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Cannabis 101

What Are Cannabinoids and What Do They Do?

12.07.21 - 4 min read


  • Cannabinoids are natural chemical compounds from the cannabis sativa plant.  
  • There are about 160 cannabinoids that have been identified out of over 600 chemical compounds found in cannabis.  
  • The two best-known cannabinoids are THC and CBD, but there are many others.  
  • Cannabinoids aren’t the same as terpenes, which are aromatic compounds that give cannabis its distinctive smells and which can also have health benefits.  
  • Cannabinoids are an important part of the Entourage Effect, which represents the overall health and well-being benefits of cannabis
  • Our bodies also make cannabinoids, which interact with our internal endocannabinoid system (ECS).

What are cannabinoids?

Whether you’re new to cannabis or consider yourself an expert, deepening your knowledge of cannabinoids can help you understand more about your own well-being. From their potential effects on mind and body to their possible health benefits, these cannabis compounds are one of the most fascinating aspects of the plant.

In this guide, we’ll show you what role cannabinoids play in cannabis use. But first, let’s define cannabinoids, and walk through some basic facts.

Cannabinoids are natural chemical compounds found in a viscous resin produced in glandular trichomes in the cannabis plant. They interact with your body through receptors that are part of our natural endocannabinoid system. According to different sources, there could be over 60, and up to 100 cannabinoids.

So, is THC a cannabinoid? Yes — and it’s probably the most well-known of the list of cannabinoids, although CBD is also getting a lot of recognition. [Source]

CBD and THC are just the start and scientific research is ongoing to uncover the benefits and properties of all the cannabinoids, from CBC cannabinoids to THCA and many others. [Source]

health benefits of cannabinoids

How many types of cannabinoids are there?

You may have heard about the best-known of the marijuana cannabinoids: THC, aka tetrahydrocannabinol, but how many cannabinoids are there? Cannabinoids are one type of molecule found in the cannabis sativa plant.  [Source]

Overall, Cannabis sativa contains about 600 different molecules, but out of these, how many cannabinoids are there? About 140 are classified as cannabinoids. They are the alkaloid compounds in cannabis that can influence your body’s natural endocannabinoid system. 

There are three main classifications of cannabinoids: 

  • Phytocannabinoids – found in cannabis stalks, leaves, flowers, seeds, and resin
  • Endocannabinoids – cannabinoids made by the body
  • Synthetic cannabinoids – lab-created cannabinoids (like prescription medications)

We’ll be talking about the phytocannabinoids that come from the cannabis plant itself. Some phytocannabinoids are mainly present in the living plant before it’s dried or smoked. These compounds can and do change their chemical composition once the plant is dried, heated, burned, or ingested in other ways.  [Source]

A marijuana dispensary like RISE Cannabis offers a lot of choices for your cannabis. We can help you to understand cannabinoids, where they come from, and their potential benefits.

Terpenes vs. Cannabinoids

You may have also heard about terpenes, the compounds produced in the same glandular trichomes as cannabinoids. These chemical compounds are found in cannabis as well as many other plants and natural substances. Terpenes are responsible for the fresh smell of lemons and oranges when you peel them. They are a material that is often used for “aromatherapy,” and they help to create the distinctive smell of different marijuana strains. As one example, limonene terpene is found in citrus fruits and some cannabis strains. Terpenes may have health and other benefits, but they’re not the same as cannabinoids. [Source]

What’s the relationship between indica, sativa and cannabinoids?

People talk about the different effects of indica sativa, and your marijuana dispensary can share different uses for different strains of medical marijuana. Indica strains often, but not always, have a higher CBD content than many sativa strains.


Beyond their general names, each unique strain has a different cannabinoid profile, and may benefit you in different ways depending on your individual needs. Understanding the differences in each cannabinoid can help you work with your marijuana dispensary to discover the benefits of cannabis that are right for you.

What do Cannabinoids Do?

Cannabinoids bind to natural receptors (cells that react to proteins and other molecules) in our central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. These receptors are specific cells located in our brain and nearly everywhere else throughout the body. The main cannabinoid receptors are called CB1and CB2 receptors. [Source]

Some cannabinoids bind to CB1 receptors which are located primarily in the brain and throughout the central nervous system. The best-known cannabinoid, THC, binds with these receptors and produces the euphoric psychoactive effects people are familiar with from cannabis use. The next-best-known cannabinoid, CBD, interacts primarily with CB2 receptors, and has physical effects with less-pronounced psychoactive effects. In fact, most of the effects of cannabinoids are physical, not psychoactive. [Source]

What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

Our bodies have a large endocannabinoid system that includes specialized receptor cells in the brain and throughout the rest of our bodies, including our digestive system, different organs, muscles and skin. Scientists first discovered the endocannabinoid system in the early 1990s. Research on the health benefits of cannabinoids and how they affect our bodies through the endocannabinoid system continues.  [Source]

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a natural part of the body, and our bodies make endocannabinoids naturally in addition to the cannabinoids that can be present in cannabis. So, the ECS is active and present in our daily lives whether or not we use cannabis or cannabinoids. 

The ECS includes the cannabinoid receptors, CB1andCB2, and they have an influence on complex body functions. Cannabinoids and endocannabinoids bind to receptors and help to regulate how our body functions. Some cannabinoids can help manage other substances from influencing the receptors and body functions. Overall, research has shown that the ECS is linked to the following processes in the body:

Some researchers believe that the main function of the ECS may be to help our bodies maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is a biological or medical term that refers to “stability and the ability to function healthily in your environment.” [Source]

what are cannabinoids

How do cannabinoid receptors work?

