While scientists have identified over 100 cannabinoids, the two compounds currently holding the spotlight are the most commonly occurring: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Despite their popularity in the media and newly legal marketplace, there is a staggering amount of misinformation circulating about these cannabinoids. Here are a few definitions to help clear up the confusion:
The Entourage Effect
Cannabis consists of a variety of compounds including cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids, which work synergistically to create the psychoactive and physical effects from consumption or application. Each cultivar (a plant or group of plants that has been cultivated for its specific characteristics) has a unique profile containing various levels of these compounds and reacts differently to each consumer’s endocannabinoid system—a biological system that regulates a variety of cognitive processes, including the body’s reaction to cannabis.
Research shows whole plant products are generally more effective when used to treat medical conditions, like pain and inflammation, than a product carrying limited or isolated compounds. This is referred to as the entourage effect.
The term “full spectrum,” when used to refer to dried flower or various other cannabis products, means most of the plant’s original chemical profile is still present. Extraction methods, and the resulting concentrates, are known to only retain certain compounds from the original flower.
Some purified products using cannabis as a key ingredient use “isolate”, while others use a “distillate”, and the difference is the presence of other compounds extracted from the plant. An isolate, for example, is only one compound, like CBD, reduced to a white powder-like consistency. It can then be ingested on its own or mixed into other products. A product made with distillate, however, is a crude cannabis oil extract containing an array of cannabinoids in one product.
The popularity of THC and CBD
THC and CBD are the two leading cannabinoids discussed more than any other compound found in cannabis. When consumed, these chemicals interact with endocannabinoid receptors found throughout the brain and body and are responsible for some of the plant’s most widely sought-after effects.
Acclaimed for its high level of psychoactive stimulation, THC mimics the neurotransmitters responsible for regulating things like hunger, pain, sleep patterns, and temperament. It has been researched for its possible role in creating apoptosis in cancer cells, reducing neuropathic pain, and diminishing post-chemotherapy nausea.
CBD, on the other hand, has been widely popularized by the health and wellness industry. Hemp-derived CBD specifically is a trending ingredient, popping up in hair treatments, skin creams, and makeup. It is commonly credited for the plant’s anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, but is currently being researched to better understand its hand in helping to manage conditions like epileptic seizures and Parkinson’s Disease.
You’ll often hear THC associated with a “head high,” affecting a consumer’s psychological perception, while CBD is credited for the subperceptual “healing” effects in the body. This is one of the most common myths about these two incredibly complex compounds. Too often are they are reduced to very simple and broad stroke explanations despite being highly nuanced substances.
Furthermore, the presence of THC has also been proven to increase the efficacy of cannabis when used for pain management or to stimulate the appetite, meaning it also plays a role in the body’s physical reactions. A better way to describe CBD’s effects are “non-intoxicating”, although a small group of consumers claim it impacts their cognitive abilities.
Due to the rapidly expanding body of research and near-daily developments in the scientific understanding of cannabis’ effect on humans, even some of the plant’s top advocates and researchers are retracting and restating information on these two compounds.
Other common cannabinoids
While THC and CBD are the two most commonly occurring cannabinoids, scientists have identified over 100 others that work alongside these two celebrity compounds.
It’s important to first note that cannabis itself isn’t responsible for creating these compounds alone. The plant creates cannabinoid in their acid forms requiring heat to activate, convert to neutral forms, them—a process called decarboxylation—in order to produce the effects commonly associated with consumption.
For example, CBD is produced as cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) and can be activated when lit on fire or baked in an oven. Acids are not known for inducing the intoxicating effects of cannabis, but maintain a number of purported benefits, like claimed antibiotic properties.
Other major cannabinoid acids include THCA, THCVA, CBGA, and CBCA. When decarboxylated, these compounds are linked to cannabis’ commonly associated properties like getting “high” or reported inducing sleep.
Much research is still required to understand the effects of these cannabinoids in the human body.