What Are Cannabinoids?

Kelly Weimert

September 21st, 2017


Scientist working at the laboratory. Screen image of molecule made by myself

If you’ve done any research on the effects of marijuana on the body, then more than likely you’ve stumbled upon the term “cannabinoid” quite a few times. That’s because cannabinoids are the chemical compounds that are essentially responsible for cannabis’ impact on the brain and body, so it helps to have an understanding of what they are if you want to better understand the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of marijuana.

What Are Cannabinoids?

In a nutshell, cannabinoids are chemical compounds that are secreted by cannabis flowers that can have a wide range of effects on the body. Two popular cannabinoids that you’ve probably already heard of are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) — the former is psychoactive and largely responsible for the high you experience after ingesting cannabis while the latter is nonpsychoactive AKA it won’t get you stoned when ingested on its own.

Cannabinoids mimic the compounds our body already naturally produces, called endocannabinoids, which function to maintain our body’s internal balance, health, and stability via a system called the endocannabinoid system (ESC). Your ESC helps to mediate physical pain, nausea, anxiety, and inflammation, which means that a deficiency or problem with it can result in illness, discomfort, anxiety, and a number of other physical complications.

Increasing evidence suggests that, when ingested, cannabinoids can mitigate adverse reactions from a dysfunctioning ESC by binding to the designated receptor sites in our bodies designed for the aforementioned naturally-occuring endocannabinoids. And different cannabinoids will connect to different receptors, resulting in varying effects depending on what’s consumed. For instance, the THC compound binds to receptors in your brain, which is why you feel high when taking it, while CBD targets receptors in the body.

Cannabinoids and Marijuana as Medicine

The evidence of cannabinoids mimicking our bodies’ own endocannabinoids is essentially the basis for cannabis use as medicine.

In addition to THC and CBD, cannabis contains a wide range of other cannabinoids — at least 85 of them, in fact — that are showing promise when it comes to medical value. That’s why we’re seeing an increasing number of strains and products developed to deliver higher doses of specific cannabinoids depending on the illness being treated and/or managed.

That said, let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular cannabinoids and what they’re being used to address so far.

The Two Most Popular Cannabinoids

Whenever you look up anything that discusses the medicinal value of marijuana, you can bet you’ll come across two primary cannabinoids: THC and CBD. These two chemical compounds are far and away the most popular of cannabis’ 85 cannabinoids and the list of ailments they might alleviate continues to grow.


As mentioned, THC is the cannabinoid most responsible for the high you experience when you ingest marijuana, but it’s also shown to alleviate the symptoms of many illnesses including:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • PTSD
  • Cancer
  • Crohn’s Disease


Like most things associated with marijuana, we’re still learning about CBD’s benefits, but what we know so far is very promising. This nonpsychoactive compound won’t make you feel stoned, but it’s legal to purchase in any state and is now being used to abate the symptoms of:

  • Epilepsy
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic pain
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Diabetes

Okay, now let’s get to the lesser known but still likely beneficial cannabinoids. The research on these is even less prevalent than the others, but it’s growing and highly promising.

Cannabichromene (CBC)

CBC is the third most common cannabinoid found in marijuana and, in some plants, might be even more abundant than CBD. Studies suggest that this compound might have a wide range of physiological benefits and those benefits might be increased when combined with other cannabinoids like THC and CBD. So far, CBC is thought to potentially be:

Anti-inflammatory – When used alone, CBC is effective at fighting inflammation in your body, but when combined with THC it’s thought to be even more effective.

Anti-tumor – Of course, no cannabinoid is a treatment for cancer; however, some research suggests that when CBC is combined with CBD and THC, it might reduce the size of a tumor.

Antidepressant – When mice were treated with CBC at the University of Mississippi, findings suggested that they were less depressed than those that weren’t.

Plus, CBC  might even encourage brain growth. No matter how old you are, the cells in various parts of your brain continue to grow via a process called neurogenesis; a 2013 study found that CBC might increase this process.

Cannabinol (CBN)

When your flower has grown dry and stale, it can be kind of a bummer, but it also means that this potentially helpful cannabinoid emerges. Eventually, THC will break down and become CBN when left in open air. This compound has been shown to be helpful in the following ways:

Appetite stimulant – When rats were given CBN by researchers in a UK-based study, they ate significantly more than rats that didn’t consume it.

Antibiotic – Italian researchers discovered that CBN was one of only three other cannabinoids that made an impact on the notoriously antibiotic-resistant infection called MRSA.

Pain reliever – CBN and THC both release endorphins that alleviate physical pain by relaxing blood vessels, according to a 2002 Swedish study.

Anti-asthmatic – The anti-inflammatory effects of CBN were found by researchers to be effective in reducing allergy-related asthma in mice.

Sedative – Of all the cannabinoids, studies are finding that CBN could be the most sedative. According to the research, a working dose of CBN can be as effective as 2.5 – 5mg of Valium.

Cannabigerol (CBG)

Because this cannabinoid can only be found very early in the growth cycle, it’s tough to find in large quantities. That said, it’s nonpsychoactive, which means it can also be cultivated in hemp. Like the others, this compound has shown promise as a(n):

Pain reliever – Some studies suggest that CBG is an even more potent pain reliever than its cannabinoid counterpart, THC.

Antibiotic – In addition to the aforementioned CBN, CBG is one of the three cannabinoids that was effective in terms of combatting the MRSA virus.

Psoriasis treatment – Oddly enough, there’s some evidence that suggests CBG can decrease redness in your skin and potentially combat the symptoms of Psoriasis.

Mood stabilizer – An amino acid in your body called GABA is largely responsible for your mood and early research indicates that CBG can help regulate it better than THC or CBD.

Antidepressant – Not only can CBG potentially improve your mood, but it can also work as an antidepressant by increasing the serotonin levels in your brain — your “feel-good” hormone.

Keep in mind that the above cannabinoids are only a handful of the 85 or so found in cannabis that might prove to be beneficial to physical and mental illnesses. That said, it’s also important to note that there’s still much research to be done before cannabinoids’ benefits should be viewed as conclusive. So, be sure to only consume cannabinoids for an illness if you’re under close supervision by a healthcare professional.

Bottom Line

The amount of research we have on the benefits of cannabinoids to health is limited due in large part to the federal government’s failure to declassify it as a Schedule I drug, and therefore making it more costly and complicated to research. However, what we know so far is highly promising. Initial research suggests that the approximately 85 or so cannabinoids found in marijuana can alleviate and/or treat symptoms from myriad life-altering illnesses, including depression, cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain, and psychotic disorders.

Kelly Weimert

About Kelly Weimert

Kelly is a full-time freelance writer based in Austin, TX. A happy hybrid of geek and hippie, when she's not nestled into her couch crankin' out crafty prose with her miscreant Chihuahua, you can find her frolicking outside to keep her sanity in check.

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