What Is a Cannabinoid, Anyway?

Cannabinoid literature.

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There’s an awful lot of talk these days about CBD. In fact, CBD, whose real name is cannabidiol, is one of the most searched terms on the Internet. How did CBD and other cannabinoids become so popular? And just what are cannabinoids anyway?

In 2013, the chief medical correspondent for television news network CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, did a special report called Weed. The series took a look at the ways marijuana was being used medically, especially focusing on children who had severe epilepsy and the way marijuana was reducing their seizures. The series introduced the general public on a wide scale to cannabinoids, the chemical compounds in cannabis. Fast-forward just over five years, and cannabinoids are flooding the consumer market today.

Still, not everyone understands exactly what cannabinoids are and what they do. It’s easy to confuse all cannabinoids as being associated with “pot,” “weed,” or as something that gets you stoned or high. Let’s take a look at cannabinoids and set the record straight.

Cannabinoids and the Cannabinoid System

Cannabinoids are natural, biologically active internal chemical compounds within plants, animals, and humans. They get their name from the cannabis plant (hemp or marijuana), as the plant is chock full of more than 100 different varieties of cannabinoids, CBD and THC being the most well known. In plants, they are called phytocannabinoids, with the prefix “phyto” meaning plant.

While the cannabis plant has been around since God created the earth, not much was known scientifically about how it affected the human body until the 1960s, when tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, was named. It was discovered that THC was the chemical in the cannabis plant that acted on human brains by sort of hijacking some of our internal neuron signals, producing euphoria or a “high.” As these scientific studies continued, researchers figured out people had an internal system that cannabis affected, but they didn’t know exactly how. In 1970, cannabis became classified as a Schedule 1 drug, making it illegal in the United States. This halted a lot of the forward progress in medical and scientific research. However, some studies continued.

At the beginning of the 1990s, researchers in America and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem had major breakthroughs in discoveries about cannabinoids. Scientists in the United States mapped out the DNA sequence of cannabinoid receptors in the brain and cloned it. That means they could use the cloned mapping system to figure out how to turn the receptors on and off. Soon, they had mice with receptors turned off that were not affected by THC. They didn’t get high from cannabis, because the receptors that would have bound to it were shut off. A couple of years later, in 1992, Dr. Lumir Hanu at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, along with American researcher Dr. William Devane, made the discovery of the human endocannabinoid named anandamide. When they discovered that there are human chemicals that mimic the same compounds found in cannabis, they discovered the whole new world of the endocannabinoid system. “Endo” simply means internal. In shortened form, the endocannabinoid system is known as the ECS.  Through the mapping, Hanu, Devane, and others discovered that the ECS is a comprehensive signaling system that regulates a lot, if not most, of our bodily functions. It’s everywhere.

Where the Endocannabinoid System is Found

When scientists started tracing the pathways of phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids, they realized the endocannabinoid system was present all throughout the body. They discovered two receptors, which they call CB1 and CB2, into which natural cannabinoids in the body and from the cannabis plant fit a lot like keys in a lock. CB1 receptors are present in large amounts throughout the brain, while CB2 receptors are found in our immune systems and the peripheral nervous system. They are located in the gut, spleen, heart, liver, blood, blood vessels, lymph system and even our reproductive systems.

When the signals transmit properly across our ECS and all systems are go, our bodies remain in a healthy state, what scientists call “homeostasis.” When something goes wrong in our body, our ECS senses it and seems to synthesize endocannabinoids that work with our cannabinoid receptors to restore the body to good working order. If we do not produce enough endocannabinoid receptors or our bodies are not synthesizing enough endocannabinoids, we may suffer from any number of illnesses, emotional or physical.

Phytocannabinoids and Their Usefulness

That’s where the excitement over CBD oil and full spectrum hemp oil comes in. Research is showing that phytocannabinoids may help supplement our endocannabinoids when we lack them. They don’t exactly fit our receptors like the cannabinoids our bodies produce, but they seem to kickstart the human ECS back into action. They support the human ECS.

Because the receptors for these compounds are all over the body, people who use CBD oil and full spectrum hemp-derived cannabinoids are reporting relief from ailments that range from psoriasis to anxiety and from seizures to arthritis. Scientific and medical studies are ongoing, and there is much still to be learned about cannabinoids and the ECS. Before making any changes to your health routine, you should always consult your medical professional or doctor.

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