What Are Cannabinoids & Why Do They Matter To You?

This is going to be a little bit like a “how the sausage is made” explainer. Which is cool, because — being the savvy and knowledge-hungry creature you are — you’ll want to know some of the science related to cannabis.

We won’t get too technical — promise! — so this is guaranteed to be a fun and interesting read. We’ll:

  • Break down the must-know cannabis terms and concepts
  • Discuss key cannabinoid facts and figures
  • Explain how cannabinoids work in your body
  • Highlight why cannabinoids are important

So, let’s jump right in!


Cannabis 101

First things first — let’s get some more-basic-than-basic terminology straight. We need to make sure we’re all on the same page from the beginning.     Some fundamental definitions….
  • Cannabis. This refers to the plant species formally known by its Latin name as Cannabis Sativa L.
  • Marijuana. This is one type of cannabis plant. You’ll often see this term used interchangeably with the word cannabis, but they are different.
  • Hemp or industrial hemp. This is another subspecies of cannabis.
  • Cannabinoids. These are compounds found in cannabis. We’ll come back to this one soon!
So, all marijuana and hemp plants are cannabis plants. But not all cannabis plants are marijuana or hemp.   Compounds in Cannabis Like other biological organisms, cannabis is a complex lifeform. It has many different parts — flowers, leaves, stalks, etc. — that are used in a number of applications (e.g., textiles, food products, etc.). But get out your microscopes because we’re going to take a much closer look at cannabis. Inside the plant, actually. If you like trivia, you’re going to love these tidbits!
  • There are at least 525 distinct chemical substances in cannabis, including cannabinoids.
  • It’s estimated that there are at least 144 cannabinoids in cannabis, including THC and CBD.

Speaking of Cannabinoids….

You’re here because you’re wondering what the heck cannabinoids are. Simply, cannabinoids are substances that can produce a host of responses within your body. There are three primary kinds of cannabinoids:
  • Phytocannabinoids come from plants, like cannabis. (This is the one we’re most focused on in this post.)
  • Endocannabinoids are made by your body.
Synthetic cannabinoids roll out of a lab or manufacturing plant.  

Major & Minor Cannabinoids

Of the 144+ cannabinoids, four are arguably considered the “major” cannabinoids. These include:
  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
  • Cannabidiol (CBD)
  • Delta-8-Tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-8-THC, delta-8, D8…it has a few aliases….)
  • Cannabinol (CBN)
The major cannabinoids are more naturally abundant in the plants. They’ve also been studied the most. We’ll do a deeper dive into THC and CBD in a sec — because they’re currently the most commonly touted (or marketed?) cannabinoids. But, “minor” cannabinoids are starting to come into their own. Unless they’re stripped out through selective cultivation or processing, the minor cannabinoids accompany the major cannabinoids in the cannabis products people consume. Keep your eyes open for new info on and products featuring these minor guys. It’s exciting times in the cannabinoid realm!  

Tetrahydrocannabinol, aka THC

THC is probably the most well-known cannabinoid. It’s the most abundant cannabinoid in marijuana. As a psychoactive compound, THC is what generates that “high” feeling associated with pot. It may surprise you to learn that THC is one of just a handful of cannabinoids that can bring on this euphoric sensation. THC can also produce other reactions and results. For some people, THC elevates their mood, makes them giggly, or helps them unwind. Therapeutically, THC may help with chronic issues — like pain or inflammation — or with acute illnesses (or their side effects) — like nausea and vomiting due to cancer treatments. More and more research is being done to evaluate THC’s prospects as an effective treatment option.  

Cannabidiol, aka CBD

CBD is perhaps the second best-known cannabinoid. It’s the dominant cannabinoid in hemp. CBD is perhaps the second best-known cannabinoid. It’s the dominant cannabinoid in hemp. of the biggest things that sets CBD apart from THC is that CBD’s not a psychoactive substance. You won’t get high from it. In fact, CBD can counteract the euphoric effects of THC. Where THC can lift you up, CBD can mellow you out. CBD has other potential benefits as well. In addition to modulating THC, CBD could help support an assortment of mental and physical health conditions. Medical researchers are fervently studying the positive impacts CBD may have on human and animal wellbeing. (Yes, CBD formulations for pets are a thing!) In terms of CBD products, it’s important to understand that there are three types of CBD extract. Each has its own profile, pros and cons, and devotees.
  • Full-spectrum CBD contains some THC plus a bunch of other cannabinoids.
  • Broad-spectrum CBD has all the cannabinoids it started with, minus the THC.
  • Isolate CBD has had all other cannabinoids removed. Zero THC, zero CBD in it.
These versions of CBD are crafted through different processing methods that take the unwanted cannabinoids out of the CBD extract.    

What Do Cannabinoids Do In Your Body?

You’ve got the fundamentals of what cannabinoids are down. Now, you may be curious how they work in the ol’ sack of flesh’n’bones. In your body, you have what’s called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). (Everyone has an ECS regardless of whether or not they consume cannabis.) This system is made up of endocannabinoids, enzymes, and receptors. Exactly how the ECS works and what it’s doing with the phytocannabinoids is still a little mysterious. What we do know is that the ECS engages with the cannabinoids — like THC or CBD — to produce effects in the body. It’s thought that the cannabinoids interact in various ways with the different receptors. This prompts the receptors to signal the brain, which then responds to ultimately produce diverse outcomes (e.g., all those benefits you’ve heard about). THC usually interacts with the CB-1 receptor, whereas CBD tends to collaborate with the CB-2 receptor. THC and CBD are often viewed as complementary elements. If you’ve ever heard someone mention “entourage effect,” this is what they were referring to. This just means that each cannabinoid may work better when buddied up with the other cannabinoid.  

Cannabinoids for the Win!

Cannabinoids are compounds that can produce a variety of effects in the body. Cannabis — both marijuana and hemp subspecies — contain well over 100 cannabinoids. The most famous ones are THC and CBD. THC is known for making people “high,” whereas CBD has a reputation for calming. Together, they may produce a synergistic “entourage effect.” Cannabinoids are also key players in producing the many potential mental and physical health benefits that are often associated with cannabis. You can readily find products featuring THC, CBD, or other cannabinoids — where they’re legal.