Cannabinoids: What Are They and How Do They Work?

How cannabinoids work

The biology of marijuana is dominated by cannabinoids, which are the chemical compounds that the cannabis flower secretes. THC and CBD, for instance, are cannabinoids.  The effects of marijuana are a result of these chemicals. In fact, if it weren’t for cannabinoids, there would be no psychoactive or medical uses for cannabis whatsoever.

How Cannabinoids Work

Endocannabinoids, as well as their receptors, make up the endocannabinoid system. This system is found in even the most primitive organisms, suggesting that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably pretty important. Cannabinoids work by imitating the endocannabinoids that our bodies produce naturally, which help regulate many functions of the body. The cannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors, which are found in most parts of the brain as well as the immune system. They play a role in everything from immune response to bone growth, from blood pressure to sleep.

A Closer Look

For anyone hoping to truly nerd-out, hold on to your microscope because here we go!microscope, woman looking into a microscope Cannabinoids weren’t discovered until the 1980s, and endocannabinoids were discovered in humans in 1992 by Lumír Hanuš, a Czech chemist working in Israel at the time.

Before tthe discovery of the ECS, it was believed that cannabinoids produced their effects by interacting with cell membranes, rather than interacting with the membrane receptors. Only two types of cannabinoid receptors are presently known: CB1 and CB2.  They’re located throughout the human body as well as the bodies of other mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles. Different cannabinoids bond to different receptors, producing different results (and it’s likely that there are more than two receptor types – they just haven’t been discovered yet).

Cannabis contains at least 85 different cannabinoids (and probably several others).

Strains are continuously being created to deliver larger doses of certain chemicals in hopes of offering relief for specific symptoms.

Cannabinoids can be ingested a few different ways. They can be inhaled, vaporized, or consumed orally. They can also be injected, placed under the tongue, or administered via transdermal patch. For people looking for something truly new, they can even be used as a rectal suppository. Once they enter the body, they are metabolized the same place as most drugs: the liver. Some cannabinoids are stored in fat as well, which is one of the reasons a positive drug test can occur several weeks after ingestion.

Cannabinoids and Cancer

If there is one disease begging for a cure, it’s cancer. A malady that knows no boundaries, it attacks the young and old, the fit and feeble. It’s also elusive, sometimes going into remission only to rear its ugly head again down the line. While chemotherapy and radiation have extended lives and offered cures, they aren’t always effective. This has lead scientists to look at cannabinoids.

Studies suggest that cannabinoids are beneficial to cancer patients in a few ways. According to the American Cancer Society, those who took marijuana extracts during clinical trials tended to need less opiates for pain control. There may be a more direct perk, too:

In some experiments, THC and CBD have either slowed tumor growth or induced death of cancer cells when introduced inside laboratory dishes.

How this affects human tumors is yet to be determined, which is why treating cancer with marijuana alone isn’t advocated. Ten years from now? Who knows.

Of course, cannabinoids may also prevent cancer from occurring in the first place. Recent studies point their fingers at a main cause of cancer: inflammation. Chronic inflammation has the potential to damage DNA, providing a foundation on which tumors build. This explains why cigarette smokers are more prone to lung cancer, why people with ulcerative colitis are more prone to colon cancer, why people with heartburn are more prone to esophageal cancer (and so on and so on).

Luckily, many things prevent inflammation. Exercise, a healthy BMI, and certain foods (like olive oil, tomatoes, fish, fruit, and curry) help prevent it. Straight from the “Best News Ever” section, chocolate is also an anti-inflammatorydark-chocolate, dark chocolate pieces (dark chocolate offers the most benefit by far). Your immune system prevents inflammation, too. This isn’t to say you need to live in a bubble, but maybe don’t go around licking petri dishes, either.

From a medicinal standpoint, aspirin gets a gold star. Per MD Anderson, it not only reduces the risk of cancer, but it also slows certain cancers and keeps others from coming back.  It does this by, you guessed it, fighting inflammation. Since cannabinoids also fight inflammation, it’s theorized that they provide a similar benefit. It makes sense, after all.

Too Good to be True?

Even with science’s backing, naysayers will always exist. For some, the potential link between marijuana and a cancer cure is too simple to be true. But history shows us that it happens. In 1928, the scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident. His discovery is largely hailed as the most important of the 20th century for one reason: it’s already saved around 200 million lives.

In the end, sometimes it really is that easy. Sometimes the answer you’ve been searching for was planted right in front of you all along.

Cannabinoids: What Are They and How Do They Work? was last modified: by
Jenn Keeler
About Jenn Keeler
Jenn Keeler is a freelance writer and illustrator specializing in humorous lifestyle articles. She is one of the few people on earth actually using an English degree. Her heart belongs to the Denver Broncos and her husband. In that order.