Guide to Major Cannabinoids

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The majority of the effects you love about cannabis boil down to compounds called cannabinoids. These incredible molecules are naturally produced in cannabis plants and are responsible for everything from munchies to chronic pain relief.

There is a lot to unpack in the cannabinoid universe. With 113 known cannabinoids and counting, where should you start? Here, we look into six major cannabinoids, including their effects and therapeutic potential.

The Endocannabinoid System

Before we get into the big six cannabinoids found in cannabis, it’s important to explain how they interact with the human body — and this all starts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

This complex network of receptors and chemical communications within your body maintains internal balance. The system is comprised of two core receptors: CB1 and CB2. There are also two naturally produced cannabinoids (called endocannabinoids): anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

Together, these receptors and natural chemicals help regulate:

  • Mood
  • Memory
  • Appetite
  • Pain
  • Sleep
  • Immune system response

It turns out that the compounds in cannabis (a plant officially called cannabis sativa L.) can communicate with this system to produce therapeutic effects. These compounds are known as cannabinoids, and they interact with the ECS in various ways, including:

  • Binding directly with your endocannabinoid receptors
  • Increasing the availability of endocannabinoids
  • Working synergistically with other cannabinoids to alter their effects

The 6 Big Cannabinoids: Effects and Therapeutic Potential

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

  • Effects: Euphoria, relaxation, creativity, giggles, stress relief
  • Side Effects: Increased appetite, mild sedation, dry eyes, dry mouth. In high doses, it may cause anxiety and paranoia
  • Therapeutic potential: Chronic pain, depression, anxiety, appetite stimulation, nausea and vomiting, insomnia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis

Perhaps the most famous cannabinoid, THC, is one of the most predominant compounds in cannabis plants. It’s the plant’s primary intoxicating cannabinoid, the one responsible for the euphoria, relaxation, creativity, and other psychotic effects that collectively create the “high.”

THC has a strong binding affinity for CB1, one of our two ECS receptors, highly concentrated in our brains. The THC molecule locks into this receptor like a hand into a glove, leading to the high we know and love.

This binding affinity also leads to its powerful therapeutic potential to help people treat chronic pain, mood disorders, and more. In terms of medical cannabis research, there is a long history of study of THC’s health outcomes, side effects, and drug abuse potential. It’s largely considered safe, with adverse effects mild and short-lived when they happen.

Cannabidiol (CBD)

  • Effects: Relaxation, calmness, stress relief
  • Side Effects: Mild fatigue, diarrhea, and changes in appetite reported
  • Therapeutic potential: Chronic inflammatory, neuroprotection, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and seizures

Second only in popularity to THC comes CBD, and it couldn’t be more different in terms of effects. This non-intoxicating molecule is predominantly produced in hemp-type varieties of cannabis.

Unlike its cousin cannabinoids, CBD does not create any high. Its effects are much quieter, working in the background to help with stress, induce relaxation, and reduce inflammation.

While THC locks into the CB1 receptor, CBD works by increasing the levels of the body’s natural endocannabinoids (anandamide and 2-AG). It does so by preventing enzymes from breaking down these molecules too quickly.

Cannabidiol also regulates the activity of the CB1 and CB2 receptors, although it doesn’t have a strong binding activity with either. Interestingly, CBD can regulate some of the more intense side effects of THC.

Cannabigerol (CBG)

  • Effects: Mild euphoria, focus, mental clarity
  • Side Effects: Dry mouth, mild gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Therapeutic Potential: Chronic inflammatory, glaucoma, neuroprotection

Cannabigerol is often referred to as the “mother cannabinoid” because it is the precursor from which all other cannabinoids, including THC and CBD, are synthesized. As the plant matures, most of the CBG is converted into other cannabinoids, primarily THC and CBD. Most strains only contain a minimal amount of CBG.

Unlike THC, CBG does not have a strong psychoactive effect, but it can induce a mild sense of euphoria along with increased focus and mental clarity. These effects make it particularly appealing for daytime use.

