The complexity called cannabis
With over 400 naturally occurring chemical entities, the cannabis plant is one plant with a myriad of purposes. The plant is mainly utilised for two major purposes:
- Its medicinal effects and
- Its psychoactive effects.
In order for cannabis to have any effect on its consumers, these chemical compounds would have to interact with certain receptors in the body. Here’s a closer look at the process.
Cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
Cannabinoids are naturally occurring chemical compounds which are found in the cannabis plant. They work by interacting directly or indirectly with our cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoid receptors are a part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a neurotransmitter network which interacts with the cannabinoids our bodies produces them in order to maintain a balanced internal environment.
Human produced cannabinoids are called endocannabinoids and the state of internal balance they maintain is commonly referred to as homeostasis. The ECS works to maintain balance over certain bodily functions, such as:
- Fertility and pregnancy
- Motor control
- Pain and pleasure
There are two main types of cannabis receptors in the ECS system:
- Cannabis Receptor 1 (CB1) – CB1 receptors are primarily located in the brain and nervous system. They are also located in the lungs, liver, and kidneys. CB1 receptors mainly interact with our natural endocannabinoids, as well as the phytocannabinoid, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The CB1 receptors can interact with THC due to its similar molecular structure with our natural endocannabinoids. This interaction is known to give relief from pain, nausea, depression and other things.
- Cannabis Receptor 2 (CB2) – CB2 receptors are mainly found in the immune system. They are known to be heavily concentrated in the spleen and gastrointestinal system. CB2 receptors interact with the natural endocannabinoid known as endocannabinoid 2-AG, as well as the phytocannabinoid, Cannabidiol (CBD). This interaction works to regulate appetite and immune system function of which pain management is inclusive.
CB1 and CB2. Source
Scientists are on the brink of determining a third type of cannabinoid receptor which is stated to interact with a cannabinoid known as Cannabinol (CBN). Research on this matter, however, is still ongoing and inconclusive.
Major Cannabinoids and Their Effects on Humans
The cannabis plant contains over 113 cannabinoids. While research is still ongoing to determine the effects and uses of these compounds, there are five cannabinoids that have become very popular over the years:
- THC – Tetrahydrocannabinol
- CBD – Cannabidiol
- THCA – Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid
- CBN – Cannabinol
- CBC – Cannabichromene
1. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
Tetrahydrocannabinol – or THC for short – is the best known chemical compound found in cannabis. THC is the main psychoactive component of cannabis. It is one of the oldest known hallucinogens in the world.
For recreational marijuana users, strains with high levels of THC are preferred as it is the main psychoactive agent in the plant that gives that sought after “high”.
When interacted with the CB1 receptors, THC is known to produce strong feelings of euphoria, elation and relaxation.
Apart from its recreational uses, THC has a wide array of medicinal purposes. THC is often used to ease the feelings of nausea and pain in cancer patients. According to newer studies, THC may be found to delay the progression of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) and ease painful symptoms of diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
2. Cannabidiol (CBD)
Cannabidiol – also known as CBD – is the second most popular cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant.
CBD has gained traction in recent years due to its many medicinal purposes. A bulk of the popularity of CBD can be attributed to the fact that CBD offers no psychoactive effects. This makes CBD the perfect option for patients who want none of the psychoactive effects of THC but want to enjoy the medicinal benefits of marijuana.
While some parties argue that CBD has psychoactive effects due to its anxiety relief and relaxation properties, CBD will not give you the elated and euphoric feelings ascribed to THC.
CBD is known to fight the growth of tumour and cancer cells as well as reduce and eliminate seizures. It is also an excellent treatment for mental illnesses such as anxiety. CBD is also known to have effective anti-inflammatory and pain management properties.
Reasons for cannabis use. Source
3. Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THCA)
Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THCA) is the acid form of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This form of THC is found in the raw cannabis plant.
On its own, THCA has no psychoactive effects but when raw cannabis is dried, aged, and heated, THCA is converted to THC -- which, as stated, is the most psychoactive cannabinoid present in the cannabis plant. THCA is converted via heat through a process known as decarboxylation. Decarboxylation occurs via smoking or vaping.
THCA is known to have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective as well as anti-proliferative and anti-emetic properties. It can be used to treat a myriad of diseases including arthritis, lupus, cancer and auto-immune conditions. THCA also shows much promise for the treatment of seizures and epilepsy.
4. Cannabinol (CBN)
Cannabinol – or CBN – is a compound that is created when THC is exposed to light or oxygen. This is an oxidised version of THC. Many believe that CBN is a degraded compound which occurs in old or poorly stored cannabis, but that’s not the case.
While CBD is not considered for medicinal purposes, studies have shown that CBD can help individuals suffering from insomnia.
5. Cannabichromene (CBC)
Cannabichromene – or CBC, for short – is the second most abundant chemical compound found in the cannabis plant.
CBC is a non-psychoactive compound. While CBC will not produce the euphoric and elated effects that THC will, it is known to bind well with other cannabinoids in order to relieve pain in users.
Many scientists have taken a keen interest in CBC due to its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. CBC is also known to stimulate brain growth as well as fight cancer and inhibit tumours.
Out of the over 400 chemical components found in the cannabis plant, these five cannabinoids have taken the limelight for their medicinal as well as psychoactive properties. With scientists gaining more interest with the cannabis plant, there’s no doubt that in the near future other chemical compounds and their properties -- and especially their benefits -- will come to knowledge.
Beyond its psychoactive effects, several -- if not all -- components of the cannabis plant show a stifling amount of promise to modern medicine.