With the news that even the World Health Organization and the United Nations might be de-criminalizing cannabidiol (CBD) in 2019, we thought it was high time to explore all the other cannabinoids that have less acclaim than the THC-CBD duo.
If you didn’t know, the cannabis plant has more than 100 cannabinoids that affect and take part in your endocannabinoid system, but because they’re less present, they’re less studied, and thus given less credit.
Whether this is fair or just premature is up for discussion, but one of the most interesting things about cannabis can be its mix of cannabinoids and terpenes. Whether you’re looking at the entourage effect or how growers have been crossbreeding strains for both effects and intensities, exploring the full capacity of the cannabis flower can be enlightening.
Let’s explore the magic that hides beneath the popular surface of cannabis.
What cannabinoids are and what they do
As we’ve written about before, the endocannabinoid system is the ultimate balance system of our bodies that yearns to achieve homeostasis. It keeps everything in check: your circulatory, digestive, endocrine, muscular and nervous systems (just to name some of the systems that keep you chugging along).
When you ingest, inhale, or absorb cannabis, the phytocannabinoids (plant-based cannabinoids) found in it go directly to the receptors located all around your body with very particular messages. The most well-known and effective receptors are called CB1 and CB2, and they have different concentrations in different areas.
Whether those messages are “euphoria”, “sleepy-time”, “minimize inflammation” or “pain-relief” depends on the types of cannabis you’re consuming, but the process remains the same.
Explore In-Depth: Cannabis terpenes: What they are and how they affect you
Consider the phytocannabinoids in cannabis to be supplemental to the lack or overwhelm of endocannabinoids (body-created cannabinoids) in your body.
THC and CBD are the most well-known and highly stigmatized of the bunch not because they were the first to be discovered, but because they’re more present in most plants than the minor cannabinoids. But their negative stereotypes are not deserved, as many will soon be likely to acknowledge.
THC and CBD (along with all the other cannabinoids) work in tandem in what’s known as the “entourage effect” to both enhance and calm each others’ effects, but they also work alone.
THC and CBD are attracted to different receptors within the endocannabinoid system and produce different effects when they “lock in”.
For example, those with gastrointestinal issues like IBS and Crohn’s often find that CBD is very helpful at relieving their pain and inflammation, partially because there’s a much higher concentration of CB2 receptors in the gut that CBD can attach to.
How lesser-known cannabinoids are found
Since the cannabis plant is one of the first ones to have been used as medicine, it’s also one of the first to have been studied scientifically. Cannabis naturally contains over 100 different cannabinoids, called phytocannabinoids, and CBN and CBD were one of the first to be discovered in the 1940s and 50s and then isolated for testing. THC, CBG, and CBC followed soon after.
All the other lesser-known cannabinoids are just different chemical compounds that co-exist beside THC and CBD — and many (though not all) of the minor cannabinoids are actually versions of the original cannabinoid CBG.
As plants grow, bud, and die, their chemical structures change. For example, sunflowers first bud, then turn into bright flowers, and finally develop the dark seeds we know and love to snack on.
Cannabis is similar in that its first buds are just its first variation, whereas further blooms only serve to concentrate the cannabinoids and possibly “degrade” them into other forms. Whether through sunlight, UV light, or other chemical processes, the chemical structures lose pieces and grow more valuable.
An example of this is that most of the popular cannabinoids start out at CBG-A, then turn into THC-A, then into CBN-A, and finally into CBN due to different processes, both natural and human.
Based on the depth of each grower’s knowledge, they are able to control the levels of cannabinoids in their strains based on the conditions they create in their greenhouses and through crossbreeding. By crossbreeding different strains, growers are able to do things like match two recessive genes for CBD and grow a plant that has more CBG cannabinoids. The growing conditions — including the amount of time the plant reaches a “senescence cycle” (or buds) — can also affect both the potency, maturity, and the amount of cannabis available at the end product.
What the A means (e.g. THCA vs. THC)
You might have seen talk of THC-A, CBN-A, CBG-A, and CBD-A.
At first glance these look like THC, CBN, CBG, and CBD — and that’s because they are. Just in their “original”, acidic, non-decarboxylated, on-the-plant forms. The A stands for Acid, because it’s the naturally occurring version of the cannabinoid on the plant, which then degrades through decarboxylation (heat) and becomes neutral by dropping the A.
THCA usually has the highest concentration in cannabis flower, but isn’t intoxicating until it decarbs into THC. You wouldn’t be able to use THCA in an edible and feel any effects, but if the THCA was decarboxylated into THC, then it’s psychoactive effects would be felt. The majority of the effects for the minor cannabinoids are better in the decarboxylated versions (without the A), even though they’re not psychoactive like THC.
However, people, including those who grow at home, can still get some medical value from THCA and acids as it does help minimize nausea better than THC does.
The only thing you need to remember is that the Acid versions of our favourite cannabinoids are just the “raw” versions that haven’t undergone any heating, UV light, or other biological transformations like biosynthesis. That means that their compounds aren’t as active, or active in different ways, then the final forms that we know and love in our cannabis end products today.
