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What Are Cannabinoids? An Up-to-Date & In-Depth Look

If you’re intrigued by the world of cannabis and cannabidiol facts, you’ve probably heard about cannabinoids. There are certainly a lot of terms to learn in the cannabis domain, but cannabinoids are one of the most important aspects to understand. What are cannabinoids?

In this article, we’ll dive into what cannabinoids are, where they’re found, and how they affect us. Follow along if you’d like to learn more about these fascinating chemical compounds!

What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are natural chemical compounds produced by cannabis Sativa plants. They provide therapeutic effects when consumed by humans and animals. Cannabis plants are famous for producing CBD and THC – two very similar cannabinoids with one major difference: THC can induce a “high” while CBD cannot.

The cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) is non-psychoactive, meaning it cannot get you high. On the other hand, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is well-known for producing psychoactive effects. Besides these two famous cannabinoids, there are over 100 known cannabinoids today.

All cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This is a body-wide network of receptors in almost all mammals that plays a role in maintaining the body’s homeostasis or internal balance. The ECS does this by influencing several other systems in the body, like the nervous and digestive systems, to work more efficiently.

Does the Human Body Produce Cannabinoids?

Humans (and other mammals) naturally produce endocannabinoids. The two main endocannabinoids that humans produce are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Our bodies produce these endocannabinoids as needed to keep essential bodily functions running smoothly.

Anandamide is responsible for regulating mood, appetite, pain perception, memory storage, and more. Meanwhile, 2-AG plays a role in maintaining the circulatory systems, though much is still unknown about this endocannabinoid.

Do Plants Produce Cannabinoids?

Yes! Plants produce cannabinoids. Technically, cannabinoids produced by plants are called phytocannabinoids. Many other plants besides cannabis produce therapeutic cannabinoids, including:

  • Cacao – Raw cacao has high levels of anandamide. Anandamide is commonly associated with the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin because of its ability to uplift moods.
  • Helichrysum italicum – This flowering herb’s essential oil is valued for its anti-inflammatory effects. It contains a good amount of phytocannabinoid cannabigerol (CBG), which is known for its energizing and therapeutic effects.
  • Black Truffles – Like raw cacao, black truffles are rich in anandamide, a mood-regulating phytocannabinoid and endocannabinoid.

Fun fact: The first phytocannabinoid to be discovered, cannabinol (CBN), was identified in the late 1930s by British chemist Robert S. Cahn. In 1940, American chemist Roger Adams achieved CBN’s first chemical synthesis.

cannabis plant with molecular structure

How Do Cannabinoids Work?

All mammal species have an endocannabinoid system (ECS). This complex system has crucial three parts: endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors, and enzymes.


Our bodies produce endocannabinoids when they need them, so experts don’t know the “average” levels for people. The body typically produces endocannabinoids in response to systemic changes, such as an infection or an injury. The endocannabinoids then travel to and bind with our cannabinoid receptors.

Cannabinoid Receptors

Cannabinoid receptors are dispersed throughout the body – they’re even in the skin! There are two main cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are spread across the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors are spread across the peripheral nervous system, specifically on immune cells.

When endocannabinoids bind to these receptors, it signals the endocannabinoid system (ECS) to take action. Remember, endocannabinoids are produced because of an ailment or imbalance. When they bind to the receptors, the signal to the ECS that something is wrong and needs attention.

For example, if sprain your wrist, endocannabinoids would be produced and travel to the injured area. They would then bind with the appropriate receptors to signal the ECS that anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, and immune responses are needed.


Enzymes break down the endocannabinoids when they’re done carrying out their signaling duties. Fatty acid amide hydrolase breaks down AEA, and monoacylglycerol acid lipase works to break down 2-AG.

So What About Phytocannabinoids like CBD and THC?

Phytocannabinoids like CBD and THC also bind to cannabinoid receptors and signal the ECS to take remedying action. Since CBD is non-psychoactive, it doesn’t bind directly to receptors as THC does. THC has a more direct interaction with cannabinoid receptors, which is partly the reason for its psychoactive effects.

What Are the Effects of Cannabinoids?

Various types of cannabinoids will produce different effects. Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the only known phytocannabinoid that produces psychoactive effects. The other dozens of cannabinoids, like cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN), don’t produce any intoxicating effects.

Phytocannabinoids affect everyone differently depending on a range of factors. Your age, weight, metabolic rate, and method of consumption will all affect how various cannabinoids interact with your ECS. Smoking cannabis versus orally ingesting cannabinoid products plays one of the biggest roles.

When you consume edible products like CBD gummies, your body must digest them before the CBD  reaches your liver, bloodstream, and eventually your cannabinoid receptors. This is called “first-pass metabolism,” and it decreases the bioavailability of the CBD.

Bioavailability refers to the percentage of a cannabinoid (or medication) that becomes active in the body once the compound is consumed. When you inhale CBD hemp flower, the smoke passes through your lungs, to your bloodstream, and then to your cannabinoid receptors. Avoiding the first-pass metabolism process allows inhaled CBD to have a higher bioavailability than orally ingested CBD.

The Effects of CBD

CBD possesses many therapeutic effects for the brain and body. When inhaled or ingested, CBD can help with ailments such as:

  • Upset stomach
  • Discomfort
  • Soreness
  • Swelling
  • Worried/nervous thinking
  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • And many more!

bottle of cbd tincture and hemp plant

The Effects of THC

The most well-known effect of THC is a feeling of intoxication commonly called a “high.” There are varying reports about what that high feels like for THC consumers. Many people describe it as a sense of light-headed euphoria. For some, THC’s intoxication isn’t as fun.

Some people who try THC report feeling paranoid and experiencing an altered mindset that makes them feel uncomfortable. THC may also produce side effects like an increased heart rate, drowsiness, and an immense appetite. For these reasons, many people stay away from THC altogether.

In short, THC is beloved by some and avoided by others. Beyond its psychoactive effects, THC does provide some therapeutic benefits which have earned it a place in the natural wellness industry. Some of those benefits are:

  • Relief from discomfort/soreness
  • Appetite adjustment
  • Relief from an upset stomach
  • Sleep aid
  • Fewer muscle spasms
  • Reduced intraocular (inner eye) pressure

How Many Cannabinoids Are There?

There are over 113 identified cannabinoids in Cannabis Sativa, 21 of which have only recently been identified over the last several years. CBD and THC are the most popular, but the other cannabinoids in the cannabis plant have plenty of their own benefits to offer.

Some other cannabinoids are cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol (CBN), and cannabichromene (CBC). CBG performs like CBD, although it’s thought to have more energizing effects. CBN forms through the breakdown of THC post-harvest. CBC has anti-swelling properties.

Commonly Used Cannabinoids

Out of all of the cannabinoids in cannabis, THC and CBD are the two most commonly used. People use THC for both its psychoactive and soothing, therapeutic effects.

People use CBD for many different reasons. Some of the common reasons someone might take CBD are for sleep, physical discomfort, and to fight nervous feelings. The lack of psychoactive effects makes CBD an effective daytime and nighttime solution.

RELATED: CBD vs THC for Sleep: Which Cannabinoid Works Best for More Rest?

Final Thoughts – What Are Cannabinoids?

We know that was a lot of information, but hopefully, you have a better understanding of what cannabinoids are. It’s a complicated subject, but it’s absolutely worth understanding if you’re going to purchase any kind of cannabis product.

Now that you’re armed with all the cannabinoid information you could ever need, you can make more informed choices about the types of cannabis products you choose. Knowledge is power, and now you can customize your cannabinoid experience to your exact desires and needs.