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January 01, 2020
A Beginner’s Guide to Cannabinoids

BY MARIE LODI

Photo: iStock

In the past year you’ve heard plenty about CBD, the trendy compound that’s in everything from oat milk lattes to skin care to leggings. And you probably know a little about THC, the psychoactive chemical that gives you a high. However, much like a character on Succession, cannabis is quite complex, and there’s so much more to learn about it. Cannabinoids, which are the natural chemical compounds found in the plant, can help with everything from weight loss to better sleep to reduced anxiety. There are at least 113 of them, which sounds overwhelming, but we break down the major ones you should know.

Cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System

First, you should learn about how cannabis works in your body — the plant isn’t the only thing that contains cannabinoids. We naturally produce our own endocannabinoids, and we have receptors all throughout our bodies. These guys are all part of the endocannabinoid system (known as the ECS) that’s in charge of maintaining our body’s homeostasis. So if something’s off, whether it’s our immune system, sleep, mood, digestion, and other functions, it’s the ECS that gets to work. Because cannabis cannabinoids are able to imitate the ones in our bodies, it can result in a pretty impressive balancing act.

When you consume cannabis, those cannabinoids bind to the receptors in our brain and body (called CB-1 and CB-2.) The cannabinoids are “keys” while the receptors are “locks,” so when the two meet there’s a therapeutic effect. And depending on which cannabinoid attaches to what receptor, they each can have a different result.  

The Entourage Effect

The best way to explain this theory is to think of it as your favorite assembling-the-team movie, like in Ocean’s 8, when Sandra Bullock enlists a group of fellow con artists to pull off the heist of their lives with their combined skills. When different cannabinoids synergistically interact with each other (along with the terpenes and flavonoids), they produce therapeutic effects that are even more powerful than if they were to act alone. 

THC

What it is: THC is the most famous of the bunch, and the one we most commonly associate with being high. That’s because this cannabinoid is one of the ones that are psychoactive. It’s also the reason why we get the munchies!  

What it does: As the most well-known and researched cannabinoid, THC has been discovered to help with a variety of symptoms. It’s the most fun of the bunch but it also can help with more serious stuff like pain, Parkinson’s disease, nausea, mood disorders, digestive issues, and much more. 

CBD

What it is: You know this as the year’s hottest new ingredient that’s been promoted as a cure-all. Unlike THC, CBD is non-psychoactive, making it more approachable and parentals-friendly.  

What it does: 

The way CBD works is unique — instead of binding to the same receptors that THC and other cannabinoids do, it seems to influence and enhance a bunch of different bodily systems. This is why its therapeutic potential reaches far and wide, and why you hear about it helping with everything from pain to anxiety to neurological disorders like epilepsy. 

THCA

What it is: THCA becomes THC when it’s heated — that’s why you have to cook raw cannabis in order to get high.

What it does: Even before converting to THC, this cannabinoid has its own potential benefits like helping with inflammation caused by diseases like arthritis and Lupus. It also may reduce tumors and protect your brain. 

CBN

What it is: CBN, or cannabinol, is what happens when THC degrades and loses its potency. So if you accidentally forget to keep your buds properly stored, the THC converts into non-psychocactive CBN. 

What it does: If you can't get a good night's rest, get to know CBN, since studies have shown that it acts as a sedative and may even prolong sleep. It can also help treat pain, inflammation, and fight against staph infections

CBDA

What it is: Carboxylic acid is CBD before it goes through the process of heating, 

What it does: While it hasn’t been researched as much as CBD, it may treat nausea and has the potential to inhibit breast cancer cells, according to a study from 2014. 

CBC 

What it is: Cannabichromene is another non-psychoactive cannabinoid but what makes it interesting is it binds with other receptors in the body that are linked to pain response. 

What it does: Besides helping you with pain, it might actually give you better skin, If you’re suffering from acne, this is the cannabinoid that could change that. According to a 2016 study, CBC helps prevent excess sebum from clogging your pores and giving you pimples. 

CBG

What it is: Cannabigerol, is actually non-psychoactive but converts into other cannabinoids as it ages (primarily THC as well as CBD), giving it its “mother of cannabinoids” nickname. 

What it does: Think of this as the mood booster — it’s believed to raise levels of anandamide, the endocannabinoid, which in low levels, have been linked to depression. Sensitive stomach? It can also help with gastrointestinal issues

CBGA

What it is: Cannabigerolic acid is the grandfather of the cannabinoid family, as it is the precursor to THCA, CBCA, CBDA, and CBG. 

What it does: Much like CBG, there isn’t a lot of research dedicated to CBGA yet, but it does show promise for treating heart disease, colon cancer, and diabetes.

THCV 

What it is: Tetrahydrocannabivarin acid, is similar to THC, with psychoactive properties but a slightly different molecular structure.

What it does: People tend to blame cannabis for weight gain but this strain might actually do the reverse — it’s been shown to be an appetite suppressant and can also help control blood sugar levels. 

CBDV 

What it is: Cannabidivarin is another non-intoxicating cannabinoid.  

What it does: Because CBDV can help reduce muscle inflammation and improve muscle function, it might be able to treat severe muscular dystrophy. Like CBD, it is a known anticonvulsant and shows promise for neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Rett syndrome.

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