What are Minor Cannabinoids? CBN, THCV, and Others

By | last updated January 27, 2023

Evidence Based 34

We’ve all heard of CBD and THC, the two main active compounds in cannabis. They’re considered cannabinoids, compounds which get their name from interacting with our body’s cannabinoid receptors.

But the cannabis plant also contains over 120 minor cannabinoids, which are found in much smaller quantities — typically below 1% dry weight (1). Also known as rare cannabinoids, they have a wide range of beneficial properties that researchers are just beginning to uncover.

Minor cannabinoids can be broken down into three groups: neutral, acidic, and varinic. Here’s what research tells us about the most important ones, including CBN, CBG, CBDa, and THCV.

Minor Neutral Cannabinoids

These minor cannabinoids are not directly produced by the cannabis plant but are made from the breakdown of acidic cannabinoids when they’re exposed to heat and light. 

CBN

The minor cannabinoid cannabinol (CBN) is somewhat unique because it’s not made from a cannabinoid acid. Instead, it’s made when THC is exposed to light, heat, and oxygen over time (1). That’s why aged cannabis can contain significant amounts of CBN, especially if it isn’t properly stored. 

Unlike THC, CBN is non-intoxicating so it won’t get you high. Many people believe that CBN helps you sleep thanks to the observation that old weed seems to have stronger sleep-inducing effects.

But things are not that simple. The only relevant study we have showed that CBN strengthened the drowsiness caused by THC but had no similar effects of its own (2).

Additionally, according to esteemed cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo, old weed is rich in sedating terpenes, which may explain its sleep-inducing reputation. But that hasn’t stopped most CBD companies from marketing CBN-rich products as sleep aids.

One group of researchers even wrote a paper reviewing all of the available studies on CBN, concluding that there isn’t sufficient evidence to say that CBN promotes sleep (3).

Aside from that, animal studies suggest that CBN may have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, pain-relieving, appetite-stimulating, anti-glaucoma, and other beneficial qualities (4, 5). 

CBG

Alongside CBN, cannabigerol (CBG) is arguably the most popular minor cannabinoid. This non-intoxicating cannabinoid comes from cannabigerolic acid (CBGa), often called the “mother cannabinoid” because most other cannabinoids are derived from it (1). 

Cannabis plants have relatively low amounts of CBG because most of the CBGa is converted by enzymes into THCa and CBDa, the acidic cannabinoids that turn into THC and CBD when exposed to heat. 

Animal studies have shown that CBG may have appetite-stimulating, anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain-relieving), anticancer, anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing), and neuroprotective effects (6). Additionally, a 2021 human study reported that CBG reduced skin irritation and redness (7). 

CBG also interacts strongly with a2-adrenergic receptors, the same mechanism used by some antihypertensive, analgesic, and sedative drugs (8).

Meanwhile, in a survey of 121 people who smoked CBG-rich cannabis, 80% said it was better than prescription medicine for pain, 78.3% for anxiety, 73.9% for pain, and 73% for insomnia (9).

You can find CBG-rich products sold by many CBD brands. They’re usually marketed for daytime use because of claims that CBG may enhance energy and focus, but the research evidence is lacking. 

minor cannabinoid structure

CBC

Cannabichromene (CBC) is one of the lesser-known minor cannabinoids. It comes from cannabichromenic acid (CBCa), which itself is derived from CBGa.

We don’t know too much about CBC yet but early studies have reported pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, anticonvulsant, and neuroprotective effects (10, 11, 12). 

Some CBD companies offer CBC tinctures, capsules, and other products.

Delta-8 THC

Delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol or delta-8 THC is another form of THC. This psychoactive minor cannabinoid occurs naturally in cannabis in small amounts (13). Research suggests that it’s about 33% less potent than delta-9 THC, the form of THC most people are familiar with (14).

A 2022 user survey found that delta-8 causes similar effects to delta-9 THC, including euphoria, pain relief, and relaxation (13). However, it was also reported to have weaker and fewer side effects, such as short-term memory impairment and anxiety. 

Delta-8 THC exploded in popularity in 2020 and 2021 because hemp producers figured out that you can make it from CBD through a chemical conversion process. Since hemp is legal under the 2018 Farm Bill, this means that delta-8 THC made from hemp-derived CBD is also legal (15). 

