What is a Cannabinoid?

We know that THC and CBD are cannabinoids, but the science behind the cannabis plant goes beyond its effects. So, what's in a name? And what the Bud is a cannabinoid? 


We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

As the global cannabis industry grows, so too does the interest behind the marvels of the plant. While the benefits of cannabis have been utilized for thousands of years, the plant has also been praised, debunked, illegalized, and legalized again, kind of. And that's only in the past 90 years. 

Scientific research has excelled in understanding how the plant can interact with our bodies, although it wasn't until the 1980s that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) was discovered. Comparatively, individual cannabinoids were being extracted and isolated as early as the nineteenth century.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and as weed sales continue to climb in most states in the U.S. There's no better time to break down what the hype is all about. Let's take a closer look at the plant, starting with cannabinoids.

What is a Cannabinoid? 

A cannabinoid is essentially a group of chemicals within the cannabis plant. When they release into the body they interact with the cannabinoid receptors of our ECS. When a cannabinoid finds and binds itself to a receptor, they work together to help restore balance through the ECS. 

Now, there are two kinds of cannabinoids: Phytocannabinoids and Endocannabinoids. Phytocannabinoids are what we find in cannabis; 'endo' means 'within', so endocannabinoids are inside our body.

The Role of the Endocannabinoid System

Think of the ECS as one big communication network in our body. Our ECS plays a large role in our daily functions and consists of its own molecule endocannabinoids and neural pathways.

The reason why cannabis is so multi-achieving is that these endocannabinoids and neural pathways help to influence and regulate our daily functions: namely, pain, sleep, mood, pleasure, and appetite. When we consume cannabis, the plant's cannabinoids stimulate our ECS to work hard towards achieving a goal – whatever that goal may be. They're almost a perfect match for each other.

The ECS is constantly working towards restoring balance in our body. When we inhale, consume, topically apply, or vape cannabis, its cannabinoids seek out and activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors of the ECS. Together they can communicate with neurotransmitters around the body: sending signals, regulating protein and chemical releases, and influencing dopamine and serotonin levels. 

Different cannabinoids work with different receptors. From what we understand, THC works exclusively with the CB1 receptor, which is found throughout our central nervous system. Together they can target daily functions like pain perception, mood, appetite while working as an anti-emetic and neuro-protectant. 

CBD likes to bind with the CB2 receptor, found in our immune cells. This is why CBD is great for inflammation and muscle spasticity. 

The Origins of Cannabinoids

The effects of cannabinoids have been known since before we knew what cannabinoids were. One of the first references to the effects of cannabis was in 2800BC by Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung. According to records attributed to the Emperor, cannabis had been frequently used to relieve pain, treat ulcers, and prevent nausea at the time. Then, much later in 200AD, Galen, a physician in the Roman Empire, not only actively recommended cannabis as a medicinal aid but also to improve one's mood. Slowly but surely, knowledge of the effects of cannabis began to spread, and this continued throughout medieval times around Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. 

Then, in the nineteenth century, the development of cannabis and its uses finally began to evolve. William Brooke O'Shaugnessy introduced cannabis into westernized medicine after he traveled to India. From here, the science into the cannabis plant became more apparent. In the years after O'Shaugnessey's return from India, investigations began to look into the plant. 

The first hemp compound was found via alcohol extraction in the late 1840s; around fifty years later, the isolation of the first raw cannabinoid in its pure form was achieved by scientists, Dustan & Henry in 1898. They called in cannabinol (CBN)

Cannabinoids, Reefer, and Receptors 

During the 1930s, while the research continued, the attitude towards cannabis began to change. The release of 'Reefer Madness' in 1937 portrayed a different side of cannabis – one that resulted in severe disorder and violence if consumed. 

In the same year, the U.S. government placed a heavy tax on hemp and the commercial sales of cannabis sales under the newly established Marihuana Tax Act. This was the result of anti-cannabis politician Harry J. Anslinger as a way to enforce fear of the drug. 

The isolation of CBD in its purest form occurred in the 1940s. Its chemical structure, however, wasn't recognised until the 1960s. The isolation of THC in its pure form, interestingly, didn't occur until 1964; over 60 years after the discovery of CBN. 

Cannabis became a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970s where it remains to this day. Under the Act, cannabis classifies to have no medical benefit and has "a high potential for abuse."  

It wasn't until the 1980s that science began to catch up as to how cannabinoids react with our bodies via ECS. The first cannabinoid (CB1) receptor made its discovery in 1988; the discovery of the second cannabinoid (CB2) receptor was in 1993. Around the same time, it was realised that CB1 receptors are located in our central nervous system whereas CB2 receptors are located separately in our peripheral tissue and immune cells.

Cannabinoid synthetic medications are now available to treat specific medical conditions. Sativex, for example, is a THC/CBD prescription synthetic to treat multiple sclerosis; In 2018, Epidiolex became the first FDA-approved cannabis-derived medication to treat rare forms of epilepsy. 

The Effects of Cannabinoids 

While there over 100 cannabinoids (THCA, CBM, CBG, and THCV, just to name a few) in the cannabis plant, we know the most about CBD and THC. As research into these cannabinoids grows, they're now an accepted treatment option for an amalgamation of conditions. 

The effect of cannabinoids has a plethora of benefits. Though it's not a cure for most conditions, they prove to drastically aid symptoms of a lot of chronic, degenerative conditions. It's even thought to be the key to preventing conditions like Type 2 diabetes. Introductory research has gone as far as to suggest that it can slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis. This is most likely due to its neuroprotective properties, serving almost as a barrier from further neuron damage.

Cannabinoids can actually interfere with pain signals and prevent us from feeling the sensation entirely. They can also communicate with structures responsible for initiating feelings of nausea, and react with our dopamine levels to our elevate mood.

When we smoke cannabis for recreational purposes the result can be classified as an exacerbation of our daily functioning. It makes us want to eat more, encourages sleep, makes us feel mellow and good, and stimulates our dopamine levels to make us feel euphoric and high. CBD dominant products are more driven for wellness purposes and are great if you want to avoid the high. 

On the other hand, an excess of cannabinoids can do more damage if not used appropriately. If individuals are psychologically vulnerable (meaning they have a genetic predisposition to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and schizophrenia), then cannabinoids can have a less desirable effect. Similarly, if we frequently consume cannabis from a young age, then the effect of cannabinoids can have long-term effects on one's brain chemistry. 

After years of research and scientific discovery, cannabinoids are becoming more understood than ever. It's no surprise considering its effect on the human body. 

This tiny group of chemicals certainly packs a punch. And who says good things don't come in small packages?

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Taylor Ridewood
Taylor Ridewood

Taylor is a Sydney-based writer with a background in psychology and professional writing. She has a keen interest in the benefits of medicinal cannabis and enjoys researching the multi-faceted effects of cannabis on the body and mind.

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