Guide to Cannabis Cannabinoids: What Are They and What Effect Do They Have?

Cannabinoids are the active ingredients in cannabis that make it such a valuable medicine. You’ve probably heard of THC and CBD, but there are over 100+ other cannabinoids in cannabis that interact with our bodies to promote specific effects, including CBG and CBN. But what exactly are they, and what kind of effect do they have on our brains and bodies? Here’s everything you need to know about the cannabinoids in cannabis. 

What are cannabinoids? 

Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that cannabis flowers naturally produce, and are responsible for a variety of effects. Some interact with our brains and reduce symptoms of depression and chemical imbalances, while others interact with our bodies and reduce inflammation or provide pain and nausea relief among other things. However, they are almost identical to chemical compounds we produce in our bodies called endocannabinoids. They work their magic by imitating endocannabinoids, which are responsible for helping our bodies maintain stability and health. 

When you consume cannabis, the cannabinoids bind to receptors found in our brains and bodies. CB1 receptors are found in the brain and CB2 receptors are found in the body. Each cannabinoid has a different effect depending on which receptor it binds to. THC likes to hang out in the brain, while CBN prefers the body. Depending on the cannabinoid and terpene content of a strain, many different physical and mental effects are possible through cannabinoids. 

What is the endocannabinoid system? 

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the body’s very own system full of neuroreceptors and transmitters that can process the cannabinoids you introduce to your body through consuming marijuana. However, the ECS isn’t just for cannabinoids found in cannabis. Our bodies create hundreds of natural chemicals that interact with the ECS called “endocannabinoids”. Natural endocannabinoids are made in the body and help your body to stay regular. They regulate things like appetite, pain management, stress, memory, reproduction, and even motor skills.  The ECS can act on several different types of cannabinoids, including endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids, and synthetic cannabinoids. 

Synthetic cannabinoids – laboratory-produced synthetic cannabinoids, found in drugs like nabilone and Sativex. They are exogenous cannabinoids, meaning they were produced out of the body.

Endocannabinoids – these are cannabinoids your body produces naturally, such as anandamide. They are endogenous cannabinoids, meaning they are produced in the body. Endo = In! 

Phytocannabinoids – these are cannabinoids produced in the cannabis plant, such as THC and CBD. They are exogenous cannabinoids, meaning they were produced out of the body. 

How does the ECS work? 

The ECS is hard at work all the time managing your endocannabinoids. In some cases, your body may not produce enough of them naturally. In the case of people with depression, they tend to produce less anandamide, a happiness chemical. By introducing THC, a phytocannabinoid that closely resembles anandamide, your body can supplement the deficiency and improve your quality of life. Synthetic cannabinoids work in a similar way by mimicking other cannabinoids to trigger a response in your body. 

All cannabinoids, both naturally occurring and introduced, bind to the receptors in the endocannabinoid system. There are two main types of receptors, known as CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 Receptors are found in your brain and central nervous system. These receptors process cannabinoids that affect your coordination, motor learning, metabolism and pain modulators. CB2 Receptors are mostly found throughout the immune system and hang out in your body. They tend to fire up when it’s time to protect. 

Major cannabis cannabinoids

The major cannabinoids include THC, THCa, CBD, and CBN. Out of the 80+ cannabinoids contained within any given strain, these are the most prevalent cannabinoids and makeup anywhere from 10-30% of a strain’s chemical makeup. The other 60ish percent is made of minor cannabinoids, terpenes, and other plant materials. 


THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) is responsible for pain relief, reducing nausea, encouraging appetite, and suppressing muscle spasms. This is the active compound found in most female cannabis plants. On the federal level, this cannabinoid is illegal, though it can still be used in states that have legalized medical or recreational cannabis


THCa (Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid) can help kill certain cancer cells, reduce seizures and convulsions, and reduce inflammation. This is the non-psychoactive precursor to THC. If you’ve ever seen a gram of concentrates labeled as diamonds, they’re made from this type of THC. THCa is an unactivated form of THC. It only produces a psychoactive effect and other effects of THC when it’s heated up in a dab or through combustion. Like ordinary THC, it’s illegal in most states and scheduled as a highly addictive substance. In states where cannabis is legal, this form is legal too. 


