Phytocannabinoids are naturally occurring cannabinoids found in the Cannabis sativa plant. They’re a class of chemical compounds that act on cannabinoid receptors and include endocannabinoids (produced in the bodies of all animals), phytocannabinoids (found in cannabis) and synthetic (man-made) cannabinoids.
Simply speaking, phytocannabinoids are the cannabinoids found in cannabis.
Of the 400 or so chemical compounds found in cannabis (it’s a very complex plant!), there are more than 60 phytocannabinoids that have been identified. Each has its own way of interacting with the body’s natural endocannabinoid system to elicit a variety of physiological effects.
Phytocannabinoids 101: An Introduction to Cannabis Cannabinoids
Hands down, the most famous phytocannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
There are other phytocannabinoids, however, that have been discovered to play a fundamental role in the therapeutic benefits of the cannabis plant. A few of these include:
- Cannabinol (CBN)
- Cannabigerol (CBG)
- Cannabichromene (CBC)
How Cannabinoids Work
Cannabinoids provide their therapeutic effects by emulating endocannabinoids that are naturally produced throughout the body that, when activated, help us maintain balanced health (think physical and psychological well-being).
Different cannabinoids bind to different receptor sites within the brain (CB1 receptors) and the body (CB2 receptors). The effects they produce are dependent upon the receptor they bind to. A product’s cannabinoid profile can offer insight on what kind of relief that particular product might offer.
Research indicates that the endocannabinoid system may serve as a bridge between the body and the brain, with the brain region a cannabinoid binds to responsible for various effects. These brain regions include several parts of the brain associated with pain perception, the limbic system (responsible for cognition, memory and psychomotor function) and the mesolimbic pathway (responsible for feelings of reward).
Let’s take a deeper look at the most common phytocannabinoids so we can better understand their therapeutic benefits and the way they interact with the endocannabinoid system.
5 Common Phytocannabinoids and Their Effects on the Endocannabinoid System
CBD was first discovered in the 1940s, although research into the now wildly popular phytocannabinoid wouldn’t begin in earnest until around 2010, when cannabis samples that contained more CBD than THC began to be tested in earnest for the reported therapeutic benefits it contained.
CBD would go on to gain global attention a few years later when the story of Charlotte Figi (the young epileptic girl whose life was saved when CBD oil eradicated the hundreds of seizures she was experiencing on a daily basis) was featured on CNN.
Since then there has been countless research (both clinical and anecdotal) dedicated to CBD and its promising therapeutic effects.
How CBD Works
Unlike other cannabinoids, CBD doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors. Instead, CBD works by enhancing and inhibiting particular protein-coupled receptors. These include:
- Serotonin 1A Receptors (regulate metabolism and stress responses, affecting mood, cognition and appetite)
- Vanilloid Receptors (play a role in pain perception, inflammation, and thermoregulation, or temperature regulation)
- Nuclear Receptors (known as PPARs and influence an antiproliferative effect)
- Orphan Receptors (known as GPR55 and is involved in regulating blood pressure, bone density and bone reabsorption)
CBD as an Anandamide Reuptake Inhibitor
CBD is also known to be an anandamide reuptake inhibitor, which helps to increase natural endocannabinoid levels in the brain. Anandamide (named after the Sanskrit word “bliss”) is a molecule that acts as a neurotransmitter, plays a role in several bodily functions and has a structure very similar to THC.
Anandamide is part of the endocannabinoid system and imbalanced levels of this important molecule have been associated with depression (low anandamide levels) and schizophrenia (high anandamide levels).
THC was first discovered in the 1940s, but wasn’t synthesized and studied until 1964 by scientist Raphael Mechoulam at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Until increased research on CBD, THC was the most widely known phytocannabinoid and the one that received the most attention. It is, after all, what’s responsible for the psychoactive effects that made marijuana famous in the first place.
How THC Works
The “high” that THC is known for is caused by the activation of the CB1 cannabinoid receptor that is found in abundance throughout the brain. THC is what’s known as an agonist (or activator) of the CB1 receptor.
Research shows that when the CB1 receptor is blocked by a different drug known as an agonist, THC doesn’t elicit psychoactive effects. Because of this, it’s believed that the CB1 receptor is a critical component of the brain responsible for intoxication.
Some of the therapeutic effects of THC include relief from chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, improving patient reported multiple sclerosis muscle spasticity symptoms and more.
Like THC and CBD, cannabigerol (CBG) was discovered in the 1940s, but wouldn’t be studied more deeply for several decades. Like CBD, CBG is a cannabinoid that doesn’t contain the psychoactive effects associated with THC.
Both CBD and THC start out as CBG — it can be thought of as the “parent” to these two highly beneficial cannabinoids. It starts out as cannabigerol acid (CBGA), the foundation for the three major cannabinoid lineages: tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) and cannabichromenic acid (CBCA).
Enzymes in the cannabis plant break down CBGA and it moves towards one of these specific lines. When the acids are exposed to heat or ultraviolet light, they are broken down into the cannabinoids THC, CBD, CBC.
How CBG Works
CBG has been shown to significantly stimulate GTP exchange binding to membranes of the brain and is thought to have a neuroprotective function. It binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors, although it has a higher affinity for CB1 than CB2 and is actually considered a CB1 antagonist rather than an agonist. CBG is also known to be an a2-adrenoceptor agonist, which provides a neuroprotective function.
Increased research on CBG shows that it has very specific therapeutic effects. Some of these include:
While discovered some time ago, research on CBN only began after CBD made headlines with its therapeutic effects. CBN is caused by the degradation of THC when prolonged exposure to air causes THC to lose hydrogen molecules and oxidize.
How CBN Works
In a 2012 study that looked at the effects of various cannabinoids on appetite, CBN was discovered to have an affinity for the CB1 receptor. Does this mean CBN gets you high? It’s currently believed that CBN doesn’t contain psychoactive effects, however, there are some psychoactive reports. The psychoactivity is extremely small compared to that of THC, though.
Research indicates that some of the therapeutic benefits of CBN include:
While the phytocannabinoid cannabichromene was discovered back in the 60s, it hasn’t yet been studied in depth and more research is needed to better understand how it works with the endocannabinoid system. There is, however, some understanding of this cannabinoid that’s considered one of the “major” cannabinoids.
How CBC Works
CBC has a low binding affinity for CB1 receptors, which means it won’t produce any psychoactive effects. Like CBD, it binds to other receptors throughout the body, particularly the vanilloid receptor (TRPV1) and transient receptor potential ankyrin 1 (TRPA1). Both of these receptors are associated with the perception of pain.
Research shows that CBC could be beneficial for the following therapeutic applications:
Final Thoughts on Phytocannabinoids
The study of phytocannabinoids and their role in offering therapeutic benefits is still in its infancy. What is known, however, is that there are over 60 phytocannabinoids in the cannabis plant, and the ones that have been studied show promise for increased overall wellness.
Many of these phytocannabinoids are known to work together in a sort of interactive synergy that increases their overall effect, something known as the entourage effect. When we talk about full spectrum CBD, we’re essentially talking about the various cannabinoids working together using the full spectrum of compounds naturally present in cannabis.