kə-ˈna-bə-ˌnȯid | Noun
It’s a chemical compound that occurs naturally in the cannabis plant and is produced by the human body. Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids produced by the body. They are an essential part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) — a network of receptors responsible for maintaining internal balance. Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant. Both endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids interact with the receptors in the body, which is how they produce different effects.
“Did you know that the human body produces its own cannabinoids?”
“The potency of a hemp plant doesn’t depend solely on its cannabinoids, but terpenes as well.”
More About Cannabinoids
They are a group of lipophilic molecules (dissolve more easily in fats and oils than water) that interact with the human body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS maintains functional balance (homeostasis) in the body through three main components:
- Endocannabinoids or “messenger” molecules synthesized by the body
- Endocannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) that cannabinoids bind to; and
- Enzymes that break endocannabinoids down after they’ve completed their mission
The ECS helps regulate functions like appetite, sleep, energy metabolism, reproduction, etc. By interacting with the ECS, cannabinoids assist the body in maintaining homeostasis. Cannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors of the ECS and provide numerous health benefits like reducing pain and inflammation, increasing appetite, and improving sleep.
What are Endocannabinoids?
Endogenous cannabinoids are molecules made by the human body. They are similar to cannabinoids and assist in keeping internal functions running smoothly. Your body produces endocannabinoids “on demand” and it’s challenging to know the levels that they’re present at. The two key endocannabinoids identified by experts so far are:
- Anandamide (AEA) or the “bliss molecule”
- 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)
Once endocannabinoids fulfill their functions, enzymes break them down. The two main enzymes that make that possible are FAAH (breaks down anandamide) and MAGL (breaks down 2-AG).
Is endocannabinoid deficiency possible? Some experts believe in the theory of clinical endocannabinoid deficiency. According to this theory, low endocannabinoid levels in the body could contribute to the development of specific conditions.
One 2016 article reviewed over a decade of research on this topic. The article revealed that such deficiency could be why some people develop migraines, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome. All of these conditions are often resistant to treatment and don’t have a clear underlying cause. More research is needed on this topic, but this will be a great discovery if endocannabinoid production is the missing key to treatment.
What are Endocannabinoid Receptors?
Endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids both bind to endocannabinoid receptors. These receptors are located throughout the body. When cannabinoids bind to them, they signal the ECS to take action. The two main endocannabinoid receptors are:
- CB1 receptors – mostly found in the central nervous system
- CB2 receptors – mostly found in the peripheral nervous system, aka immune cells
Each cannabinoid targets some of these receptors to help alleviate an ailment. For example, some target the CB1 receptors located in a spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others bind to a CB2 receptor located in the immune cells to alert inflammation happening in the body.
What Are Phytocannabinoids?
Cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant are known as phytocannabinoids and are considered exogenous. The trichomes or resin glands that cover the plant’s surface are responsible for producing phytocannabinoids. The two main plant cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). They are not only the most well-known and researched, but they are also the most prevalent.
THC is the main intoxicating compound of cannabis. It activates the CB1 receptor, where it triggers feelings of euphoria from the brain’s reward system. Intoxication caused by THC increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for attention, decision-making, motor skills, and other functions. Everyone reacts differently to this compound.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is the first most abundant cannabinoid in the hemp plant and the second most abundant in the marijuana plant. CBD is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that produces calming effects and could treat anxiety, chronic pain, and seizures. CBD is a product of decarboxylated (heated) CBDA.
Aside from CBD and THC, other major cannabinoids are:
- Cannabigerol (CBG)
- Cannabinol (CBN)
- Cannabichromene (CBC)
- Cannabidiolic Acid (CBDA)
- Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THCA)
- Cannabidivarin (CBDV)
- Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV)
Similar to CBD, THC is a product of decarboxylation of THCA when the plant is exposed to heat. Both THCA and CBDA are non-intoxicating cannabinoids. On the other hand, CBN is a degraded form of THC, present in old or aging cannabis flower. Researchers have isolated over 140 cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, but we still need to learn more about their effects.
Did you know that some foods are rich in cannabinoids? Cacao is rich in anandamide, the endogenous cannabinoid that helps regulate mood, appetite, memory, and pain perception. A recent discovery by Italian researchers revealed that Black truffles are also rich in anandamide. Kava is a medicinal tea from the Pacific Islands that’s rich in kavalactones. Kavalactones are compounds that interact directly with CB1 receptors, hence their reputation as a natural remedy for pain and anxiety.
Flowers like coneflower, electric daisy, helichrysum, and Japanese live worth contain phytocannabinoids or compounds that interact with the cannabinoid receptors in the body. This means that aside from the cannabis plant, other plant species also produce phytocannabinoid-like compounds that interact with cannabinoid receptors similarly. But, researchers haven’t discovered a non-cannabis phytocannabinoid that’s as potent as THC.
Benefits of Cannabinoids
Cannabinoids activate cannabinoid receptors and produce various effects in the body. They interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and help the body achieve balance, also known as homeostasis.
Effects on The Nervous System
These compounds trigger responses in the central nervous system by interacting mainly with the CB1 receptor. THC binds directly to this receptor, while CBD doesn’t. CBD triggers a change in the activity of the CB1 receptor by weakening its ability to bind with THC. Research shows that due to this activity, CBD reduces the efficacy and potency of THC.
Cannabidiol (CBD) has little binding affinity for the CB1 and CB2 receptors, but it modulates several non-cannabinoid receptors. The CB1 receptors are mainly located in the brain and regulate the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate. But, they also play a vital role in the brain’s control of pain.
Effects on The Peripheral System
The CB2 receptors are found in smaller amounts throughout the nervous system, playing a role in inflammation, pain relief, and preserving the structure of nerve cells. But, these receptors are mostly present on immune cells circulating through the body and brain via the bloodstream. The CB2 receptors are present in a solid amount in the body. That’s enough for them to influence and meditate the damage caused by diseases on bones, liver, lungs, skin, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems. It’s unknown to what extent these cannabinoids affect all of these conditions.
Therefore, the most critical difference between the CB1 and CB2 receptors is their ability to elicit intoxicating effects. While CB1 receptors produce intoxicating responses, CB2 receptors don’t. Otherwise, both receptors provide multiple therapeutic pathways. For example, both CB1 and CB2 are present in the skin, allowing cannabinoids to intervene and treat a variety of conditions. Cannabidiol (CBD) has 14 different mechanisms of action, and none of them interacts with the CB1 receptor. So, CBD initiates a therapeutic effect without intoxicating the user.
Researchers are getting more and more interested in the medical applications of cannabis. Consumers are testing new cannabis products because they know that everyone has a unique endocannabinoid system and the body’s response to phytocannabinoids varies from person to person. This is just the beginning of the learning curve of how cannabis compounds work together in the body to alleviate certain conditions and affect the way we feel.
Legality of Cannabinoids
Ever since hemp became a legal plant, hemp-derived cannabinoids like CBD and CBG are legal to possess and use in the United States. CBD products should not contain more than 0.3% THC, otherwise, they are considered marijuana and are federally illegal. Marijuana and marijuana-derived cannabinoids are only legal for medical and/or recreational uses in states that legalized the plant.
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds produced in the cannabis plant (known as phytocannabinoids) and the human body (endocannabinoids). The most well-known endocannabinoid is anandamide, while the most popular phytocannabinoids are CBD and THC. These molecules bind to various receptors in the body and help with pain relief, inflammation, nausea, sleep, appetite, and more.