Hemp is a member of the Cannabis sativa L family of plants. All cannabis plants contain compounds called cannabinoids at various levels. But what are cannabinoids?
What Are Cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are a diverse class of naturally occurring compounds (like CBD and THC) that form primarily in the flowers of hemp (cannabis) plants.
Because they’re found in cannabis plants, they’re known as phytocannabinoids—phyto meaning “related to plants.”
These plant-borne cannabinoids are able to interact with systems in our bodies because they mimic endocannabinoids—endo meaning “within.” Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring in humans and most animal lifeforms.
We have more in common with cannabis than you might think.
First, let’s take a look at how cannabinoids are formed.
How are Cannabinoids Formed?
There’s more than meets the eye when growing hemp, and all plants for that matter.
Cannabis plants are an ongoing symphony of processes known as biosynthesis.
This multi-step organic process converts simple compounds into more complex compounds as the plant matures.
Cannabinoids are a product of biosynthesis happening at a molecular level. In raw form, cannabis plants primarily contain cannabinoid acids. These are acidic precursors to several other cannabinoids.
Let’s go over a few of these precursors and the cannabinoids they produce (several abbreviations incoming, hang tight).
The Parent Molecule: What is CBGA?
CBGA is the acidic form of CBG (cannabigerol) and is considered a chemical precursor to all cannabinoids found in hemp. It has even been dubbed a “stem cell” cannabinoid.
Just like stem cells in the human body have the potential to become many different types of cells, CBGA can develop into several different cannabinoids.
CBGA is a direct precursor of THCA, CBDA, CBCA, and CBG.
THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid)
One of the most common compounds produced by CBGA is THCA.
THCA is the chemical precursor to Delta-9-THC (the cannabinoid responsible for getting people “stoned”).
Notice THC is just THCA without the “A”? That’s because the A stands for acid. THCA is a non-intoxicating acidic precursor of THC.
This acidic precursor becomes THC through a process called decarboxylation (or “decarbing”). Decarboxylation occurs when heat and/or oxidation removes a carboxylic acid group from THCA.
THCA is thermally unstable, meaning it can be altered with the application of heat or ultraviolet light. When cannabis is exposed to sunlight or the heat of a flame, a percentage of THCA molecules become Delta-9-THC.
As a precursor, THCA can also be converted into other cannabinoids like CBNA, CBN, and Delta-8-THC by way of biosynthesis.
CBDA (Cannabidiolic Acid)
CBD (cannabidiol) is the most abundant cannabinoid in hemp-derived tinctures and edibles, but its chemical precursor CBDA is also worth noting.
CBDA also interacts with the ECS, but in a different way than CBD does. This cannabinoid is thought to enhance the benefits offered by whole-plant hemp extracts.
Like other acidic precursors, CBDA is thermally unstable and is converted into CBD through a similar decarboxylation process.
Did you know there are cannabinoid receptors in your skin? Cannabinoids, when applied topically, are absorbed into the skin.
CBCA (Cannabichromenic Acid)
CBCA is a lesser-known acidic precursor of CBC (cannabichromene) and CBLA (cannabicyclol acid). CBLA, in turn, is the precursor to CBL (cannabicyclol).
CBC shows promise in reducing inflammation and may offer other benefits to overall wellness.
Through degradation, CBC can also become CBL when exposed to oxygen or UV light. CBL is only ever present in low amounts and is one of the least studied cannabinoids.
Cannabigerol, or CBG, is considered a minor cannabinoid because it’s only present in very low amounts.
Leftover CBGA that hasn’t been synthesized into the previously mentioned cannabinoid lines becomes CBG when cannabis is heated.
Like many cannabinoids, CBG has a wide range of applications that will require further study.
Cannabinoids & The Entourage Effect
We’ve only touched on a handful of known cannabinoids to illustrate the process of biosynthesis and how cannabinoids are formed in cannabis plants.
Not all cannabis plant genetics are the same. In fact, they can vary drastically. It’s nearly impossible to find any two cannabis strains with identical cannabinoid content.
Understanding cannabinoids, terpenes, and how these compounds work together in the body is a crucial first step to selecting the right hemp-derived products for your needs.
Over 100 cannabinoids have been identified, but CBD and THC are the most studied and abundant major cannabinoids in cannabis.
CBD & THC: Hemp’s Dynamic Duo
Hemp-derived CBD has entered the media spotlight amidst a wave of controversy.
It comes as no surprise that CBD (cannabidiol) is the primary cannabinoid in CBD oils and whole-plant hemp extracts, but hemp also contains trace amounts of THC (less than 0.3%).
At these trace levels, hemp doesn’t contain enough THC to cause a “high” when consumed. THC does, however, offer other beneficial effects.
Both of these cannabinoids provide benefits when isolated, but CBD and THC work in unison.
This synergy is further enhanced when combined with the array of secondary cannabinoids and present in whole-plant hemp extracts.
Cannabinoid Synergy in The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system, or ECS for short, plays a vital role in balancing physiological processes in our bodies. When your ECS is unbalanced, there’s a good chance other functions are being impacted as well.
The balance of physiological functions in our bodies is known as homeostasis or, “the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes,” by definition.
Our bodies are naturally wired to interact with cannabinoids thanks to receptors present in the endocannabinoid system. There are hundreds of beneficial cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds that work in synergy with one another to create the “entourage effect.”
A Healthy Hemp Lifestyle
Cannabinoids are central to the benefits of natural hemp CBD extracts.
We believe nature has given us all we need to support a healthy lifestyle. Incorporating natural hemp products into your daily routine can lead to a healthier, happier you.
Morgan is Content Manager at Hemplucid and has been published in Utah Cannabis Magazine. He’s a firm believer in the potential of hemp as a sustainable resource and its role in promoting a balanced, healthy lifestyle.