What Are Cannabinoids? Not Just CBD & THC

By | Updated on December 14, 2023

Medically reviewed by
Kimberly Langdon

Evidence Based 30

Key takeaways:

  • Cannabinoids are molecules that can interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system. There are three types: phytocannabinoids (made by plants), endocannabinoids (by our bodies), and synthetic cannabinoids (in a lab).
  • Cannabinoids have a long list of beneficial properties, such as helping with anxiety, pain, inflammation, sleeping problems, nausea, and much more.
  • Cannabinoids are relatively safe with few and minor side effects. However, intoxicating ones like THC can cause anxiety and other unwanted side effects.
  • Cannabinoids can be consumed in a wide variety of ways, including smoking cannabis flower and using extract products like oils, gummies, capsules, vapes, topicals, and more.

Cannabis is one of the most popular recreational drugs and medicinal herbs in the world. Much of that reputation is thanks to a group of chemical compounds known as cannabinoids. 

While many might think of cannabinoids as strictly ‘cannabis territory,’ these remarkable molecules also encompass compounds made by our bodies and those scientists produce in a lab.

 In this exploration of cannabinoids, we’ll explore their types, how they interact with our bodies, and their potential effects and uses.

Types of Cannabinoids

There are three main kinds of cannabinoids: 

  1. Phytocannabinoids (made by plants)
  2. Endocannabinoids (made by our bodies)
  3. Synthetic cannabinoids (made in a lab)


When most people refer to cannabinoids, they’re typically talking about phytocannabinoids. They originate from plants (‘phyto-‘ means ‘plant’), with Cannabis sativa being the most common source. 

The two best-known phytocannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is the most abundant phytocannabinoid in cannabis. Although it has multiple beneficial effects like pain and nausea relief, THC is best recognized for delivering the psychoactive cannabis ‘high.’

Conversely, CBD is non-intoxicating but maintains a wide range of potential benefits, including neuroprotective, antiepileptic, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), antipsychotic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic (pain-relieving) effects (1). 

Cannabis also contains over 120 minor cannabinoids, such as CBG, CBN, CBC, CBDa, and CBGa, which are found in smaller quantities (2). Most phytocannabinoids share similar properties, like anti-inflammatory effects, but also have distinct properties that set them apart.

phytocannabinoid molecules

Main Phytocannabinoids

CannabinoidMain Beneficial EffectsIntoxicating?
THCAnti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-nausea, appetite stimulantYes
CBDAnti-inflammatory, analgesic, anxiolytic, neuroprotective, anticonvulsantNo
CBDaAnti-inflammatory, anticonvulsant, antidepressant, anti-nauseaNo
CBGAnti-inflammatory, analgesic, neuroprotective, appetite stimulantNo
CBNAnti-inflammatory, neuroprotectiveNo 
CBCAnti-inflammatory, analgesic, neuroprotective, antidepressantNo
CBDVAnti-inflammatory, anticonvulsant, neuroprotectiveNo
THCVAnti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, appetite suppressant, neuroprotectiveNo
CBGaAnti-inflammatory, anti-diabeticNo

Other Sources of Phytocannabinoids

While cannabis is the best-known source of phytocannabinoids, it’s not the only one. For example, South African scientists recently discovered a new plant that makes phytocannabinoids: Helichrysum umbraculigerum, better known as woolly umbrella (3). 

We also know several plants that produce phytocannabinoid-like compounds, like echinacea and flax (45).


Endocannabinoids are the cannabinoids our bodies naturally produce. The term’ endo-‘ means ‘within the body.’ Among these, the two most important are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

Anandamide got its name from ‘ananda,’ a Sanskrit word for ‘joy’ or ‘bliss.’ Research suggests that anandamide plays a central role in “runner’s high,” the state of euphoria and well-being often experienced after prolonged exercise (6).

Our bodies make endocannabinoids on demand, which means they’re present only when needed and break down shortly afterward (7). 

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids don’t occur naturally; they’re manmade molecules. The best-known example is dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC used for specific issues like nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy and loss of appetite in people with AIDS (8).

