First discovered in Israel in the 1960s by Professor Raphael Mechoulam and his team, cannabinoids are naturally occurring chemical compounds derived from the cannabis plant. These compounds are responsible for the many medicinal effects of cannabis, with each compound offering distinctive properties and benefits. To date, scientists have discovered over 113 cannabinoids, and more are likely to be found.
Your body responds to every cannabinoid compound differently thanks to a remarkable built-in mechanism: the endocannabinoid system. This complex system is made up of receptors scattered throughout the body, which regulate health and homeostasis. The receptors have been identified in nearly every major organ system, from the brain and spinal cord to the gastrointestinal tract. CB1 receptors are associated most closely with the brain and nervous system, while CB2 receptors are linked to the immune system. These receptors, along with enzymes that aid in cleanup after many endocannabinoid system processes, help our bodies maintain a stable internal environment.
When activated by exposure to cannabinoids, the receptors of the endocannabinoid system become reactive. This means they’re able to affect key body processes including mood, memory, appetite, and pain. The specific effects of cannabis-derived products depend on the particular compound used and the location of the receptors that bind with that compound; we’ll look more closely at the receptor-cannabinoid interactions of various CBD compounds in the sections below.
The most familiar of the cannabinoids is CBD, an abbreviation that’s short for cannabidiol. Unlike THC, the other well-known compound derived from cannabis, CBD doesn’t have psychoactive effects. That means you can use it for medicinal purposes without getting high, so it’s safe to utilize even when you’re planning to work or drive. CBD is also an extremely adaptable compound, so it can be transformed into oils, gummies, pills, creams and more to suit various therapeutic needs.
CBD is the best researched of the cannabinoid compounds, and its applications are exceptionally wide-ranging. Studies show that CBD can be used for:
CBD — Reported Therapeutic Effects
1. Anxiety and stress
5. Withdrawal symptoms in cannabis and tobacco addiction. Inhibition of the reward-facilitating effect of morphine and cocaine.
6. Auto-immune diseases (diabetes type 1 for example)
7. Auto-immune-like diseases (GVHD, for example)
9. Inflammation (Crohn's disease, colitis, pancreatitis, rheumatoid arthritis).
10. Reduces infarct size and increase blood flow in stroke;
11. Obesity (food consumption; lowering appetite); metabolic syndrome.
12. Retinopathy associated with diabetes.
13. Antiemetic and anti-nausea
14. Protects against myocardial, liver, renal ischemic/reperfusion injury
15. Protects against hypoxia/ischemia injury.
16. Neuroprotection against neuronal damage due to neurological diseases or injury (Parkinson's disease; Huntington's disease; Alzheimer's disease; cerebral infarction; hepatic encephalopathy; traumatic brain injury; cerebral ischemia; spinal cord injury; memory rescuing effects; ).
17. Cancer and resistance to cancer chemotherapy; cancer cell migration (metastasis); inhibits angiogenesis.
18. Epilepsy and convulsions.
19. Chronic inflammatory and neuropathic pain
20. Lowers cannabis and THC effects such as memory loss, psychotic-like symptoms, anxiogenic action
21. Protects against airway obstruction
22. Obsessive-compulsive behavior
23. Memory rescuing effects due to neurodegenerative disorders
25. Reduces neuroinflammation and promotes neuroplasticity and functional recovery after brain ischemia
26. Restless leg syndrome
27. Disrupts the consolidation of specific and generalized fear memories
28. Preventing the development of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy
31. Kidney injury
32. Familial Mediterranean fever (auto-immune)
34. Cannabidiol Improves Cognitive Impairment and Reverses Cortical Transcriptional Changes Induced by Ketamine, in Schizophrenia-Like Model in Rats
Cannabidiolic acid, generally abbreviated to CBDA, is a cannabinoid produced by the stems, leaves, and flowers of some cannabis plants. Through a process called decarboxylation, the acid is removed from CBDA, transforming it into CBD. This process is most often performed by heating or smoking cannabis varieties that are high in CBDA. For this reason, CBDA is sometimes considered the “precursor” to CBD.
CBD and CBDA share similar molecular structures, so their therapeutic effects are also similar; however, CBDA has been the subject of less extensive scientific study. Scientists have learned that CBDA works primarily as an inhibitor of the COX-2 enzyme within the endocannabinoid system, leading to exploration of its effectiveness as a treatment for inflammation. Recent studies have also tested the efficacy of CBDA for certain types of cancer, and as an anti-emetic.
