Have you ever wondered why cannabis is often so effective at treating such a wide array of medical conditions?
Well, it’s mostly down to the many active chemical compounds that the plant produces. These chemicals are called cannabinoids, and it’s these cannabinoids and their specific ratios that, when smoked or ingested, make this fast-growing weed so effective at treating so many ailments.
What are cannabinoids?
The technical name for these plant-based molecules is actually “phytocannabinoid”, with the prefix ‘phyto’ meaning ‘from plants’ – a distinction that has to be made as not all cannabinoids do come from plants.
You see, the reason cannabinoids from cannabis have such a profound effect on the human body is because we have cannabinoid receptors within us all. These receptors are found throughout our bodies – in the central nervous system, immune system and especially in the brain – and make up what is known as the endocannabinoid system (or the ECS).
That’s right, humans, as well as many other animals, naturally make their own cannabinoids, and we call them endocannabinoids. In fact, these naturally produced cannabinoids are essential in maintaining our health. Whether it be our mood, digestion, sleep patterns, hormone levels or pain perception, cannabinoids and the ECS play a vital role in many bodily functions.
This goes some way to explaining why cannabis is so effective at treating such a huge number of conditions. However, we are only just really getting to grips with each cannabinoid’s properties, effects and uses.
That’s because, due to many years of prohibition, research hasn’t been able to look very far past the major cannabinoids, THC and CBD. And considering that there are at least 113 different cannabinoids in cannabis (that we have found so far), with each exhibiting varied effects (individually and in conjunction with other cannabinoids), we still have some way to go before we truly get a glimpse of the full potential of this wonder plant.
To put it into perspective, the ECS was only discovered in 1992, showing just how young cannabis research is. We have much to learn, not just about cannabis and cannabinoids, but about the human body itself.
The primary cannabinoids
Delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) is the most famous cannabinoid, and many people’s favourite for that matter. As the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, THC is responsible for the ‘high’ commonly associated with cannabis, as well as the increase in appetite (or the ‘munchies’), short-term memory problems and the blood-shot eyes that users experience. Basically, almost every ‘stoner’ stereotype is down to this cannabinoid.
THC is also the most well-researched cannabinoid. Studies have shown THC to be useful in treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, PTSD, cancer, and Crohn’s disease, to name but a few.
The relatively new kid on the block, cannabidiol (or CBD) has been stealing the headlines as of late for its efficacy in treating severe forms of epilepsy in children. It is the second most plentiful cannabinoid in cannabis behind THC – although unlike THC, it is not psychoactive, meaning it causes no ‘high’, yet still provides a myriad of health benefits. This makes it a far more attractive medicine to those who do not desire the psychoactive effects which cannabis use has been married to for so long.
Over recent years, much research has focused on this far more accessible compound. It has been found that CBD has antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic (anxiety relieving), analgesic (pain relieving), anti-cancer, and neuroprotective properties. It can also help to counteract some of the psychoactive effects of THC, such as paranoia and anxiety.
Lesser known cannabinoids
Cannabichromene (or CBC) is the third most common cannabinoid in the cannabis plant. Like CBD, CBC is also non-psychoactive while still providing many therapeutic benefits. Research has found CBC to be anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, antifungal, an anticancer agent, and may even promote the growth of new brain cells.
Cannabinol (or CBN), appears as a result of THCa (the acidic precursor to THC) breaking down over time. CBN has been found to be an appetite stimulant, an antibiotic, analgesic, antiasthmatic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-insomnia.
Tetrahydrocannabivarin (or THCv) works best when administered alongside THC, with some studies showing that THCv can actually mitigate some of the negative psychoactive impacts of THC. It has been shown to be antiepileptic, neuroprotective, and a bone stimulant.
Research into cannabidivarin (or CBDv) is young but extremely promising. CBDv is a slightly degraded version of CBD, and it offers antiepileptic, antiemetic (nausea relieving), and bone stimulating properties.
Cannabigerol (or CBG) is perhaps less well-known than many of the previously mentioned cannabinoids despite it also offering a significant amount of medicinal benefit. A non-psychoactive cannabinoid, CBG, which is fairly prominent in hemp (low-THC cannabis mostly grown for industrial purpose), has been found to be a painkiller, an anti-cancer agent, and an anti-depressant.
It is also among the group of cannabinoids, along with THCV, CBDV, and CBC, to promote bone health. Additionally, CBG, just like CBD, also seems to counteract the uncomfortable effects of THC.
Special attention must be given to CBG-A as it’s the universal acidic precursor of many other cannabinoids, including all of those mentioned above. In fact, if cannabis had no CBG-A, it wouldn’t come close to offering the medicinal and recreational value that cannabis is famed for.
Targeting conditions with cannabinoids
With all this new research unveiling a clearer picture of how cannabis works to assist with so many diseases, it opens doors for targeting conditions with accurate doses of cannabinoids that have been selected for specific purposes. Rather like how a laser focuses light to increase its power, by intelligently targeting a disease with specific cannabinoids, cannabis as a medicine could become more effective with less scattered results.
There is still plenty to learn, however. Especially considering the fact that many cannabinoids seem to work synergistically with each other. And that’s not even to mention terpenes – the fragrant oils that give cannabis its various aromas – which have also been shown to be health-promoting, even showing anti-cancer and anti-tumor properties
The value of different cannabinoids is also starting to be recognized by growers and patients alike, with increasing numbers of producers working to breed new strains with varying levels of different cannabinoids – as opposed to just maximizing THC content, which has been the aim of cannabis cultivation for a long time.
While the chemistry of cannabis can somewhat overwhelming, until a lot more research has been conducted, a base knowledge of the main cannabinoids can be extremely helpful when it comes to deciding what strain (and, therefore, which cannabinoids) you will consume.[Featured image credit: Pixels]