The Chemicals that Give Cannabis Its Therapeutic Potency    

Cannabis has been used for recreational reasons since it was first cultivated by human beings thousands of years ago. But it is also used for an array of medicinal purposes. Evidence suggests that cannabis can be used to treat cancer, nausea and vomiting, chronic pain, anxiety, PTSD, epilepsy, and even addiction—and that’s only a handful of the conditions people use cannabis to manage.

The primary source of cannabis’ power is its cannabinoids, the molecular compounds housed within the plant. Over 100 cannabinoids have been identified in cannabis, but their functions remain cryptic since most of them are widely under-researched if researched at all. The following are five of the most studied cannabinoids.    

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

THC is the most widely recognized of the cannabinoids, and that’s for a very pointed reason. THC is the psychoactive component in cannabisTHC is the cannabinoid primarily responsible for pot’s psychoactive effects—it’s also the most prevalent cannabinoid found in most cannabis strains. THC is the exogenous equivalent of the two endocannabinoids produced by the human body, anandamide, and 2-AG.  THC’s attributes affect a person’s perception of time, pleasure, and senses. It also alters memory, thinking, concentration, and coordination.   

Large amounts of THC can cause the sensations of euphoria, anxiety or paranoia, dry mouth, and increased appetite. While some of these symptoms are always inconvenient, others are sought after. For example, most pot consumers enjoy the sense of elation THC produces. Medicinal users may turn to weed to reduce nausea and vomiting or simply to trigger a desire to eat. This can be particularly helpful for chemotherapy and anorexic patients.

THC’s psychoactive effect also makes it the most controversial cannabinoid. In states with limited medical cannabis laws, high THC products are not allowed. Additionally, research suggests that THC exposure to developing brains (in the unborn and in growing children) could have adverse effects on cognitive function, making THC a complicated choice for pediatric medical patients with severe illnesses.    

Cannabidiol (CBD)

CBD is highly regarded for its medicinal properties. Because it is non-psychoactive, CBD consumption is far less controversial than THC consumption.  However, since most cannabis strains are bred for their recreational potency, it can be difficult to find high CBD, low THC products.

CBD has demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties which make it a viable therapeutic option for those fighting gastrointestinal disorders, conditions caused and exacerbated by abnormal inflammation.  This attribute is also what gives it medical efficacy in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and pain conditions in general, each of which stems from inflammation.

A 2011 study found that CBD has the potential to treat schizophrenia just as well as, if not slightly better than, conventional pharmaceutical therapies. Research also suggests that CBD’s mood-elevating properties are worth investigating as potential treatments for anxiety, addiction, and depression.   

Cannabinol (CBN)

CBN has recently gained popularity among researchers. CBN makes you sleepThe cannabinoid is the strongest sedative of all of the cannabinoids which makes it an interesting subject of study for sleep-aid research. It has also demonstrated antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsive, and analgesic effects. CBN may also be an appetite and bone stimulant. Finally, topical applications of CBN have been shown to mitigate the progression of glaucoma.

Cannabichromene (CBC)

Although research on this non-psychoactive cannabinoid is severely lacking, concentrations of CBC in cannabis plants are second only to THC. CBC may have medical efficacy in dermatology as an acne treatment. A 2016 study found that CBC plays a significant role in reducing the effects of one of the leading acne-inducing acids. In addition to skin care, early research into CBC suggests that the cannabinoid may be implicated in pain relief, neurogenesis, mood elevation, cell death of cancer cells, and bone growth.   

Cannabigerol (CBG)

CBG is an extremely important cannabinoid because it is the building block for many of cannabis’ cannabinoids, including THC and CBD—compounds that begin as CBG. Since the primary function of CBG seems to be synthesizing derivative cannabinoids, there is a very low concentration of CBG in mature cannabis plants. 

The Endocannabinoid System

Analysis of the ECSThe reason these cannabinoids produce such therapeutic outcomes in cannabis consumers is because of the way they interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), as well as with one another. The ECS is comprised of cannabinoids like the ones contained in pot, endocannabinoids (cannabinoid-like chemicals produced by our own brains), cannabinoid receptors located throughout our bodies, and the enzymes our bodies use to metabolize the phyto-(plant) or endo-cannabinoids. The ECS is responsible for regulating our body’s internal stability which means that it plays an important role in just about every organ system. To say that the discovery of the ECS in the late 80’s was a crucial milestone doesn’t quite capture just how important a discovery it was.   

Cannabinoids are incredibly therapeutic compounds that, when ingested together through a whole-plant cannabis product, work in a synergistic process referred to as the entourage effect. According to a 2011 study, this effect has the potential to treat depression, anxiety, addiction, pain, inflammation, epilepsy, fungal infections, bacterial infections, and cancer.

The Chemicals that Give Cannabis Its Therapeutic Potency     was last modified: by
Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.