CBG works by interacting with both cannabinoid receptors in the ECS but with less intensity than THC. Its ability to block serotonin receptors may account for its potential role in mood regulation, and its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties are promising for medical use.

Cannabinol (CBN)

  • Effects: Sleepiness, relaxation
  • Side Effects: Dizziness, grogginess, mild disorientation
  • Therapeutic Potential: Insomnia, chronic inflammatory, appetite stimulation, pain relief

Cannabinol, or CBN, is known for its use as a natural sleep aid. Unlike its counterparts, CBN is not formed directly by the cannabis plant but is the result of decarboxylation (aka decarbing). When THC is exposed to air and light, it breaks down into CBN, which is why older flower is likely to have higher levels of CBN.

CBN is mildly psychoactive, providing a sedative effect without significant euphoria, which is why it’s often associated with relaxation and sleep. These properties make it a favorite among those looking to improve their sleep quality or manage insomnia.

In terms of its interaction with the ECS, CBN binds relatively weakly to both CB1 and CB2 receptors but shows a higher affinity for CB2 receptors, which may explain its role in reducing inflammation and treating pain.

Cannabichromene (CBC)

  • Effects: Mood elevation, enhanced cognition
  • Side Effects: Rare, with occasional reports of headache or dizziness
  • Therapeutic Potential: Chronic inflammatory, depression, neurogenesis, fungal and bacterial infection

Cannabichromene, or CBC, is less understood compared with THC, CBD, and CBN. Like CBG, CBC is non-intoxicating but offers unique effects and potential medical benefits.

CBC may contribute to feeling uplifted and may boost cognition, including focus and mental clarity.

In terms of therapeutic potential, CBC has shown considerable promise as an anti-inflammatory agent, with researchers exploring its potential for treating arthritis and bowel diseases. It also has notable antidepressant properties, and it’s under early study for applications for mental health. Researchers believe that it could interact with other cannabinoids for a synergistic effect.

Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV)

  • Effects: Clear-headed mild euphoria, increased energy, appetite suppression
  • Side Effects: Possible anxiety at high doses, dry mouth
  • Therapeutic Potential: Diabetes, inflammation, neuroprotection, nausea, epilepsy and seizures

Tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THCV, is a cannabinoid that offers a unique array of effects and medical benefits that distinguish it from other cannabinoids like THC and CBD. THCV provides a clear-headed, stimulating type of euphoria, often associated with increased energy and alertness, making it popular among those seeking focus and a productivity boost without the more sedative effects of THC.

One of the most notable effects of THCV is its ability to suppress appetite, which is in stark contrast to THC’s tendency to increase hunger. The media is hyping up THCV as ‘diet weed,’ although the research is still in the very early stages.

Medically, THCV has shown potential as an anti-diabetic agent. It appears to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance, which could benefit people with type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, its anti-inflammatory properties are beneficial for conditions such as arthritis, and its effectiveness in reducing panic attacks makes it a candidate for anxiety disorders.

In terms of adverse effects, THCV is generally well-tolerated, but like some other cannabinoids, it can induce anxiety at higher doses, particularly in people sensitive to THC.

The Full Spectrum: How Many Cannabinoids Are There?

As our understanding of cannabis sativa grows, so too does the count of cannabinoids. Researchers have identified more than 113 cannabinoids in cannabis, but not all are as prolific as those on the list above.

Every strain produces a unique chemical profile made up of a few dozen cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds. These are like a plant fingerprint, giving each strain-specific effects. It’s why one strain is uplifting and creative while another is sleepy and relaxing.

Research into the effects of cannabis, and therefore cannabinoids, is still in its infancy. Sure, we know quite a bit about the big two, THC and CBD, but even for other common cannabinoids like CBG, CBN, CBC, and THCV, scientists are only now starting to unpack their medicinal purposes.

What Are the Most Potent Cannabinoids?

Most people are familiar with THC, the primary psychoactive cannabinoid and the one we all tend to associate with the high. But did you know there are others in the cannabis plant with more potent effects?

