Scientists have identified over 80 cannabinoids while studying the compounds found in Cannabis sativa. Tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, and Cannabidiol, CBD, are the most well known of these because they are produced in the highest concentrations relative to dozens of other biologically active cannabinoids in the plant, 12-21% and 1-10% respectively, and because they have been studied the most. However, as more studies are conducted on cannabis, the lesser known cannabinoids and their effects on the human body are becoming understood.
THCA – Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid
First, it is important to note that the “A” in THCA, CBDA, etc. stands for the carboxylated, or acidic, form of the compound. These “acidic” versions of THC or CBD are the compounds naturally produced by the cannabis plant. It is only through drying and/or heating that they can be decarboxylated into their non-acidic forms (CBD, THC, etc.) which are known for being bioactive. This is the reason “raw” cannabis products are usually heated through smoking, cooking, or other methods before they are consumed. The acidic form of cannabinoids are also bioactive, however, they are not psychoactive. THCA can only be psychoactive once it has been decarboxylated into THC. THCA produce similar pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects without psychoactivity and even inhibit some of the medicinally undesirable effects of THC. THCA also does not induce ulcer formation like many over the counter pain medications such as ibuprofen do.
FIG 1. Decarboxylation process of THCA and THC
CBG – Cannabigerol
CBGA is the chemical compound in cannabis that naturally transforms into THCA, CBDA, and CBCA. It is the precursor to the other cannabinoids and is found at higher concentrations in young plants. As the plants and their flowers mature, CBGA is converted into the well known compounds sought after in the cannabis industry. CBG itself is not psychoactive, but is the parent to THC which is psychoactive. CBGA usually has a concentration less than 1% in mature cannabis but can now be more easily isolated with the cross-breeding, selection, and development of strains containing high CBG levels. A 2013 study concluded CBG had the most effective preventative and curative effects on inflammatory bowel disease in mice out of all the cannabinoids tested. It was also shown to selectively inhibit the growth of tumor cells in colon cancer studies. Other research found it was effective in treating glaucoma, muscle spasms, and infections as an antibacterial compound. Some papers have also suggested it has neurogenerative and neuroprotective properties. Many companies are beginning to sell CBG isolates and products as it is gaining a lot of attention due to the beneficial results that recent studies have demonstrated.
FIG 2. Pathway of THCA, CBDA, and CBG production from CBGA.
CBC – Cannabichromene
CBC is another non-psychoactive phytocannabinoid produced from CBGA. Like CBG, it is also found at concentrations less than 1% in most cannabis varieties. However, some produce high enough levels for effective extraction. In the same 2013 study mentioned above, CBC was the second strongest preventative cannabinoid for inflammatory bowel disease. Other scientists have demonstrated its interactions with CB2 receptors, found in the immune and organ system, which result in anti-inflammatory and pain regulation effects. There is evidence that it has synergistic effects when taken with THC, possibly potentiating THC’s anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. A 2016 study on cannabinoid efficacy against acne showed CBC’s potential in treating the skin condition. Like THC and CBD, it is also an active antidepressant.
CBN – Cannabinol
CBN is another phytocannabinoid found in cannabis which is the product of THC oxidation. This means that when THC is exposed to light or heat, stored incorrectly, or degraded in some way, it turns into CBN. It is slightly psychoactive, but the research is inconclusive and it is nowhere near as potent as THC. According to Steep Hill, CBN has very strong sedative effects for treating insomnia without the intense “high” produced by THC. Research also correlates CBN to effects on sensory nerves dampening pain perception. It also has similar anti-inflammatory, appetite stimulating, and anti-epileptic benefits to the other numerous and closely related cannabinoids.
FIG 3. Degradation of delta-8 and delta-9-THC into CBN
Only the Beginning
CBG, CBC, and CBN are only a few of many potentially beneficial cannabinoids beyond the popularized THC and CBD. The acidic analogues like CBDA, for example, also interact with our bodies. Tetrahydrocannabivarin, THCV, and Cannabidivarin, CBDV, are additional cannabinoids with very similar structures to THC and CBD, but produce slightly different effects. They have been shown to be effective in reducing nausea and even suppressing appetite for treating patients with obesity. All of these compounds found in cannabis show potential for substantial medicinal benefits. However, there is still much to learn about what they can do and how they do it. With over 80 different cannabinoids identified in the plant, possibilities for new research and medical applications seem endless.
FIG 4. Molecular Structures of THC, CBG, CBD, CBN, and CBC.