What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are compounds that are located in cannabis plants. When cannabis is consumed, cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system in our bodies. Although there are hundreds of cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, the two most commonly discussed are THC (Delta9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol).

The Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system is an intricate and complicated cell communication system. It is still not completely understood, but it is known to help regulate a number of bodily functions including sleep, appetite, memory, stress, and mood. Researchers believe that the main role of the endocannabinoid system is maintaining homeostasis, which is the stability of our internal environment. Cannabinoids bind to receptor sites in the brain and body when cannabis is consumed, and different cannabinoids cause different effects.

The endocannabinoid system is made up of 3 main components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes. Endocannabinoids are molecules just like cannabinoids, but produced by the human body. Currently there are two identified endocannabinoids: AEA (Anandamide) and 2-AG (2-Arachidonoylglyerol). They are produced as much as the body sees fit, so levels vary in different people. Endocannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body to signal that help is needed. Enzymes are what break down endocannabinoids when they are done helping. These enzymes are fatty acid amide hydrolase which breaks down AEA, and monoacylglycerol acid lipase which breaks down 2-AG.

Cannabinoid Receptors

The 2 main cannabinoid receptors are CB1 (Cannabinoid receptor type 1) and CB2 (Cannabinoid receptor type 2). CB1 receptors are mostly located on nerve cells in the brain as well as in the limbic system, and CB2 receptors are mainly located in the immune system. Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor, and the effects will differ depending on where the receptor is located in the body and what endocannabinoid it is bound to.

Cannabinoid receptors are what cause various effects on the body and mind when consuming cannabis. These receptors are part of the G protein-coupled receptor category, known as GPCR and/or 7TM receptors. They are called 7TM receptors because the receptors travel through the cell membrane 7 times. G protein-linked receptors detect molecules outside the cell and activate signal transduction.

Signal transduction occurs when a molecular signal is transmitted through a cell, resulting in a cellular response. This stimulus is detected by proteins, which are referred to as receptors. When the receptors pick up on these signals, they activate multiple signal transduction pathways. 


THC is the cannabinoid found in cannabis that has psychoactive effects, causing a “high” feeling when consumed. It is found in non-hemp cannabis plants, which contain more than 0.3% THC and sometimes containing up to 30% THC. When smoked, THC flows directly to the lungs, which contain a vast number of tiny air sacs called alveoli. These have a large surface area, making it extremely easy for the THC to be absorbed into the body. When you consume THC in the form of an edible, it goes through a process in your liver that turns it into 11-Hydroxy-THC, which is much smaller than delta-9. This makes it easier to penetrate the brain, and has a higher binding efficiency for CB1 receptors. That explains why consuming THC edibles can be a more intense experience that lasts longer than smoking.

THC binds to CB1 receptors in the brain, producing psychoactive effects. Studies have also shown THC to help with symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. THC stimulates neurons to release higher levels of dopamine than would normally be released, causing the sensation of “being high”. It can also cause users to feel anxiety or paranoia.

CBD is a cannabinoid making up 40% of cannabis extract. It is usually extracted from the hemp plant, which is the variety of cannabis plants that contains 0.3% of THC or less. Unlike THC, CBD does not cause psychoactive effects when consumed. CBD ignites our body’s endocannabinoid system by binding to receptors throughout the body, however researchers aren’t sure which receptors it binds to. CBD is often used for pain relief, anxiety, and a number of other ailments, due to anecdotal evidence and some preliminary studies. Many users report that CBD can help with nausea, anxiety, sleep, chronic pain, skin, and mood. 

Cannabis research has shown initial evidence of a phenomenon called the entourage effect, in which multiple cannabinoids work together to alter each other’s effects. One of the popular reported effects is that CBD may mitigate some of the negative effects caused by THC, such as anxiety. There are many cannabinoids and various other compounds that may be involved in this effect, but more research will need to be done.