What Are Cannabinoids and How Do They Work?

When people talk about the power of marijuana to get you high or help you deal with various ailments, they’re referring to the power of (phyto)cannabinoids. Simply put, (phyto)cannabinoids are chemical compounds produced by cannabis plants. They work by mimicking endocannabinoids which our body naturally produces.

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is like a thermostat in a house, where the body continually monitors and adjusts various levels and functions like heart rate, body temperature, fatigue, hormone levels, and more. When one of these levels goes out of normal range — like when hungry or overheated — the body signals the endocannabinoid system to bring it back to normal. Learn more about the ECS.

Most Common Types of Cannabinoids

While there are more than 120 identified cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, only a small portion has been studied to date for their potential medicinal benefits throughout the body. Many researchers, including those funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are continuing to explore the possible uses of cannabinoids for medical treatment. Consumers are encouraged to consult with their physician to inquire about whether cannabis products may be helpful for treating their specific conditions and symptoms.

LivWell makes no claims regarding the health and medical benefits of cannabis.

Delta-9 THC is the most well-known cannabinoid. It is the primary compound responsible for the intoxicating "high" we get from marijuana. THC has a range of effects to the brain and body that people can experience differently. Some people find that it provides feelings of relaxation, while others might experience agitation. Each marijuana strain has a different level of THC, so it's important to experiment with different strains to get a sense of what works for you.

Delta-8 THC is found in smaller quantities than delta-9 THC in the cannabis plant and has been reported to have similar effects as delta-9 THC but with less psychoactive effects. It can be extracted using complex equipment and can be synthesized from molecules that are similar to its structure like CBD and delta-9 THC.

CBD is the second most abundant cannabinoid in the cannabis plant. CBD does not produce an intoxicating high, and, in fact, can actually counteract the intoxicating effects associated with THC. CBD is better known for its healing effects. While further study is required, the consensus thus far is that CBD could be helpful in treating those who suffer from chronic pain and inflammation, substance abuse disorders, epilepsy, cancer, anxiety, and other ailments. Learn more about CBD.

Not only does CBG have a chance of rivaling CBD in terms of popularity, but both THC and CBD — as well as many other major cannabinoids — actually begin as CBG. Enzymes, light, and heat break down CBG into the other cannabinoids. CBG will not get you high, but studies indicate that it may have anti-inflammatory properties, inhibit the growth of cancerous cells and stimulate bone growth.

CBN has moderate intoxicating effects but can get you only a fraction as high as THC. CBN is produced when THC is exposed to heat, oxygen, or light. It is suspected that higher levels of CBN may produce sedative effects, provide chronic muscle pain relief, aid in bone repair, and combat inflammation. The potential for other medicinal applications is high for CBN, but further research is needed.

CBCA can be found in most strains of cannabis, and while it won’t get you high, research indicates it can produce powerful therapeutic benefits if you are suffering from pain, inflammation, cancer, or acne. Similar to CBD, cannabichromene (CBC) may be helpful in treating anxiety and stress.

THCV is very similar to THC in its chemical structure but different in its effects. THCV produces a bright, clear high at higher doses and CBD-esque effects at lower doses. Unlike THC, it seems to prevent the munchies and is being researched for its potential in managing obesity and diabetes. This cannabinoid has also shown promise in treating seizures in laboratory animals.

THCA is the acidic form of THC that is naturally produced by the plant. THCA is non-intoxicating, allowing consumers and patients alike to consume larger doses for therapeutic effects. It's extracted from the raw cannabis plant in a variety of ways, including juicing, rosin pressing, solvent extraction, and dry sifting. This cannabinoid has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and anticancer properties.