Some hemp-derived synthetic cannabinoids have also been appearing on the market recently, such as HHC and THC-O. These cannabinoids are typically made from pure CBD through a chemical process.

Researchers also routinely use synthetic cannabinoids in research studies, such as HU-210 and WIN 55,212-2, two synthetic versions of THC (9).

They allow researchers to overcome some limitations of phytocannabinoids (like the psychoactive effects of THC), enhance some of their impact, or tailor cannabinoids for a specific purpose. 

A Little History

Cannabinoids get their name from the cannabis plant since that’s the first place we discovered them. We’ve been using cannabis medically for millennia, with records going back to Chinese emperor Shen-nung’s 2700 BC pharmacopeia (10). 

Cannabinol (CBN) was the first cannabinoid to be isolated in 1896; scientists isolated CBD and THC in the 1940s and figured out their structure in the 1960s (11). 

The next big breakthrough came in 1988 when researchers discovered the first cannabinoid receptor in mice and humans (12). Four years later, the same scientists discovered anandamide, the first endocannabinoid.

How Cannabinoids Work: The Endocannabinoid System

Cannabinoids produce most of their effects by interacting with our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is composed of three parts: (13)

  1. Endocannabinoids: The cannabinoids produced by our bodies.
  2. Receptors: These are the ‘locks’ that endocannabinoids fit into to produce an effect. The two main types of ECS receptors are CB1, found mainly in the brain, and CB2, abundant in immune cells.
  3. Enzymes: These substances are responsible for building and breaking down endocannabinoids. The two key ones are fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down anandamide, and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), which breaks down 2-AG.

The main role of the ECS role is to maintain a careful state of bodily balance called homeostasis. To achieve this, it regulates key functions, including: 

  • Mood & emotions
  • Memory & cognitive function
  • Pain & inflammation
  • Metabolism
  • Digestion
  • Body temperature
  • Reproduction
  • Immune response

The ECS plays a critical role in our overall health. There’s even growing evidence that its dysfunction is involved in such difficult-to-treat disorders as migraines, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome (14).

How Cannabinoids Influence the ECS

Cannabinoids can interact with the ECS in a variety of ways: 

  1. Binding to cannabinoid receptors. Like a key that fits into a lock, many cannabinoids can directly interact with CB1 & CB2 receptors. Some activate the receptors, producing an effect, while others block them, preventing any response.
  2. Changing how cannabinoid receptors work. Some cannabinoids, like CBD, function as allosteric modulators (15). That means they increase or decrease how cannabinoid receptors respond to other cannabinoids. 
  3. Inhibiting endocannabinoid enzymes. Some cannabinoids can suppress the enzymes that break down endocannabinoids. For example, CBD and CBG are known to inhibit FAAH, which indirectly raises the levels of endocannabinoids (16).

Did you know? Researchers believe there are more cannabinoid receptors. One key candidate is GPR55, which interacts with CBD, THC, and other phytocannabinoids (17).

How Cannabinoids Work Outside the ECS

Although the endocannabinoid system gets most of the attention, cannabinoids also interact with many other cellular systems in the body. Here are some examples of the non-endocannabinoid mechanisms through which cannabinoids work: 

  1. Serotonin Receptors: Several phytocannabinoids, including CBD, are known to interact with a specific subtype of serotonin receptors called 5-HT1A (18). These receptors regulate mood, anxiety, and other functions (19).
  2. TRP Channels: Many phytocannabinoids have been found to interact with TRP channels, which play a role in regulating body temperature, pain perception, and inflammation (20).
  3. PPAR Receptors: Cannabinoids, including CBD and THC been found to activate peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs), which may be involved in many of their effects (21).
  4. Glycine Receptors: Both THC and CBD have been found to potentiate glycine receptors, which may have pain-relieving effects (2223). 
  5. Enzymes: Some cannabinoids can influence various enzymes. For instance, CBD can inhibit the enzyme involved in converting serotonin to melatonin (24).
  6. Adenosine & Dopamine: Cannabinoids may also inhibit the reuptake of brain chemicals adenosine and dopamine, increasing their concentrations (25).
  7. Mu and Delta Opioid Receptors: Some research suggests that cannabinoids may indirectly interact with opioid receptors (26).

