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What are Cannabinoids and how do they work?

Can You Say Cannabinoid?

Whether you know how to pronounce it or not, this suddenly ubiquitous term is here to stay. (Get the correct pronunciation here.) Cannabinoids are no longer just a topic trending on social media. Cannabinoid science is a rapidly growing field of study. And while there are still plenty of knowledge gaps in cannabinoid science, many researchers believe that due to their therapeutic value, low toxicity, and generally well-tolerated side effects, neglecting the clinical potential of cannabinoids is unacceptable.

Even though there is still so much untapped knowledge concerning cannabinoids, this article aims to offer an understanding of what cannabinoids are and what they do, unpacking the basics of cannabinoids in four parts:

  1. What Are Cannabinoids?
  2. What Do Cannabinoids Do?
  3. What Is the ECS?
  4. What Are the Therapeutic Effects of Cannabinoids?

What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that occur naturally in the human body (endocannabinoids) and marijuana and hemp (phytocannabinoids). They are believed to have a diverse range of effects, which may be used for therapeutic and preventive health treatment.

N-arachidonylethanolamine (AEA), more commonly known as anandamide, is the most well-known endocannabinoid. According to Dr. Capano, chief science officer for Ananda Hemp, preliminary studies show that anandamide promotes growth, development, and renewal in the brain. Anandamide is produced on demand in the body, and then broken down by enzymes, such as fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH).

As for phytocannabinoids, over a 113 have been identified over the last century. These include the most widely known—THC and CBD—along with increasingly more well-known minor cannabinoids like CBG, THCV, and CBN.

Phytocannabinoids like CBD and CBG enhance anandamide levels by prolonging the endocannabiniod’s otherwise rapid half-life. This is just one way that demonstrates how phytocannabinoids can act in the place of endocannabinoids in people experiencing cannabinoid deficiencies.


What Do Cannabinoids Do?

Put quite simply, cannabinoids do two main things: activate the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and enhance natural endocannabinoids. In order to understand how they exert their effects, one must have a basic understanding of the endocannabinoid system, for cannabinoids and the ECS have a synergistic relationship (they work together) in the human body.

Furthermore, in order to understand why cannabinoids have therapeutic effects, we must understand how certain cannabinoids interact with the ECS. Again, we can hardly offer anything like a complete picture of everything cannabinoids are responsible for. A quote from the chemist who identified the ECS, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, articulates it best:

“I can’t list all of the physiological systems and conditions affected by cannabinoids because there are too many.”

What Is the ECS?

Research into the pharmacology of phytocannabinoids began around the 1940s, decades after discovering the presence of cannabinoids in cannabis. But it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the first endocannabinoid, anandamide, was discovered. Surprisingly, it was THC that led chemists to this breakthrough.

Why, they wondered, did a receptor in the brain exist for THC as if made for it? This led them to suppose there was a similar chemical already in the human body. After a few years, they discovered anandamide, and, consequently, the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

All humans, all vertebrates, and some invertebrates have an ECS. It’s involved with our central nervous system, immune system, digestive system, various organs, and more.

The ECS is made up of receptors found in the brain and all over the body. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that bind to ECS receptors. The two main receptors are CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are thought to be located primarily in your central nervous system and your brain. CB2 receptors have a limited presence in the brain and exist mostly in other areas, including immune cells, reproductive organs, the gastrointestinal tract, and more.


What Are the Effects of Cannabinoids?

Already, on the recommendation of health experts or per anecdotal information from those who have had success, people are using cannabinoids to target specific health conditions. It is fair to say that cannabinoids like CBD, THCV, CBG, CBN, etc., have shown to possibly have considerable benefits. And it is equally fair to say that continued and rigorous research in the field of cannabinoid science could only be beneficial to a world that is already embracing cannabinoids.


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