This unintended loophole has caused much controversy, with many states choosing to ban or regulate delta-8 THC products.

Delta-8 is sold in the form of gummies, vapes, tinctures, and other products. It’s most popular in states where cannabis is illegal for recreational use.

Minor Acidic Cannabinoids

Acidic cannabinoids, also known as cannabinoid acids, are the precursors (parent molecules) to neutral cannabinoids. Cannabis plants only make acidic cannabinoids, which is why their levels are highest in unprocessed plant material.

They always have the word “acid” in their name. For example, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa) is the acidic precursor to THC. It’s only when the acidic cannabinoids are exposed to heat — like when smoking a cannabis joint — that they go through a process called decarboxylation and lose their acid group (1).

Just like their neutral brethren, cannabinoid acids have demonstrated many beneficial properties in early research.

unprocessed cannabis plant

CBGa

As we mentioned earlier, cannabigerolic acid (CBGa) is the original cannabinoid that others are made from, including THCa, CBDa, and CBCa. Early investigations show that it may have antidiabetic and anticancer effects (1). 

A petri dish study also found that CBGa and CBDa were equally effective at blocking the Covid-19 virus from entering human cells (16). CBGa is fairly difficult to find but a few CBD brands do sell it in tincture, capsule, and gummy form.

CBDa

Cannabidiolic acid (CBDa) is the parent molecule of CBD. Although it’s not technically a minor cannabinoid because its levels are quite high in cannabis (especially hemp varieties), it’s fairly rare in most CBD products because of decarboxylation. 

Early studies of CBDa have reported anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, analgesic, antiemetic (reduces nausea), anticancer, and anticonvulsant effects (1, 17). 

The interesting thing about CBDa is that it has a much stronger (100 times) interaction with serotonin 5HT1A receptors than CBD, suggesting that it may be more useful for certain conditions, such as epilepsy (18).

Some CBD companies sell raw, non-decarboxylated tinctures and other products rich in CBDa.

THCa

THCa is the non-psychotropic, acidic form of THC. It’s abundant in cannabis flower and decarboxylates into THC when it’s smoked.

Animal studies of THCa suggest that it may have similar benefits to other cannabinoids, including anti-inflammatory, antiemetic, anticonvulsant, and neuroprotective properties (1).

A case report of 4 children with epilepsy also found that low doses of THCa alongside antiepileptic medicine improved seizures (19).

Minor Varinic Cannabinoids

Varins or varinic cannabinoids are considered the most rare type. They contain fewer carbon atoms which gives them somewhat different effects from other cannabinoids. They’re identified by the word “varin” on the end and the letter “V” in their acronym. 

Varins are derived from a different “mother cannabinoid” — cannabigerovarinic acid (CBGVa), a varin analog of CBGa.

THCV

Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is a rare cannabinoid that’s similar in structure to THC but doesn’t share its psychoactive effects.

One 2016 clinical study on type-2 diabetics found that THCV may help regulate blood sugar and help with insulin sensitivity (20). Another 2015 study of cannabis users reported that THCV may counteract some of the negative effects of THC, including short-term memory problems and increased heart rate (21).

Animal and petri dish studies have also reported neuroprotective, anti-acne, and other beneficial effects (22, 23).

But most of the hype around THCV has to do with appetite. A 2009 animal study reported that THCV lowered food intake and led to weight loss in mice (24). 

THCV products are often marketed as “diet weed” with claims of appetite suppression and increased energy levels. But proper human studies need to be done to confirm these claims. You can find THCV tinctures and gummies sold by some CBD brands.

thcv gummies

CBDV

As you probably guessed, cannabidivarin (CBDV) is the varin version of CBD. This non-intoxicating minor cannabinoid shows early promise in treating epilepsy and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

It’s currently being studied by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British pharmaceutical company known for making the only CBD drug (Epidiolex) that’s approved for treating rare types of seizures. 

A 2022 clinical study of CBDV in girls with epilepsy caused by a rare condition called Rett syndrome reported improvement in seizures with no serious side effects (25). Another clinical trial in children with ASD is ongoing.

Animal studies have also reported that CBDV may help with nausea, Parkinson’s disease, and other health conditions (26, 27, 28).