CBN — cannabinol — was one of the first cannabinoids to be discovered, and is also one of the most elusive ones on our list. While you’re able to find pretty much any balance of THC or CBD strains that you want on the market now, CBN is much harder to get a hold of.
Because it’s an oxidized version of THC. Where THC percentages can be over 30 percent in dried flower, CBN is rarely found over 1 percent.
The process of “decay” or maturation of cannabinoids looks like this: CBGA > THCA > CBNA > CBN.
What this means is that the flower needs to go through several specific stages both on the plant and off (to decarb it, age it, etc) in order to become CBN. But once it’s transformed, it’s promoted as one of the best sleep aids around. In fact, a half dose of CBN can be as effective as a full dose of pharmaceutical-grade diazepam, with no intoxicating effects.
Many connoisseurs also claim that “old” or badly stored cannabis has more CBN in it, which makes it feel more sedative than if it were fresh. But CBN isn’t always a sign that the flower you buy isn’t fresh. It could just mean that the finishing process for that flower was done in such a way (multiple “budding/senescence” cycles) as to promote more CBN in the finished product, which is why knowing your growers and growing conditions is so crucial.
CBN is also being studied as an anti-bacterial for MRSA, burns, and psoriasis, but more research is needed to fully explore all the capabilities and opportunities to apply CBN, both alone and in collaboration with other cannabinoids. The collaboration of cannabinoids (the entourage effect) has been found to be much more synergistically beneficial than cannabinoids separated and applied alone.
CBG — or cannabigerol — is the granddaddy of cannabinoids. It’s the compound that’s the starting point for THC, CBD, and CBC and is a stimulant for appetite, bone growth, brain cells, and an inhibitor of cancer cells, as well as having anti-seizure, sedative, and anti-inflammatory properties. By itself, CBG is not psychoactive, though it does create THC, which is.
Some studies have stated that CBG is found in higher percentages in hemp plants than in cannabis, possibly because they were bred to not deteriorate into the active cannabis cannabinoids like THC and CBD. This and the fact that CBG is found early in the plant’s growth and development is why it’s hard to find CBG in large amounts in finished cannabis product itself.
However, in some strains, growers have crossbred the plant so that some CBGA automatically transforms into THCA and CBDA via biosynthesis, which is good if you’re looking for a strain stronger in THC or CBD as that will leave less CBG.
Researchers are very excited about the possibilities of CBG as a medicinal cannabinoid, considering the studies done so far have shown that it might help with bladder dysfunction and inflammatory bowel disease, as an appetite stimulant, an antibacterial for skin infections, a cancer cell blocker (the most potent tumor-fighting cannabinoid thus researched), a nerve cell protector in Huntington’s, and glaucoma.
CBC — or cannabichromene — was initially discovered in 1966 (even before CBG!), and comes from the parent or granddaddy CBG. CBC is not psychoactive because it doesn’t bind to CB1 receptors in the brain, but it does bind with other receptors that are linked with pain perception.
It’s a relatively unknown cannabinoid but elicits high hopes from the medical community due to it’s anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Mainly, it’s been known to help with migraines, pain and inflammation in osteoarthritis, neural cells critical in neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, depression, acne, and even as a promising suppressant of cancer cell growth.
Human studies have shown that endocannabinoid (naturally occurring in the body) anandamide is beneficial to combating breast cancer, and CBC keeps anandamide in the bloodstream for longer, thus producing more beneficial cancer-fighting effects. While THC has also been looked at for its’ cancer-fighting potential, it’s psychoactive results are less than ideal for chemotherapy, so CBC is still the front-runner.
While it’s certainly not a major cannabinoid — not even present in percentages like CBG in the plant — it’s synergistic effects with other cannabinoids are incredibly exciting for the medical community — and for you!
The unknown of the other 100+ cannabinoids
What don’t we know?
Not only have we just begun (and many are beginning) full-fledged research into minor cannabinoids like CBG, CBN, and CBC, but the research on their effects — both isolated and synergistically, needs to be further explored. Since they’re not present in cannabis in percentages like THC is, they have been less studied by the medical and academic communities. As we’ve found out, however, they are not useless: in fact, just the opposite.
They inhibit cancer and promote sleep, heal skin and gut, limit seizures and inflammation, and much more. Just because they’re harder to get to than THC and CBD doesn’t mean that they deserve any less attention as plant-based medical marvels.
For example, another minor cannabinoid, THCv, has been found to help with Alzheimer’s and to limit panic attacks.
If we could only speed up the research process, not only with cannabinoids, but with terpenes and flavonoids, we would perhaps be much closer to stemming epidemics and many, many diseases.
So what are people excited about?
The hidden power of cannabis. The unrevealed properties and unexplored synergies between all the different cannabinoids — minor and major. The possibility of extracting them safely and in valuable-enough quantities for patients.
As we mentioned, the key to exploring cannabinoids in medicine and health is finally unlocking with the recommendation of the WHO to the UN about decriminalizing CBD. Once CBD is approved as a legal medical substance (and not along the lines of other drugs like meth and cocaine), the academic community will have much more unfettered access to CBD, which will help the flow of access to other cannabinoids.