What are Cannabinoids and how they work?

Updated: Jul 6, 2020


Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds found in the Cannabis sativa plant. Out of over 480 different compounds present in the plant, only around 66 are termed cannabinoids.

The most well known among these compounds is the delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC), which is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. Cannabidiol (CBD) is another important component, which makes up about 40% of the plant resin extract.


Classes of cannabinoids

The cannabinoids are separated into the following subclasses:

  • Cannabigerols (CBG)

  • Cannabichromenes (CBC)

  • Cannabidiol (CBD)

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

  • Cannabinol (CBN)

  • Cannabinodiol (CBDL)

  • Other cannabinoids including cannabicyclol (CBL), cannabielsoin (CBE) and cannabitriol (CBT)


Effects of cannabinoids

Cannabinoids exert their effects by interacting with specific cannabinoid receptors present on the surface of cells.

These receptors are found in different parts of the central nervous system and the two main types of cannabinoid receptors in the body are CB1 and CB2.


In 1992, a naturally occurring substance in the brain that binds to CB1 was discovered, called anandamide. This cannabinoid-like chemical and others that were later discovered are referred to as endocannabinoid.


The effects of cannabinoids depend on the brain area involved. Effects on the limbic system may alter the memory, cognition, and psychomotor performance; effects on the mesolimbic pathway may affect the reward and pleasure responses and pain perception may also be altered.


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Differences between cannabinoids

The main way in which the cannabinoids are differentiated is based on their degree of psychoactivity.

For example, CBG, CBC, and CBD are not known to be psychologically active agents whereas THC, CBN, and CBDL along with some other cannabinoids are known to have varying degrees of psychoactivity.

The most abundant of the cannabinoids is CBD, which is thought to have anti-anxiety effects, possibly counteracting the psychoactive effects of THC.


Research suggests cannabinoids might:

  • Reduce anxiety

  • Reduce inflammation and relieve pain

  • Control nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy

  • Kill cancer cells and slow tumor growth

  • Relax tight muscles in people with multiple sclerosis

  • Stimulate appetite and improve weight gain in people with cancer and AIDS


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