An Explainer on Cannabinoids: THC, CBD, and More

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
May 31, 2022
Last updated:
Sep 28, 2023

If you’re considering medical cannabis, or CBD oil in Australia, you may have stumbled into the word “cannabinoid.” It sounds like overly complicated scientific lingo, and it is still quite a new concept for most people.

So, what exactly are cannabinoids and how do they affect you? Here we’ll explain a bit about cannabinoids—the different types, their effects, and the most common ones you’re likely to encounter.

What Are Cannabinoids?  

There are two types of cannabinoids: phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids.

Phytocannabinoids, or cannabinoids as they are typically referred to as, are chemical compounds that naturally occur in cannabis (and hemp).

They are the active constituents of the cannabis plant—in other words, cannabinoids are responsible for producing the effects we associate with medical cannabis. The most well-known of these are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Your body also produces its own cannabinoids, which are called endocannabinoids. Endo means “within.” The two most well-studied endocannabinoids are N-arachidonoylethanolamine (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Much more of a mouthful!

Endocannabinoids form part of the aptly named endocannabinoid system. This system plays an important role in keeping your body healthy and balanced, affecting functions like sleep, appetite, mood, and cognition.

This system includes three components:

  • Endocannabinoid receptors, which influence bodily functions and tissues
  • Endocannabinoids, which bind to the receptors and send certain “messages”
  • Enzymes, which break down endocannabinoids once they’ve fulfilled their function.

But the cannabinoids you get by consuming cannabis medicine can also interact with these receptors. When that happens, they produce certain special effects in your body.

What Are the Effects of Cannabinoids?  

The research shows us cannabinoids are potentially able to influence:

  • Inflammation
  • Pain
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorders
  • Other mood disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Brain function and neurodegenerative diseases
  • Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • Appetite issues
  • Sparsity and pain associated with multiple sclerosis
  • Glaucoma
  • Seizure conditions, especially Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes

What Are the Most Common Cannabinoids in Medical Cannabis?

Cannabis contains over 100 unique cannabinoids. In any given strain, there are two main cannabinoid with 20 or so minor cannabinoids forming the backup accompaniment.

Cannabidiol (CBD)

Non-intoxicating and widely studied, CBD is one of the most well-known cannabinoids. Nowadays, CBD oil in Australia is legal and it’s also widely available in many countries around the world.

Studies have suggested that CBD has a range of health benefits. In 2020, the first CBD-based prescription medication was approved in Australia. The CBD medicine is used to treat rare seizure conditions in patients 2 years of age and older.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

This cannabinoid is well-known for being intoxicating. However, it also has a range of other effects that go well beyond a high. Many patients use THC-rich products for relief from chronic pain. Others rely on it for a myriad of other applications, including improving appetite loss, reducing nausea and vomiting, targeting spasticity related to multiple sclerosis and much, much more.

Cannabinol (CBN)

Cannabinol isn’t as well-known as CBD and THC, but it was the first cannabinoid to be isolated from cannabis, back in the late 1800s.

Research into cannabinol has explored therapeutic applications for reducing seizures, soothing inflammation, improving sleep, and killing certain bacteria.

Cannabigerol (CBG)

CBG is often called the “mother cannabinoid.” Young hemp plants contain a high concentration of CBG, which converts to CBD and THC as the plants mature. Studies on CBG are just getting started, but the research that is available suggests it could reduce inflammation.

The concentration of cannabinoids like THC and CBD can vary from one strain to the next. Some will be high in THC, others high in CBD, and so on. This is partly why different strains produce different effects.

Cannabis as Medicine

To summarise, cannabinoids are the active constituents in cannabis and hemp—in other words, they produce the effects cannabis is known for.

With more than 100 different cannabinoids found in cannabis, there is a lot to learn about each compound's different characteristics. What’s more, there is even more to find out about the effects produced from different combinations of these fascinating molecules. What we have discovered thus far is just the tip of the iceberg.

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