Benefits & Effects

Cannabinoids can have a wide range of potential effects and benefits. The key medical properties of cannabinoids include: (27)

  • Pain relief (especially THC)
  • Anti-inflammatory effects
  • Anxiety reduction (especially CBD)
  • Sleep improvement
  • Suppressing or improving appetite
  • Neuroprotection (defending against neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Improving epileptic seizures
  • Counteracting nausea and vomiting
  • Improving skin conditions

However, more high-quality research is needed to substantiate most of these benefits. For now, only a handful of pharmaceutical cannabis drugs are approved for certain conditions, including seizures, anorexia associated with AIDS, and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.

Some cannabinoids, most notably THC, can also have psychoactive effects, such as:

  • Euphoria (what many call the cannabis ‘high’)
  • Altered perception of time
  • Changes in mood, which can range from laughter to anxiety
  • Impaired memory and difficulty concentrating

Uses of Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids are mostly used in two ways:

  1. Recreationally, for their psychoactive effects (mostly THC). Cannabis is one of the most widely consumed recreational drugs in the world. 
  2. Therapeutically, to relieve chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, stress, and many other symptoms and conditions. A growing number of countries allow qualifying patients to access cannabis and use pharmaceutical cannabinoid drugs. Some pet owners also use CBD products to support the health of their dogs and cats.

Consumption Methods

The most common way to consume cannabinoids is by smoking marijuana (dried cannabis flowers). But you can also use them in many other forms, including:

  • Oil tinctures (like CBD oil)
  • Capsules and tablets
  • Edibles (like gummies, chocolates, and baked goods)
  • Vape e-liquids and cartridges
  • Topicals like creams, lotions, and balms
  • Transdermal patches
  • Sublingual sprays
  • Beverages (like teas, coffees, and infused drinks)
  • Inhalers
  • Isolates (pure cannabinoids)
  • Concentrates like shatter

The way cannabinoids are consumed has a significant impact on the intensity, onset, and duration of their effects. For example, smoking or vaping will have almost instantaneous effects, whereas edible products can take an hour to kick in and have less predictable potency (28).

cannabinoid product forms
Different types of cannabinoid products: oils, capsules, gummies, vapes, flower, and topicals.

Side Effects and Precautions

Like any bioactive compound, cannabinoids can have adverse effects. While more research needs to be done on the safety of minor cannabinoids, we do have a good deal of data for THC and CBD.

The potential side effects of THC include: 

  • Increased heart rate
  • Dry mouth
  • Red eyes
  • Memory impairment
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Slower reaction time
  • Anxiety or paranoia

Starting with low doses of THC is essential to avoid or minimize the side effects, especially if you’re new to cannabis. 

Meanwhile, CBD may cause: (29)

  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Lightheadedness
  • Diarrhea
  • Changes in appetite or weight

Both THC and CBD also have the potential to interact with prescription medications, so it’s important to consult your doctor (30). But the good news is that the side effects of cannabinoids, and CBD in particular, are relatively minor. 

My Experience With Cannabinoids

My first encounter with cannabinoids came in my early 20s when a friend introduced me to marijuana. After that, I continued to smoke with friends occasionally but gradually reduced and eventually stopped because I began to experience more anxiety rather than enjoyment and relaxation. 

Then, in 2017, I discovered CBD oil. Its relaxing yet clear-headed effects immediately impressed me, perfectly fitting my overactive mind.

I’ve been using CBD and minor cannabinoid products ever since to help me sleep, recover from exercise, ease stress, and support overall wellness. I can firmly say that cannabinoids have made a significant positive impact on my life.

cbd oils I've tested and reviewed
Some of the CBD oils I’ve used over the years.

Cannabinoids: Serious Promise for Health & Wellness

Cannabinoids are natural and manmade compounds with serious potential for managing various symptoms and conditions. 

Many people use cannabinoid-based preparations to help with everything from chronic pain to sleep. Even if you’ve never used cannabis, you already benefit from the endocannabinoids made by your endocannabinoid system. 

It’s important to remember that more research is needed before we understand the full potential of cannabinoids. Always prioritize safety and make informed decisions about cannabinoid use.


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