What are cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds. They interact with human physiology through the endocannabinoid system (ECS) via two key receptors, namely CB1 (nervous system) and CB2 (immune system). Cannabinoids act differently on these receptors to produce certain health effects.
Cannabis research is still in its infancy, largely due to the long illegality of the cannabis plant. Even large pharmaceutical companies have so far hardly invested any money in cannabis research (after all, you cannot patent herbal substances). It is scientifically undisputed that cannabinoids can have positive effects on human health. This can be noted in the UK government’s turnaround on the use of medicinal cannabis in 2018.
It’s worth noting that the molecular structures of the cannabis plant are so complex that new cannabinoids are still being discovered today.
Key cannabinoids at a glance
It may surprise some that you won't get high if you eat freshly picked cannabis. When cannabis plants are harvested raw, there is virtually none of the most famous and notorious of all cannabinoids - THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Instead, an abundance of THC-A (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) is found in living cannabis plants instead of THC. We'll get to the effect of THC-A in a moment.
It is only through heat and light that THC-A converts to THC once the chemical structure is changed. This process is called decarboxylation. After conversion, THC fits perfectly into our CB-1 receptor of the endocannabinoid system. THC can influence the central nervous system there. An accompanying factor is that you get "high" through THC if you consume it in appropriate quantities.
Of course, THC is best known for its intoxicating, psychoactive effects. Leisure use of THC is still illegal in the UK and in most countries around the world. But THC can do much more than just intoxicate. It has proven very promising in treating inflammation. Therefore, medical cannabis is now approved by prescription in the UK and is used, among other things, to treat the following diseases and symptoms:
- Accompanying chemotherapy
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Chronic pain
- Tourette syndrome
The precursor to THC is THC-A, a fairly large, three-dimensional molecule. In contrast to THC, THC-A is not psychoactive. Put simply, you won't get high from THC-A because it is simply too big for our CB-1 receptor. To make it suitable, the THC-A molecule must first be reduced by heating.
THC-A is therefore an inactive chemical compound. This doesn’t mean that THC-A is completely ineffective.
It is believed that THC-A could provide a number of medical benefits, such as:
- Anti-inflammatory properties - A study published in the 2011 Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin found that THCA, along with other cannabinoids, has anti-inflammatory properties.
- Antiproliferative properties - A 2013 study that analyzed cell cultures and animal models concluded that THCA could prevent prostate cancer cells from spreading.
- Neuroprotective properties - In a pre-clinical study published in 2012, the researchers found that THCA can help protect against neurodegenerative diseases.
- Antiemetic properties (increasing appetite and decreasing nausea) - A study conducted in 2013 by researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario found that both THCA and CBDA effectively reduce nausea and vomiting in rat models, even more than THC or CBD.
The cannabidiol (CBD) is significantly different from THC. CBD does not make you high and overall has fewer (or even no significant) side effects. Commercial hemp plants with a very high CBD content and very low THC content (generally not more than a maximum of 0.2% in most countries, although the strictest interpretation of UK law indicates there should be no detectable THC) are mostly used for CBD oils. Therefore, CBD oils in the UK should not contain detectable THC. As such, even with excessive consumption of CBD oil, you cannot get high with such a small or trace amount of THC.
Numerous studies attribute CBD - like other cannabinoids - to an analgesic, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory effect. CBD interacts with the CB1 and CB2 receptors throughout the body and thus affects the central nervous system and the immune system.
A milestone for the use of CBD was certainly the report of the World Health Organization (WHO), in which CBD was described as harmless to health. So far, little or no side effects have been proven.
According to studies by various researchers, CBD could help with the following diseases:
- Addiction and withdrawal
- Anxiety, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorders
- Arthritis and osteoarthritis
- Skin diseases (e.g. acne)
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Reduction in appetite
- Sleep disorders
- Pain (caused by inflammation)
Similar to THC-A, CBD-A is the acidic precursor to CBD. Like CBD, CBD-A is not psychoactive. CBD-A occurs in living and raw cannabis. The content is higher, especially in hemp plants and in those strains bred for high CBD levels. Like THC-A, CBD-A is an inactive chemical compound. CBD-A converts to CBD through heat and light (decarboxylation).
CBD-A can be consumed by juicing with raw cannabis. CBD-A can also be found in CBD oils, creams and capsules. In our last series of laboratory tests, around half of the CBD oils tested showed a measurable proportion of CBD-A.
Like THC-A, CBD-A does not match our CB-1 and CB-2 receptors. However, it is known that CBD-A interacts with the ECS as an inhibitor of the COX-2 enzyme. It is believed that CBD-A may have the potential to reduce inflammation.
CBD-A is also believed to potentiate the serotonin-producing 5-HT receptor. CBD-A could also be one of the main factors why cannabis could be used against nausea (antiemetics).
CBD-A is widely regarded as a key component of the medical spectrum of cannabis and the variety of possible therapeutic uses.
A study from September 2008 examined the potential anti-inflammatory properties of CBDA by selectively inhibiting the COX-2 enzyme. In a study from September 2012, CBDA was examined as a possible anti-cancer drug. The anti-emetic effects of CBDA were the subject of a study in February 2013. A January 2017 study found that CBDA could potentially be used to treat aggressive breast cancer.
Compared to cannabidiol, CBDA shows a significantly higher effectiveness in inhibiting vomiting in shrews and nausea in rats and in enhancing 5-HT 1A receptor activation. As a result, CBDA is promising as a treatment for nausea and vomiting, including predictive nausea, for which no specific therapy is currently available.
Cannabinol (CBN) is considered a slightly psychoactive cannabinoid, known for its calming properties. When THC is oxidized, the degradation process converts THC to CBN. For this reason, older THC products usually contain higher levels of CBN. The calming effect is a reason for some users to choose slightly older THC products.
It is assumed that the combination of CBN and THC as well as terpenes leads to a sedative effect.
The entourage effect should also be shown by the fact that the euphoric effect of THC can be increased by CBN.
The exact effects of this cannabinoid on the human body have not been fully researched. There have already been some small scientific studies that suggest some pharmacological applications, such as:
- Antibacterial: CBN can be an antibacterial agent. CBN has been successfully tested on strains of MRSA bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
- Neuroprotective agent: CBN successfully delayed the onset of ALS in one study.
- Appetizing: Similar to THC, animal experiments have shown that CBN has an appetizing effect on rats.
- Anti-inflammatory: An anti-inflammatory effect of CBN in rheumatoid arthritis has also been found in rodents.
CBC (cannabis chrome)
CBC has the same origins as THC and CBD, all from cannabigerolic acid (CBG-A). Cannabis plants produce CBG-A, the precursor to THC-A, CBA-A and CBC-A (cannabichromenic acid).
The effect of CBC is underwhelming. Again, the reason is the same as with THC-A and CBD-A. Because the molecule does not fit our CB-1 receptors.
However, CBC has unique advantages. It binds to other receptors, such as the vanniloid receptor 1 (TRPV1) and TRPA1. Both of these receptors are involved in pain perception. In this way, CBC can activate the receptors, releasing anandamide, which is an endocannabinoid.
The effects of CBC have been studied, including:
- Pain and anti-inflammatory: this effect of CBC has been found in association with collagen-induced osteoarthritis. The same could be tested with excessive lipid production.
- Brightening mood: with CBC, an anti-depressive effect could be demonstrated, in the spirit of the entourage effect.
THC-V is psychoactive only in very high doses, similar to CBN. THC-V is formed after the combination of divarinoleic acid and geranyl phosphate. The resulting THCV acid is decarboxylated to produce THCV.
The molecular structure of THCV is comparable to THC, but has a propyl side chain.