CBN is the abbreviation for cannabinol, another compound within the cannabinoid family. In fact, CBN was the first cannabinoid isolated by scientists. CBN is produced when THC is heated or exposed to oxygen; it also occurs naturally as the cannabis plant ages. Even though CBN is derived from THC, it doesn’t share the psychoactive properties of THC.
Within the endocannabinoid system, CBN binds to receptors less effectively than many other cannabinoids. However, it has been studied extensively as a helpful compound to improve sleep health. Scientists have discovered that CBN acts as a powerful sedative, with effects comparable to common sleep-inducing pharmaceuticals like diazepam. In studies on mice, CBN has been shown to prolong sleep time; additional studies suggest that this effect is amplified when used in combination with THC.
Along with its implications for sleep health, CBN has been studied as a possible stimulant for bone tissue growth. Research shows that it may activate stem cells that facilitate the production of new bone, making it potentially useful for the healing of fractures. Additional studies have explored the analgesic, antibiotic, anticonvulsant, and anti-inflammatory applications of CBN.
Like the other compounds in this overview, CBG (short for cannabigerol) is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid with a variety of promising medical applications. CBG is actually the precursor to its more famous cousins, CBD and THC. Like CBDA, exposure to light or heat breaks down CBG in the cannabis plant into these better-known compounds.
Most strains of cannabis contain relatively little CBG, often less than 1%. However, that doesn’t mean this cannabinoid is any less promising when it comes to potential applications. CBG interacts with both CB1 and CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system; during these interactions, it’s thought to naturally increase dopamine levels, which help to regulate sleep, mood, and appetite. CBG is also thought to obstruct GABA uptake in the brain and block serotonin receptors—both positive implications for the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Studies have found CBG especially effective for certain physiological systems and symptoms, including:
Endocannabinoid receptors are highly concentrated in the structures of the eye, and CBG has been shown particularly effective at reducing the intraocular pressure associated with glaucoma.
A recent study offered promising results for CBG as a cancer-fighting compound, with the potential to block the receptors that cause cancer cell growth. Scientists saw inhibition in the growth of colorectal cancer cells in mice that were treated with CBG, offering an exciting new avenue of treatment for cancer patients.
Discovered more than five decades ago, cannabichromene (abbreviated CBC) is considered one of the most promising cannabinoids in recent medical research. Like CBD and THC, CBC is derived from CBDA when the acid is broken down by exposure to heat or ultraviolet light.
Non-intoxicating like other CBD compounds, CBC is less well researched than some cannabis derivatives. However, scientists have discovered a variety of potential applications for this cannabinoid.
Within the endocannabinoid system, CBC binds most effectively with vanilloid receptor 1 (TRPV1) and transient receptor potential ankyrin 1 (TRPA1); both of these receptor types are linked to the body’s perception of pain. This means that CBC may function as an alternative to traditional painkillers like NSAIDS, but without their potentially harmful side effects. CBC may be particularly effective for treating inflammatory conditions like osteoarthritis, especially when used in combination with THC.
Additional studies have shown that CBC may be a potential cancer fighter, second only to CBG in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. Though research in this field is limited so far, the anti-inflammatory properties of CBC may also make it an effective acne treatment; studies suggest that it could work to prevent the sebaceous gland inflammation at the root of many types of acne.
While these therapeutic benefits overlap with many other cannabinoids, CBC is differentiated by what’s known as the “entourage effect.” Researchers believe that CBC may work synergistically when used with other cannabinoids to provide even more effective treatments for many of the conditions outlined above.
Last in our roundup of cannabinoid compounds is cannabidivarin, better known as CBDV. CBDV is extremely similar to CBD on a molecular level, but recent research has shown its applications are exceptionally unique and valuable for people with neurological disorders.
Preliminary studies on mice show that CBDV has enormous untapped potential in the treatment of epilepsy and similar neurological conditions. As an anticonvulsant and antiepileptic, CBDV may be able to help patients who suffer from epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions in which seizures may occur. Along with reducing the duration and intensity of seizures, CBDV could work to prevent convulsions in the event that a seizure does occur. Early research on these applications for CBDV is so promising that GW Pharmaceuticals, a cannabis-focused company based in England, is working to patent the use of CBDV for the treatment of seizures.
Along with seizure treatment, CBDV may be used by patients who experience vomiting and nausea, especially when those conditions are caused by chemotherapy. It has also been studied as an appetite suppressant, and as a treatment that relieves symptoms of Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
Like all of the cannabinoids discussed above, CBDV is non-psychoactive.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products discussed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.