Minor Cannabinoids and the Entourage Effect

Aside from their potential benefits, minor cannabinoids are also believed to play a major role in the cannabis entourage effect: the idea that all of the cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other compounds in cannabis work in synergy, enhancing each other’s effects (29).

Since being proposed in the 1990s, researchers have found ongoing evidence for this effect, including:

  • A 2018 study on epilepsy patients reported that full-spectrum CBD-rich cannabis extracts were 4 times more potent than pure CBD and had fewer side effects (30)
  • An older human study found that CBN enhanced the drowsiness caused by THC (2)
  • Multiple studies have shown that THC has greater pain-relieving and other effects when paired with CBD and other cannabinoids (31, 32, 33)
  • A petri dish study found that combining CBD with CBG produced greater anti-inflammatory effects than either alone (34)

If you want to maximize the entourage effect, you should opt for whole-plant, full-spectrum cannabis and hemp products instead of those containing pure cannabinoids.

Minor Cannabinoids are Promising, But More Research Needed

There are many more minor cannabinoids than we covered but the ones above have seen the most research. 

As we can see, rare cannabinoids have many beneficial properties and hold serious potential in the medical field. Although further clinical research is needed to fully understand their properties, it’s clear that they play an important role in the effects of cannabis.

The best and easiest way to benefit from minor cannabinoids is to use whole-plant cannabis products such as full-spectrum CBD oil.

As a final note, be wary of any marketing claims surrounding products with CBN, CBG, THCV, and other rare cannabinoids. 

References

  1. Walsh, Kenneth B., Amanda E. McKinney, and Andrea E. Holmes. “Minor cannabinoids: Biosynthesis, molecular pharmacology and potential therapeutic uses.” Frontiers in Pharmacology (2021): 3366.
  2. Karniol, Isac G., et al. “Effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabinol in man.” Pharmacology 13.6 (1975): 502-512.
  3. Corroon, Jamie. “Cannabinol and sleep: separating fact from fiction.” Cannabis and cannabinoid research 6.5 (2021): 366-371.
  4. Maioli, Chiara, et al. “Cannabinol: History, Syntheses, and Biological Profile of the Greatest “Minor” Cannabinoid.” Plants 11.21 (2022): 2896.
  5. Liang, Zhibin, et al. “Cannabinol inhibits oxytosis/ferroptosis by directly targeting mitochondria independently of cannabinoid receptors.” Free Radical Biology and Medicine 180 (2022): 33-51.
  6. Calapai, Fabrizio, et al. “Pharmacological Aspects and Biological Effects of Cannabigerol and Its Synthetic Derivatives.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2022 (2022).
  7. Perez, Eduardo, et al. “In Vitro and Clinical Evaluation of Cannabigerol (CBG) Produced via Yeast Biosynthesis: A Cannabinoid with a Broad Range of Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Health-Boosting Properties.” Molecules 27.2 (2022): 491.
  8. Nachnani, Rahul, Wesley M. Raup-Konsavage, and Kent E. Vrana. “The pharmacological case for cannabigerol.” Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 376.2 (2021): 204-212.
  9. Russo, Ethan B., et al. “Survey of patients employing cannabigerol-predominant cannabis preparations: Perceived medical effects, adverse events, and withdrawal symptoms.” Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research 7.5 (2022): 706-716.
  10. Etchart, Maia G., et al. “In vitro evaluation of the interaction of the cannabis constituents cannabichromene and cannabichromenic acid with ABCG2 and ABCB1 transporters.” European Journal of Pharmacology 922 (2022): 174836.
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  20. Jadoon, Khalid A., et al. “Efficacy and safety of cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabivarin on glycemic and lipid parameters in patients with type 2 diabetes: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel group pilot study.” Diabetes Care 39.10 (2016): 1777-1786.
  21. Englund, Amir, et al. “The effect of five day dosing with THCV on THC-induced cognitive, psychological and physiological effects in healthy male human volunteers: a placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover pilot trial.” Journal of Psychopharmacology 30.2 (2016): 140-151.
  22. García, C., et al. “Symptom‐relieving and neuroprotective effects of the phytocannabinoid Δ9‐THCV in animal models of Parkinson’s disease.” British journal of pharmacology 163.7 (2011): 1495-1506.
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