Cannabinoids are a class of naturally occurring compounds found in both the human body and in the cannabis plant. They interact with the endocannabinoid system, a biological system made up of endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.

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Endocannabinoids vs phytocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are endogenous (meaning made from within the body) neurotransmitters that bind with corresponding endocannabinoid receptors. When endocannabinoids bind with cannabinoid receptors, they signal different reactions depending on their location and the receptor targetted.

Our bodies produce cannabinoids as part of our endocannabinoid system, but cannabinoids also come from the cannabis plant, known as phytocannabinoids. Phytocannabinoids are similar to endocannabinoids and target the same receptors in the endocannabinoid system. We’ll be focusing on cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, or phytocannabinoids.

Types of cannabinoids

marijuana in a black glove, pot Cannabis is packed full of cannabinoids. The exact number is difficult to pinpoint, with various publications ranging from 60+ cannabinoids to at least 113. What we know for sure is there are many cannabinoids in cannabis, and some are more prevalent than others.


Cannabis is full of the cannabinoid THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid), the precursor to THC. The reason raw cannabis will not get you high if consumed is that raw cannabis contains THCA, not THC. THCA converts to THC when heated, or decarboxylated. Once the acid has been decarboxylated, you’re left with THC, the cannabinoid responsible for the intoxicating effects associated with cannabis.


Much like THCA, CBDA is the acidic precursor to CBD, a cannabinoid that has received lots of attention in recent years. CBDA is found in raw cannabis and converts to CBD when decarboxylated, just like how THCA turns to THC. Once decarboxylated, you’re left with CBD, the non-intoxicating cannabinoid that has been used by an estimated 64 million Americans in the last two years.


A much lesser-known cannabinoid, CBGA (cannabigerolic acid) is a crucial precursor to the formation of several cannabinoids, including CBDA and THCA. CBGA is found in large amounts in raw hemp. While this mother cannabinoid is not as well-known as others, it’s an essential component of forming many of the common cannabinoids.


CBC is short for cannabichromene, another lesser-known cannabinoid. Like others, it’s a product of CBGA. CBC comes from synthesizing CBGA into CBCA (cannabichromene acid), a cannabinoid that when decarboxylated, loses its acid form and becomes CBC.Other cannabinoids Beyond THCA, THC, CBDA, CBD, CBGA, CBCA, and CBC, there are many other cannabinoids present in the plant. THC and CBD are the most well-known, though researchers have found interest in learning about the other cannabinoids present in the plant, like CBN.

What do Cannabinoids do?

Medical marijuana buds in large prescription bottle with branded cap on black background iStock-tvirbickis
To understand how cannabinoids work, you’ll have to understand the endocannabinoid system. Researchers only identified and began to understand the endocannabinoid system in the last few decades, so it’s still a fairly new area to explore. The endocannabinoid system is a series of receptors, endocannabinoids, and enzymes that interact with one another in various ways. It’s widely understood as a regulator in the function of several processes, with the ability to help the body reach and maintain homeostasis.

While our body produces its own endocannabinoids that can target cannabinoid receptors and unlock processes, these receptors can also be activated by phytocannabinoids. Cannabinoids bind to the cannabinoid receptors in our bodies, causing different effects based on several factors, most of which are still being studied today. Cannabis gets users high because the cannabinoid THC binds to cannabinoid receptors, unleashing intoxicating effects.

Although more receptors may be involved, researchers have identified two primary cannabinoid receptors in the human body, CB1, and CB2. The interaction of cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors is often described by comparing the situation to a key and lock. In this case, the cannabinoid receptor is the lock, and the cannabinoid binding with it is the key that unleashes different effects.

Cannabinoid Receptor 1 (CB1)

CB1 receptors are largely found throughout the nervous system. They’re regarded as the most abundant metabotropic receptors (receptors acting indirectly through a second messenger) in the brain. CB1 receptors have also been found in human fat, liver, pancreas, and skeletal muscle. The location of the receptors gives a good idea of what kind of effects are unlocked by different cannabinoids binding. For example, since CB1 receptors are so abundant in the brain, it makes sense that THC binds to CB1 receptors and unlocks different effects on the brain.

Cannabinoid Receptor 2 (CB2)

CB2 receptors have a smaller distribution and are found frequently in immune cells. Since these receptors are primarily associated with immune health and inflammation responses rather than based in the brain, activating these receptors does not result in intoxicating effects like the activation of CB1 receptors does. THC also binds to CB2 receptors, but most of its notable effects are seen as it activates CB1 receptors and causes intoxication.

What We Don’t Know

The discovery of the endocannabinoid system is relatively new and there is no doubt we need more research to fully understand its function. We have a much better understanding of how cannabinoids interact with receptors in the body to cause various effects, but we’ve still got a ways to go. For example, we know that CBD works differently than THC by taking different molecular pathways and indirectly binding to receptors, but its exact path isn’t clear. We know it binds differently than THC, and some even suggest that it binds to a different cannabinoid receptor entirely to cause therapeutic effects. And then we have lesser-known cannabinoids that are receiving attention, like cannabigerol and cannabinol.

The discovery and potential uses of these cannabinoids open a lot of exciting doors but also means we will need a lot more research before we have a full grasp. What we do know is that cannabinoids are responsible for binding with receptors and unlocking various effects in the body.