Our bodies have two main types of cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. It’s possible there are more types of receptors that haven’t yet been discovered. Cannabinoid receptors are influenced by cannabinoids in different ways. For example, THC binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, and affects both the brain and the body. 

The other well-known cannabinoid, CBD (cannabidiol), doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors in the same way as THC. It reacts with the ECS in a more complex way that’s still being researched. However, its effects may include a variety of potential physical and mental benefits. It’s currently being studied for potential uses ranging from supporting regular sleep patterns to reducing anxiety and improving concentration. [Source] 

Understanding the entourage effect

Research is still ongoing on how cannabinoids affect the body and mind. You might’ve heard about the “entourage effect,” which refers to the way that the large number of cannabinoids and other natural compounds in cannabis work together in synergy. The bottom line: scientists already know that a lot of people can benefit from cannabinoids working together compared to using any one single cannabinoid alone.

Want to know more about the entourage effect? Take a deep dive with our in-depth article.

List of major cannabinoids and their effects

Some cannabinoids are better-known than others. Here, we’ll give you a run-down of the most notable ones, plus a list of other major cannabinoids. [Source]


Cannabidiol (CBD) is an international health phenomenon, leading to billions of dollars in sales and tens of thousands of different products. CBD works in the body in a complex way, and it’s primarily bioactive, not psychoactive.


Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, and it has psychoactive and physical (bioactive) effects. Its best-known effect is intoxication, or the “high” effect experienced by some, but it can also improve appetite while supporting comfort and reducing anxiety.

CBGA (Cannabigerolic acid)

CBGA, like CBD, doesn’t tend to cause a feeling of intoxication. Some researchers call CBGA “the mother cannabinoid” because it is a precursor for some other cannabinoids. Research is ongoing to discover if it can relieve anxiety and physical discomfort, and combat inflammation and infection in humans.

THCA (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid)

Did you know there’s a type of THC that won’t make people “high”? There is: THCA. THCA sounds like THC, but it’s actually “pre-THC” – it’s tetrahydrocannabinol acid, found in the living cannabis plant. The compound slowly turns into THC as the plant ages and quickly becomes THC when it’s heated (smoked or vaped).

Research is just beginning on THCA, but it’s generally known to be non-intoxicating. Emerging reports shows that it could have benefits for inflammation and neuroprotection for degenerative neurological diseases. Initial studies are being conducted to determine whether THCA could potentially reduce nausea, improve appetite, or even slow the spread of prostate cancer.

CBDA (Cannabidiolic acid)

CBDA is another compound found in living cannabis plants. CBDA doesn’t bind to CBD1 or CBD2 receptors. Instead, it inhibits enzymes that influence the ECS system.

CBCA (Cannabichromenenic acid)

CBCA is a chemical precursor to CBC, and it’s also another chemical step descended from CBGA. CBC is one of the phytocannabinoids that comes from the cannabis plant. CBCA was first discovered in 1966, but research into its benefits is currently limited.

CBGVA (Cannabigerovarinic acid)

CBGVA is the precursor of CBGV or cannabigerovarin. Like the other acid precursors, it is found in the living cannabis plant or raw cannabis flower and transforms when exposed to heat. It is non-psychoactive, like most cannabinoids. However, research is very limited on this cannabinoid, so its effects are not yet well-known.

THCVA (Tetrahydrocanabivarinic acid)

THCVA is a precursor to THCV, tetrahydrocannabivarin, and is like the other cannabinoids that come from the raw flowers of the cannabis plant. THCVA can potentially reduce inflammation. THCV has been studied more than THCVA, and some research studies show that it can have benefits in reducing overeating and obesity.

CBDVA (Cannabidivarinic acid)

CBDVA is the chemical precursor to CBDV, and both are similar to cannabidiol (CBD). It, like other cannabinoids, remains under study, though it’s known that CBDVA is not intoxicating.

CBCVA (Cannabichromevarinic acid)

CBCVA (Cannabichromevarinic acid) is considered one of the major acids found in the cannabis plant, and, like other cannabinoids found in the living plant, it isn’t thought of as psychoactive/intoxicating.

cannabis effects

What are the health benefits of cannabinoids?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) influences so many different types of body functions, including basic homeostasis or balance, that cannabinoids might have almost limitless health benefits. However, because many of these compounds haven’t been fully researched, the health benefits are still being studied.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that lab-created cannabinoid drugs (approved by the FDA) can be used to manage epilepsy, nausea, vomiting, weight loss and loss of appetite. 

 A 2017 study conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded that there was conclusive, substantial evidence that cannabinoids from the cannabis sativa plant could benefit:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle spasticity

This National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine study also found moderate evidence for cannabinoids benefiting:

  • Sleep outcomes in people with obstructive sleep apnea, muscle spasm, and potential pain relief.

Cannabis is also being studied for the following:

  • Increasing appetite and decreasing weight
  • Improving clinician-measured MS symptoms (as opposed to patient reports)

Have questions about cannabinoids or need a consultation? Call, email or visit RISE Cannabis Dispensaries and our knowledgeable staff will be happy to help.

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