Cannabinoids: The Miracle Compounds Behind Cannabis

You may have heard about cannabinoids — the chemical compounds responsible for how cannabis makes you feel — but did you know that your body has similar, naturally occurring compounds that promote your health and well-being? Understanding cannabinoids and how they work in your body is the basis of the science of medical cannabis therapeutics.

Simply put, the general term “cannabinoids” refers to a group of chemical compounds typically made up of 21 carbon atoms arranged in a three-ring structure.

  • When we add the prefix “phyto,” as in phytocannabinoids, we’re specifically referring to the cannabinoids found almost exclusively in the cannabis plant itself.

  • On the other hand, the prefix “endo,” as in endocannabinoids, refers to the cannabinoids we naturally make in our cells, so called “inner cannabis.” 

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Scientists have discovered as many as 106 different phytocannabinoids and at least five endocannabinoids.

Back in the 1980s, researchers trying to figure out how THC caused psychoactivity stumbled upon a complex system in the brain and body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). It’s made up of three components: cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids, and the enzymes that synthesize and break down the endocannabinoids.

The job of the ECS is to maintain balance between the chemical messages our cells send to each other. Since these messages dictate how we act and feel, they’re pretty important.

Here’s how it all comes together:

  • A trigger like an illness or injury sets off a release of chemicals from “sending” cells.

  • Those chemical messages are delivered to “receiving” cells that recognize the trigger isn’t normal.

  • In response, the receiving cells synthesize endocannabinoids on demand, and they travel back to the sending cells and bind to the cannabinoid receptor.

  • Once the endocannabinoid binds to the receptor (like a key in the lock), a reaction in the sending cells results in fewer chemicals being released — thereby putting things back into a balanced state.

Since phytocannabinoids like THC are structurally similar to our natural endocannabinoids, it’s not surprising that THC will bind to the cannabinoid receptors and set off the same chemical reaction inside the cell.

Neurologist and cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo hypothesized that some people who have conditions that are hard to treat — such as migraines, fibromyalgia or irritable bowel syndrome — may have a deficiency in their endocannabinoid levels that make cells send abnormal “pain” messages. Cannabis essentially works to mimic the actions of the endocannabinoids, causing the “sending” cells to stop releasing the message of pain.

In other words, the cannabis plant gives us compounds that help our brains and bodies maintain balance and protect us from illness, inflammation, and injury by interacting at the endocannabinoid system.

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What’s more, the location of our cannabinoid receptors helps us understand the effects of THC:

  • In the brain, these receptors are located in areas that control pain, nausea, appetite, learning, memory, motor coordination, and pleasure.

  • In the body, cannabinoid receptors are mainly in the gut and immune system. They’re also found in the heart, lungs, muscles, reproductive organs, bones, skin, and liver — basically everywhere in your body. That’s why the endocannabinoid system is considered the most widespread receptor system in our brains and bodies. 

As research into the science of cannabis and cannabinoids continues, it’s clear that a healthy endocannabinoid system is essential for overall well-being. Cannabis isn’t always the answer to an ailment, but it’s an option that often makes people feel better and enhances the quality of their lives.

By Bonni Goldstein| March 06, 2018
Categories:  Care

About the Author

Bonni Goldstein

Bonni Goldstein

Bonni Goldstein, M.D. is a Los Angeles-based physician and medical advisor for Weedmaps, the world's first and largest cannabis technology company, where users can search for medicinal cannabis products. Dr. Goldstein has successfully treated thousands of adult and pediatric patients with cannabis and is the author of Cannabis Revealed, a text that focuses on the science behind using cannabis as medicine.

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