by, Tracey Roizman, DC

Cannabinoids were originally discovered in cannabis species in the 1940s, and, in accordance with common scientific convention, were named in their honor. Eventually, over 120 cannabinoids would be identified in cannabis species alone. We now know that cannabinoids exist throughout the plant kingdom. Together, they are referred to as phytocannabinoids, “phyto-” meaning plant.

A phytocannabinoid can be defined as any plant-derived natural product capable of directly interacting with cannabinoid receptors or sharing chemical similarity with cannabinoids. Many phytocannabinoids can also exert their influence on targets both within and outside of the endocannabinoid system.

Decades would pass after the discovery of the first cannabinoid, which happened to be the now popular cannabidiol (CBD), and it wasn’t until its psychoactive cousin, Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) was isolated in 1971 that researchers went in search of corresponding cannabinoid receptors in mammals. Subsequently the CB1 and CB2 receptors were located.

CB1 is found primarily in the brain and also in lesser quantities in the liver, kidneys and lungs, while CB2 is concentrated in the immune system. Some experts theorize that the benefits experienced by many cannabinoid users may be due, in part, to a deficiency of endocannabinoids – possibly a lack of ability to produce sufficient quantities, and this may help explain its widespread appeal.

The proportion of any given phytocannabinoid present in a cannabinoid supplement can vary depending on the growing conditions of the plants, such as the amount of heat, light, and oxygen the plants are exposed to, which accounts for the large number of distinct phytocannabinoids that occur in nature. Extraction methods also influence the cannabinoid profile of the finished product.

Phytocannabinoids Found in Cannabis and Industrial Hemp

There are 8 major phytocannabinoids found in cannabis and industrial hemp and these all derive from 2 precursor, or parent molecules: cannabigerolic acid and cannabidiolic acid. Each name is more of a tongue twister than the last, so if you’re not a scientist (or even if you are) its easy to remember them by their abbreviations.

1. Cannabigerolic acid (CBGA)

Though it usually accounts for <1% of cannabinoids present in an industrial hemp plant, CBGA has been found to have analgesic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer effects. When exposed to heat, CBGA becomes cannabigerol (CBG), which has been found to reduce inflammation in irritable bowel disease, inhibit growth of colon cancer cells, and reduce blood pressure. CBGA gives rise to:

  • Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) – the psychoactive compound in industrial hemp converts to THC when exposed to heat. Offers antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticonvulsant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-insomnia, anticancer, pain-relieving, and bone strengthening benefits.

2. Cannabinolic Acid (CBNA)

Non-psychoactive a byproduct of the oxidation of THC, its claim to fame is its ability to act as a sedative without causing intoxication. It is usually present in low levels in cannabis and industrial hemp plants, rarely exceeding 1% of total phytocannabinoids. Has been shown to increase sedation in combination with THC and is thought to have anti-seizure, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic effects.

3. Cannabidiolic acid (CBDA)

The most widely studied of the phytocannabinoids, CBD is non-psychoactive and has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation, help manage anxiety, reduce frequency and severity of epileptic seizures, and reduce muscle spasms. CBD has binding affinity for both CB1 and CB2 receptors but binds weakly to both, so it is thought that its effects are mostly due to its actions on other receptors throughout the brain and body.

4. Cannabichromenenic Acid (CBCA)

Non-psychoactive due to its relatively low ability to bind to CB1 receptors in the brain by comparison to THC. When exposed to heat CBCA turns into CBC, which binds well to pain receptors throughout the body, which stimulates the brain to increase production of endocannabinoids. CBC has documented synergistic effects with THC and CBD. By itself, CBC has been found to fight cancer, reduce pain and inflammation, promote healthy brain function, fight depression, and even clear up acne.

5. Cannabigerovarinic acid (CBGVA)

when exposed to heat, can be converted into cannabigerovarin (CBGV), which has been studied in isolation and has been found to be non psychoactive and may help CBD bind to endocannabinoid receptors, thereby providing anticonvulsant and anti-cancer effects. CBGVA gives rise to:

6. Tetrahydrocanabivarinic acid (THCVA)

At low doses, has been shown to decrease the ability of CB1 receptors to respond to THC, while at high doses it has the opposite effect, acting as a potentiator of THC. Some research shows that THCV may help protect against glucose intolerance and it is being investigated as a potential diabetes drug.

7. Cannabidivarinic acid (CBDVA)

Non-psychoactive, anti-epileptic, anti-convulsant, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory.

8. Cannabichromevarinic acid (CBCVA)

Least abundant of the phytocannabinoids, with very little research to date.

Phytocannabinoids Found in Other Plants

A wide variety of familiar edible and medicinal plants exert cannabinoid effects throughout the body. A few examples include:

Echinacea – contains compounds that bind to CB2 receptors and have anti-inflammatory effects.

Toothache plant (Acmella oleracea) – exerts pain reducing and immune boosting effects through its actions on CB2 receptors.

Cruciferous vegetables – contain compounds that bind to CB2 receptors, which may account for their immune boosting benefits.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) – contains a terpene partial to CB2 receptors that has anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing as well as anti-fungal effects.

Kava (Piper Methysticum) – contains a compound with affinity for the CB1 receptor and inhibits enzymes that break down the body’s endocannabinoids.