So far, all of the intoxicating cannabinoids are related to THC. That includes delta-10 tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-10) and delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol. Both are naturally produced in the plant but at very minimal levels. Their effects are slightly milder than what you’d expect from delta-9 (aka straight THC).

However, one of the most recently discovered compounds is also the most potent. tetrahydrocannabiphorol (THC-P) is supposedly 33 times stronger than THC, at least in its affinity for binding with the CB1 receptor.

There are also new synthetic cannabinoids popping up in the news and on shelves. One of the most prolific is THC-O (tetrahydrocannabinol acetate), which reportedly has similar or possibly stronger effects when compared with THC.

Real Cannabinoids vs. Synthetic Cannabinoids

So-called “real” cannabinoids are those produced naturally in the cannabis flower, whether in substantial amounts or not. Synthetic cannabinoids are only found in the lab, created by a complicated process of biosynthesizing other compounds into new ones.

The entire debate around a real vs. synthetic cannabinoid has only really started because of the current legal environment in the country. Cannabis with more than 0.3 percent THC is federally illegal, while plants with less than 0.3 percent THC (called hemp) are now legal thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill.

Although more Americans than not live in a state that has regulated medical cannabis and/or recreational cannabis, there are still many states that don’t allow access at all to any products that contain THC. In efforts to get cannabis to the people, brands are now using these lab processes to transform hemp-derived cannabinoids (like CBD) into ‘legal’ synthetic intoxicating compounds. A few of these include THC-O and cannabinoids known as hexahydrocannabinol (HHC).

Synthetic cannabinoids may pose a risk because these new molecules haven’t been rigorously tested and don’t exist naturally. Unlike the natural ones, which humans have been smoking in cannabis flower for millennia, there is very little known about what these synthetic cannabinoids do.

What are the Risks of Cannabis and Cannabinoids?

Cannabis has a pretty established safety profile, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any side effects or risks that come with this plant.

For certain people, especially those with a history of mental health issues, THC may trigger the onset of more serious psychotic disorders. Cannabis use in these cases comes with an increased risk of schizophrenia.

Many healthcare providers are also worried about people developing a problematic habit of cannabis. The National Academies of Sciences and Engineering conducted a systematic review in 2017, which, in part, looked for evidence of cannabis abuse. Interestingly, they could not find a “strong association between cannabis use and cannabis use disorder, dependence, abuse, or problem cannabis use.” To date, there haven’t been any studies done looking specifically at cannabinoid abuse.


What are the top five cannabinoids?

Realistically, lists covering the main cannabinoids will vary slightly depending on how this is measured. Does it mean the most common? The most studied? Or maybe it means the most googled? The top two cannabinoids are undeniable CBD and THC, but after that, the other most common ones aren’t set in stone, at least from a scientific perspective.

What are the big six cannabinoids?

Here, we looked at what we consider the big six cannabinoids, which included: THC, CBD, CBG, CBN, CBC, and THCV.

What is the purest form of cannabinoids?

The purest form of cannabinoids is a product called an isolate. This is a cannabis extraction that has gone through a complex distillation process to remove as much of the other natural compounds as possible. The remaining product looks like a light yellow or even white powder and is upwards of 99 percent purity. You’ll usually find THC isolate or CBD isolate in cannabis products like edibles and cannabis.

What is the mother of all cannabinoids?

The “mother of all cannabinoids” is CBG. It’s called this because it is the precursor from which many other cannabinoids are synthesized in the cannabis plant, including CBD and THC.

Terrance Alan

Terrance Alan has over 25 years in government advocacy creating both the San Francisco entertainment commission and the cannabis taskforce. He is co-president of the Castro merchant’s and co-chair of CMAC and C2K, both working on cannabis consumption. He designed, constructed and opened a boutique dispensary in the Castro District of San Francisco called Flore dispensary featuring carefully curated cannabis selections with an emphasis on small Humboldt far grown cannabis, social justice brands, equity brands, women owned brands and operates a compassion distribution program with Sweetleaf Joe.

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