There are 483 known chemical constitutes in Cannabis, breaking down into two main groups: cannabinoids and terpenes. You’ve probably heard of both in passing, even if they don’t ring a bell right now.
Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds responsible for Cannabis’ most potent medical aspects. We’re talking your THC, CBD, the prior two’s acidic precursors (also important!). On top of those there’s THCV, CBN, CBC, and CBG. Overwhelmed? It gets easier, I promise.
THCa & THC
THCa is essentially THC’s younger self. It’s known to reduce inflammation, inhibit cell growth in tumors + cancer cells, and suppress muscle spasms – all that without getting you high! It’s abundant in raw and freshly harvested plant matter, but slowly begins to degrade as the plant dries. As it degrades, the acidic (“a”) component evaporates, and transforms into THC.
It’s worth noting that dispensary quality Cannabis should be fresh, relative to proper drying and curing techniques, meaning that eighth you grabbed still contains a good amount of THCa. But if THCa isn’t psychoactive, why does smoking it produce euphoric effects? Heat! When you light cannabis, the raise in temperature causes the acidic carboxylate to combust, resulting in THC inhalation and those feels you love to feel.
Whether by age or heat, THCa becomes THC and that’s the cannabinoid responsible for the effect recreational users are most accustomed to: its psychoactivity. It’s also excellent at relieving pain and muscles spasms, in addition to its uncanny ability to calm nausea and vomiting AND stimulate your appetite.
You've likely heard of CBD before because it’s the one cannabinoid legal for consumption across state lines when extracted from Hemp – a species in the Cannabis family that has THC levels less than 3%. Hemp CBD and high CBD Cannabis are a bit different in how they interact with your body, but regardless of its source, CBD is popular for good reason. Not only is not psychoactive – you won’t feel a particular "high" from it – but it plays an important role both on its own and in conjunction with THC.
On its own, CBD is renowned for its ability to relieve pain, kill or slow bacteria growth, and reduce pretty much everything (blood sugar, nausea and vomiting, seizures, inflammation, risk of artery blockage, improper function in the immune system, contractions in the intestines). As if that’s not enough, it has been shown to suppress muscle spasms, relieve anxiety, and promote bone growth. Most importantly, it has been shown to slow and stop the growth and survival of cancer cells.
CBD is capable of helping so many ailments because of the way it interacts with the Endocannabinoid System. CBD interferes with FAAH, the protein responsible for breaking down cannabinoids in the body. By delaying FAAH's ability to break down cannabinoids, the body is not only able to better utilize the endocannabinoids it has already produced, but the delay also allows the body to produce more of its own cannabinoids.
THC + CBD
While many of CBD’s capabilities are great on their own, it truly stars when it works in conjunction with THC. Utilizing high CBD Cannabis (THC levels above 3%) as opposed to Hemp has two added benefits:
1) CBD helps regulate THC’s absorption by the Central Nervous System by interfering with THC's connection to CB1 receptors - the receptors found heavily in the brain, responsible for Cannabis' "high" - without impairing absorption in other areas throughout the body. In this way, CBD helps create a more stable, predictable high.
2) By utilizing the delay in cannabinoid breakdown that CBD causes, the body is able to better utilize THC. The two cannabinoids together supplement the Endocannabinoid System, extend the time THC has to do work in the body, and gives the body a chance to create a stockpile of its endocannabinoids.
This is important because, as a pair, THC + CBD take the cake in fighting cancer in comparison to their abilities individually. Working together, they exert expert-acknowledged anti-tumor effects. This is because cancer cells contain a receptor meant for absorbing THC, and when THC enters the cancer cell’s mitochondria, it causes a shift that releases ceramide – a chemical that causes cell suicide. When CBD allows THC more time to work in the body, it has a better chance at further disrupting the cell's center and entirely taking out the cancer cell.
CBN / CBC / CBG
It feels like so much information for only two cannabinoids, but luckily the remaining ones to be discussed are less overwhelming. Not to discredit them – it's likely we still have lots more to learn in terms of their medical applications – but they tend to be byproducts of each other; produced throughout the degradation process (by time or heat). Lets keep it simple:
CBN – CBN is praised for its ability to induce deep sleep, as well as being known to relieve pain and suppress muscle spasms. Although a naturally occurring cannabinoid, it is rare to find high percentages of CBN in fresh cannabis. CBN results from THC degradation, either by age or heat manipulation. CBN connects best with CB2 receptors. providing approximately 10% of THC's psychoactive effects, accompanied by a strong body high.
CBC – Present accompanying THC, CBC relieves pain, reduces inflammation, promotes bone growth, and inhibits growth in tumor + cancer cells.
CBG – An independent cannabinoid, CBG is the precursor to THCa in young Cannabis plants - rendering it non-psychoactive. It has been shown to stimulate the growth of new brain cells, and is also known to slow + kill bacteria growth, reduce inflammation, promote bone growth, and inhibit growth in tumor + cancer cells. CBG is believed
Understanding the various medicinal compounds in Cannabis is important because it provides options in your treatment. Cannabis medicine does not have to produce psychoactive effects if that's not one of the medical benefits you're interested in. If THC is one of the cannabinoids necessary for treatment of your condition, you can utilize tolerance training as well as properly scheduling when you take your medicine to avoid interruption of daily life. Of course - if you love the euphoria, that is always an option too.
Suggested Research: National Cancer Institute: Cannabis and Cannabinoids, Non-psychotropic Plant Cannabinoids: New Therapeutic Opportunities from an Ancient Herb, Chart of Cannabinoids and Their Uses, Pictured Charts