If you’ve ever researched medical marijuana in Canada, you probably know the names of two famous cannabinoids: THC and CBD. THC is a psychoactive chemical that gets you high, while CBD reduces pain, anxiety, and inflammation.
But did you know that cannabis actually contacts a whole host of cannabinoids – and each of them has interesting properties and medical benefits? Even today, the science behind these “minor cannabinoids” isn’t very well understood. But we’re starting to discover that they could hold the key to treating conditions as different as cancer and muscular dystrophy.
Even if you aren’t interested in the medical benefits, unique combinations of cannabinoids are responsible for the unique high you get from your favourite strain of marijuana. Here’s what they are, how they affect us, and why they’re so important.
What Are Cannabinoids and How Many Are There?
Cannabinoids are a group of chemical compounds that are produced by the cannabis plant. They all have quite similar chemical structures and lots of interesting properties. The first cannabinoid was isolated from the cannabis plant by a British scientist called Robert S. Cahn in 1940.
Since then, at least 110 different cannabinoids have been isolated by researchers. Most of these are present in very small quantities, and it’s likely there are more that we haven’t yet isolated.
Each strain of marijuana has a different combination of cannabinoids – which is partly why they each provide a different kind of high. Growers can breed for higher quantities of certain cannabinoids, depending on what their plants will be used for.
Traditionally, breeders selected for strains with high THC content, because that’s what recreational users wanted. But now, with medical marijuana becoming popular in Canada and around the world, strains that are high in CBD and other cannabinoids are being developed too.
How Do Cannabinoids Affect the Body?
Cannabinoids interact with a system in our body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is still not well understood, but it’s responsible for regulating a whole range of important processes in our brains and throughout our bodies. Cannabinoids affect the ECS because they’re very similar to chemicals produced naturally in our bodies.
While the most well-known effect of cannabis is the high it provides, there’s actually only one cannabinoid that has psychoactive effects: THC. THC mimics a natural chemical called anandamide, which makes us feel blissful and relaxed. Other cannabinoids don’t affect our brain so much – but they do affect other parts of our bodies, including our immune system, muscles, and pain receptors.
The Medical Benefits of Cannabinoids
Recently, scientists have begun to explore the wide range of medical benefits of cannabinoids. While this area of research is fairly new, there are lots of promising findings that suggest the promise of medical marijuana. In Canada, luckily, it’s now easy to explore those benefits for yourself.
But before you do, get to know the effects of some of the most common cannabinoids you’ll find in your favourite strain.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is every recreational cannabis user’s favourite cannabinoid. It’s famous for providing cannabis’ high. As we said, that’s because it’s similar to anandamide – the “bliss molecule”. THC also affects our cognitive abilities at high doses – which is why it’s still illegal to smoke and drive.
But THC has medical properties too. It can reduce inflammation, pain, and nausea. It’s also used to treat anxiety and depression. Every strain of cannabis that gets you high contains THC, but the amount can vary from around 5% to 30%. Increasingly, people in Canada looking for marijuana’s medical benefits are turning to low-THC strains and instead choosing strains high in our next cannabinoid – CBD.
CBD (cannabidiol) is the other cannabinoid you’ve probably heard of. Over the last few years, interest in high-CBD strains has grown, as it’s medical potential has been realized. Those who are looking for pain relief or to reduce inflammation, while still staying alert, might choose a CBD-prominent strain.
CBD has already been used to treat chronic illnesses like Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and opioid withdrawal. Aside from the medical benefits, CBD can also reduce some of the unwanted anxiety from THC, like anxiety and paranoia.
Cannabinol (or CBN) is produced by the breakdown of THC. That makes it more common in older strains of weed, or plants that are left to grow for longer at the end of the season. People often believe CBN is a sedative, but researchers think it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s more similar to CBD than THC, easing pain and inflammation.
CBN is one of the better-understood minor cannabinoids, and you’ll often find it in medical marijuana dispensaries. Lab studies have shown that CBN has antibiotic properties, and has been shown to treat ALS and improve appetite. Expect more interesting and conclusive research on CBN over the next few years.
THCA, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, is an important cannabinoid, even though it’s only present in small quantities in the weed you smoke. THCA is actually the precursor to THC, and its found in large quantities in live cannabis plants. It breaks down into THC over time. This breakdown is sped up by heating – which is why smoking cannabis produces a high, but eating raw leaves doesn’t.
On its own, THCA has been used to treat inflammatory diseases like arthritis, and it has the potential to be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases.
CBG (cannabigerol) only occurs in tiny quantities in most cannabis strains. But its precursor, CBGA, is the original molecule that breaks down to form THC and CBD. And today, growers are experimenting to get higher CBG content, because of its medical potential.
In fact, CBG has some very specific medical applications. It reduces the pressure in the eye, so it can be used to treat glaucoma. Lab studies have also shown it to block receptors that cause the growth of cancer.
The final cannabinoid we’ll look at is CBDV – cannabidivarin. As its name suggests, CBDV is similar to CBD in its structure and its effects. It isn’t psychoactive, so it won’t get you high by itself. Instead, it reduces inflammation and even enhances muscle function.
CBDV has been shown to be very effective in treating epilepsy. It reduces the severity and frequency of seizures and is now being developed as an anti-epileptic medicine.
Cannabinoids: Lots Left to Learn
It’s still the early days of medical marijuana in Canada, and chances are there will be lots more exciting findings about cannabinoids over the next few years. There’s already lots of promising research that suggests cannabinoids can treat a whole host of chronic and challenging illnesses.
These intriguing molecules can do far more than make us feel good – they could hold the potential to make life easier for millions of people suffering debilitating and life-long illnesses like epilepsy, cancer, AIDS, and MS. Watch this space!