CBGA: The Mother Cannabinoid

For many cannabis enthusiasts, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is the most important cannabinoid in the plant’s inventory of over 100 chemical compounds. After all, THC is the cannabinoid responsible for weed’s psychoactive effects—the ones that create the euphoric sensation of being high. The other most popularly researched cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive molecule research has determined contains an impressive range of medical utility. Whether it’s THC or CBD that excites you, there is one cannabinoid responsible for both, and that’s cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). 

How CBGA is Formed

Watching a plant grow is kind of like watching a pot boil. What the slow and steady maturation of a plant’s external structure doesn’t reveal is the truly astonishing work being done at the molecular level.

Jack Herer produces larger yieldsCannabis houses many different kinds of chemical compounds. Chlorophyll makes it possible for the plants to absorb light, one of the essential components of a plant’s diet. Terpenes imbue plants with natural pest control in addition to giving each cannabis strain its own unique aromatic bouquet. But the compounds that distinguish cannabis from most other plants (which also have chlorophyll and terpenes) are its cannabinoids, groups of molecules that contain the therapeutic attributes for which cannabis is most regarded.

Each of these chemical compounds is generated as a result of biosynthesis, or an organic process that creates complex structures out of two or more simple ones. For example, during the process of photosynthesis, a type of biosynthesis that most people are familiar with, chlorophyll captures the energy from light and uses it along with the carbon dioxide pulled from the air and water to create sugars plants use for food.

Similarly, CBGA is formed by way of biosynthesis. When olivetolic acid and geranyl pyrophosphate, two naturally occurring chemical compounds in the cannabis plant, combine, CBGA is born.

The Significance of CBGA

One of the most heavily researched areas in medicine is stem cells. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can differentiate into specific cell types. Depending on the way they are synthesized, a stem cell can turn into a heart cell or a skin cell or a brain cell. In fact, that is precisely what happens as a fetus develops into a newborn. Understanding human stem cells might help you understand why CBGA is such a uniquely important cannabinoid—CBGA functions kind of like a stem cell in the cannabis plant.

CBGA is the building block for the formation of THCa, CBDa, CBCa, and CBG. Notice that each of those (except for CBG) ends with an A? That’s because those cannabinoids are the acidic variations of the compounds. It is through decarboxylation, or the use of heat and oxidation, that the cannabinoids become activated. Heat and UV light cause these compounds to drop a molecule of carbon dioxide. THCA, for example, is not psychoactive until it is decarboxylated and synthesized into THC. Like THC, CBG is not created unless CBGA is activated through decarboxylation or oxidation.

Cannabinoids occur naturally in breast milkThough CBGA may have anti-proliferative (anti-cancer), anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic attributes, most of the research into the cannabinoid has gone into its essential role in the biosynthesis of other cannabinoids. This is an extremely important function, but the cannabinoid deserves far more research into its other medically significant attributes. 

Without CBGA, there would be no THC, CBD, CBC, or CBG. In a way, this makes CBGA the most important of all of cannabis’ chemical compounds, especially given the centrality THC and CBD have taken in today’s discussion of cannabis’ place in our medicine. So here is a refresher on the cannabinoids CBGA is responsible for synthesizing, including two that are not nearly as researched as THC and CBD. 

Tetrahydrocannabinol

In addition to giving weed its recreational value, in conjunction with CBD, THC is a powerful antioxidant according to one 2000 study. It also has the potential to reduce the effects of inflammation created diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis) because it blocks the production of inflammation-producing hormones.   

Cannabidiol

CBD has been lauded as the most medicinally useful of the cannabinoids because it isn’t psychoactive (which means it is very tolerable for patients of all ages). It has also demonstrated medical efficacy in the treatment of epilepsy, inflammation, neurological disorders, mood disorders, and even cancer.

Cannabichromene

Compared to THC and CBD, cannabichromene (CBC) is a not nearly as investigated. However, it is still an important cannabinoid imbued with therapeutic attributes. For example, CBC is associated with pain relief, nausea and vomiting reduction, and neuron protection.

Cannabigerol

Like CBC, cannabigerol (CBG) is under-researched. Also like CBC, the research that exists shows that CBG is medically significant. Because of the way it interacts with the endocannabinoid system, CBG is believed to reduce the most negative effects of THC, anxiety and paranoia.  CBG has also been found to inhibit the uptake of GABA. This may have the effect of reducing anxiety and muscle tension since GABA is a brain chemical that determines how much stimulation neurons need to signal a response. Additionally, CBG may have anti-inflammatory properties, making it a potential target for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel disease. CBG may also be able to reduce the ocular pressure that causes glaucoma.

Most cannabis strains are left with trace amounts of CBG since that cannabinoid is what remains after the CBGA has been synthesized to form THC, CBD, and CBC. However, strains of hemp, the non-psychoactive variation of the plant cultivated for industrial purposes, have been found to contain higher levels of CBG. Ostensibly, this is because hemp does not have high concentrations of THC.

As long as cannabis remains a Schedule I drug, or a federally illegal substance considered to be dangerous and with no acceptable medical use, researching its medicinal properties will be far more difficult than it should be. However, early research makes a powerful case for the use of cannabinoids, including CBG, in modern medicine. It would be a disservice to the patients who could benefit from the low toxicity of cannabinoids to ignore that potential.   

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.