CBD (Cannabidiol) is the most medically valuable cannabinoid and offers a ton of beneficial effects to the body. This cannabinoid interacts with almost all of our body receptors. It can help reduce pain and inflammation, reduce nausea and stimulate your appetite, reduce contractions and convulsions, tranquilize and reduce anxiety, lower blood sugar, prevent neurodegeneration, kill bacteria and reduce the appearance of skin conditions and acne, kill cancer cells, promote bone growth, and more. In 2018, the Farm Bill was passed that legalized hemp-derived CBD. It’s legal for purchase online and in every US state. 


If a plant rich in THC is harvested too late, the THC will convert into CBN (Cannabinol). If you’ve ever heard growers complaining about flower staying on the plant too long and turning into sleep medicine, they’re referring to the degradation of THC into CBN. CBN is usually found in smaller amounts, but it’s still considered a major cannabinoid for its medical benefits. CBN is heavily sedative. It’s found in a lot of strains that contain high amounts of THC as well as strains that are marked indica-dominant. CBN is good for promoting sleep, reducing pain, and suppressing muscle spasms. Since it’s made from THC, it’s typically illegal in places where legalization hasn’t occurred. 

Minor cannabis cannabinoids 

Minor cannabinoids include CBDa, CBC, and CBG. These cannabinoids are found in smaller proportions in cannabis. They promote a variety of health benefits, but they also produce results to a lesser degree that is often overshadowed by the effects of the major cannabinoids. All of these cannabinoids, excluding CBDa, are illegal in places that haven’t legalized cannabis for recreational or medical use. 

CBDa: CBDa (Cannabidiolic Acid) is similar to THCa in the sense it needs to be heated for it to become activated. It can reduce inflammation and helps to kill cancer cells via apoptosis. It can also help reduce the growth and spread of cancerous tumors. 

CBC: CBC (Cannabichromene) is good for pain and inflammation. It can also help kill bacteria, promote bone growth, and reduce the growth and spread of certain types of cancer.  

CBG: CBG (Cannabigerol) is also good for pain and inflammation. It can kill bacteria as well as a few different strains of funguses. Like CBC, it also promotes bone growth and helps to reduce the growth and spread of certain cancers. 

How cannabinoid and terpene profiles cause effects in cannabis strains 

On average, cannabis flower contains around 15-30% THC cannabinoids along with 100+ terpenes and other minor cannabinoids like CBN and CBG. Together, these compounds interact with each other in a way that intensifies the effects of both the terpenes and cannabinoids. This is a direct result of the entourage effect, which is a phenomenon that highlights how terpenes and cannabinoids go hand in hand to alter the body in any number of ways. 

For example, the lavender-scented terpene Linalool works hand in hand with the cannabinoid CBD. On their own, each promotes similar effects. Linalool and CBD are both slightly anti-inflammatory, and they both interact with the same receptors within our endocannabinoid systems. When they’re found together in a strain, the anti-inflammatory effect becomes stronger. At the same time, they’re both interacting with our CB1 (brain) receptors that are responsible for anxiety and pain responses. Together, they promote a calming effect and may help soothe the symptoms of anxiety. 

Each terpene and cannabinoid offers its own physical and cerebral effects, and together they’re responsible for the relaxing Indica effects and energizing sativa effects you experience when you smoke cannabis. When energizing terpenes and cannabinoids like THC come together, you can experience a more sativa-like effect. When pain-relieving and physically relaxing terpenes meet sedative cannabinoids like CBN, you’ll experience an indica-like effect. This is why it’s important to keep in mind that terpenes and cannabinoids together have a variety of effects that can affect everyone differently. A strain marked 17% THC with a heavy myrcene terpene profile may feel way more potent than a strain marked 25% THC based on its terpene and cannabinoid profiles alone.

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