Cannabis is an extremely complex plant that has been used since the dawn of time as medicine, for its fiber, and as a recreational drug. This complex plant led to the discovery of a neurotransmitter system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system is active in the human from birth to death and helps to maintain health and balance throughout the body. The cannabis plant is composed of a wide variety of chemical compounds, some unique to the plant that directly interact with the ECS.
Wikipedia cites that cannabis contains over 480 different chemical compounds. Among this vast array of compounds, some are common to many types of plants, some are minor and found in trace amounts. Other major compounds called cannabinoids like THC and CBD are unique to cannabis and offer unique effects and benefits for the user. In this article, we dive in and cover the primary types of compounds found in the plant and look at the major chemical compounds in each class.
The most well known and well-studied compounds in the cannabis plant are called phytocannabinoids, often referred to simply as cannabinoids. These compounds use the 'Phyto' prefix (short for phytochemical) which signifies their plant origin. These compounds are not to be confused with endocannabinoids which are produced by the body or synthetic cannabinoids produced by a chemist in a laboratory.
Cannabinoids are most abundantly concentrated in the secretion of resin glands that are distributed across the surface of the cannabis plant. These glands, commonly called trichomes, are predominant in female flowers. They are covered in a wax layer which protects the compounds inside. Trichomes are often referred to as crystals because they sparkle under the light.
The plant is known to produce over 60 terpene-derived phytocannabinoids that are unique to cannabis. Many of these compounds are minor while a few like THC and CBD are abundant. These naturally occurring cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system via receptors like CB1 and CB2. Through these interactions, cannabinoids produce a variety of often therapeutic effects on major systems throughout the body.
In their plant form, phytocannabinoids that are produced by cannabis are found as acids. These cannabinoid acids are precursors to the famous cannabinoids like THC or CBD. When these acid cannabinoids are exposed to heat via a process called decarboxylation or through exposure to light and air there is a wide range of opportunities for the production of other cannabinoids from a small set of initial compounds.
This chart outlines cannabinoid biosynthesis for the main line of cannabinoids:
There are two primary groups of cannabinoid acids produced in the plant. The quantity of these compounds varies from plant to plant. Different strains of marijuana or hemp are bred to contain different levels of these acid compounds. The following raw cannabinoids are the precursor to all other forms of cannabinoids:
Despite the fact that most of the time these acid-form cannabinoids are activated through decarboxylation before consumption, new studies are pointing to the effectiveness of consuming these acid forms 'raw', or without heating. In the CBD industry, some companies are cold-press juicing hemp to isolate these acid forms and then combining this juice with activated extracts to create blends.
Through decarboxylation of the various acid-form cannabinoids, the following 'activated' cannabinoids can be produced:
Through the aging of raw or activated cannabinoids through exposure to UV light and oxygen over time, the following 'aged' cannabinoids are produced:
Terpenes are fragrant molecules that emanate from all types of plants. Cannabis contains a wide variety of terpenes that vary from strain to strain. The combination of several major and many more minor terpenes gives each strain a unique fragrance fingerprint.
Beyond just providing a scent to cannabis, these terpenes have been proven to provide additional medicinal and therapeutic properties independent, yet complementary to cannabinoids.
The most common, abundant terpenes in cannabis include:
For a deeper look at these aromatic compounds, see our guide to cannabis terpenes which provides more context and outlines each of the above compounds.
These molecules are known to interact with the naturally occurring phytocannabinoids we discussed above. Ingesting these chemicals together creates synergistic therapeutic effects that would not exist independently. This synergy is referred to as the cannabis entourage effect.
When talk of the compounds in cannabis arrises, an often overlooked component is rarely discussed: flavonoids. Though often passed by, these compounds account for up to 10% of the known chemical compounds in the cannabis plant. Unlike cannabinoids, yet similar to terpenes, the majority of these compounds are not unique to cannabis. Flavonoids are found throughout nature in flowers, fruits, and vegetables. There is a select group called cannaflavins however that are unique to cannabis.
The role of flavonoids throughout nature is to provide color pigmentation to plants. In flowering plants, flavonoids provide this pigment in order to attract pollinators like bees. Plants that carry bright, non-green coloring often carry these markings due in part to these chemical compounds.
Similar to terpenes, flavonoids give cannabis its character. Though research is currently sparse, studies point to flavonoids being pharmacologically active. These compounds may play a role in the entourage effect as well.
Originally published: September 7, 2018 | Last Updated: March 12, 2019
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