differently compared to either one by itself. The idea of the entourage effect can also be extended to include the terpenes and flavonoids of cannabis.

It's a theory that's especially challenging to prove due to the infinite amount of permutations and combinations. However, there's plenty of enthusiasm in trying to determine whether cannabinoids, alone or together, with or without other molecules, behave differently or deliver a different effect.

Synthetic cannabinoids

Finally, there is a class of cannabinoids created in a laboratory, which are generally called synthetic cannabinoids, although there are subcategories that make the world of synthetic cannabinoids reasonably sophisticated.

Once scientists discovered cannabinoid receptors, endogenous cannabinoids and plant cannabinoids, there was a fascination about how everything worked together. To uncouple the whole endocannabinoid system, medical chemists had to manufacture synthetic cannabinoids that would act at the receptors in different ways.

The process is called cannabinoid biosynthesis, and a handful of Canadian companies are currently either developing or investing in cannabinoid biosynthesis technology, which could be used to create extract-based products that eliminate the variability that comes with most of today's cannabinoid medicines. 

At the end of the day, you still end up with a molecule that is structurally identical to the plant cannabinoid.

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