Beyond CBD: The Trace Phytocannabinoids


What are the trace phytocannabinoids that show up in some CBD products? And do they have health benefits of their own?

In the 1960s, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli chemist, first synthesized CBD and THC.

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or Δ9-THC, was identified as the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis. Because of its intoxicating effects and high concentration in the plant, THC has dominated our understanding of the pharmacology of cannabis ever since.

But this narrow focus failed to capture the full effects of cannabis. Today, the CBD research renaissance has revealed many medical uses for cannabis that had been previously overlooked. And CBD is just the beginning.

CBD is one of many naturally occurring compounds in cannabis that are known as phytocannabinoids. These other compounds are just beginning to receive the attention they deserve.

After all, there are over 70 known cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, each with unique effects in the body. Keep reading to learn about the trace phytocannabinoids that you are most likely to find in your CBD products.

What is a Cannabinoid?

A cannabinoid is a compound that is capable of interacting with two sensors named CB1 and CB2.

— Dr. Giovanni Battista Appendino, University of Eastern Piedmont

You are probably aware that both CBD and THC are cannabinoids, and it may seem obvious that a “cannabinoid” is just a compound produced by cannabis. However, that definition is somewhat lacking.

In an email interview, Dr. Giovanni Battista Appendino of the University of Eastern Piedmont explained the differences in the definition of the word “cannabinoid” for two scientific disciplines.

For a chemist, a cannabinoid is “a compound that nature produces in a way analogous to [those in] cannabis,” he said.

For pharmacologists, on the other hand, “a cannabinoid is a compound that is capable of interacting with two sensors named CB1 and CB2.” In other words, the pharmacological definition is based on the compound’s function, not its structure.

The Endocannabinoid System

The two “sensors” that Appendino mentioned are one part of the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). These sensors exist on the surface of cells throughout your body. They interact with the signaling molecules anandamide and 2-AG, two endocannabinoids that the body produces naturally.

Early research shows that this system plays a role in appetite, pain, mood, memory, fertility, and cognition. As a result, cannabinoids can provide relief for a huge range of conditions including pain, addiction, and neurodegenerative diseases.

THC, CBD, and other phytocannabinoids work primarily by mimicking anandamide and 2-AG. This allows them to exert a wide range of effects on the body, and each cannabinoid interacts with this system in a different way.

The Entourage Effect: The Whole is Greater than the Parts

Understanding the effects and importance of each individual cannabinoid is a difficult task.

The mixture of chemicals in cannabis is complex and varies between strain, growing stage, and preparation. This cocktail of chemicals interacts with the ECS, modifying the effects of THC and CBD. And with 70 or more chemicals interacting, it can be hard to predict their effects.

These complex interactions have been described through a theory called the entourage effect. This theory states that the interactions of cannabinoids are further complicated by another group of chemicals, terpenes. These are natural aromatic compounds that occur in many plants, including fruits, flowers, and cannabis.

Preliminary evidence indicates terpenes and cannabinoids may interact in synergistic or competitive ways. The entourage effect states that these interactions are essential to the variable effects of cannabis preparations.

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Phytocannabinoids: Chemicals Produced By Cannabis

The trace cannabinoids discussed here fit the chemist’s definition of a “cannabinoid.”

For many of the obscure cannabinoids, their effects on the ECS (if any) are still unknown. Some of these cannabinoids may interact with other systems in the body to provide additional benefits.

Research on trace cannabinoids is just beginning to reveal the complex effects of cannabis products. Furthermore, the chemicals found in cannabis may provide treatments for conditions unrelated to the endocannabinoid system. The lack of knowledge about most of these substances still presents a significant hurdle.

Cannabis contains an extremely complex mixture of compounds. “This elevates cannabis products into a highly-complex, hence less understood, substance,” said Dr. Lakshmi Kotra, a senior scientist at the University of Toronto’s University Health Network.

He hesitates to make any bold claims about the importance of particular trace cannabinoids because there is still “a lot of research that’s needed.”

Trace Phytocannabinoids in CBD Products

By understanding the effects of different mixtures, doctors will be able to prescribe the right medicine for each patient’s needs.

— Patrick Griffith, XOCBD

Cannabis extracts are often described as full spectrum. This term refers to extracts that have a mixture of phytocannabinoids, terpenes, and other substances from the plant.

This is in contrast to CBD isolate, which is a highly purified form of CBD. Some extraction techniques can produce CBD extracts with almost nothing else in them. These isolates are great if you only want the effects of CBD. In addition, pure CBD extracts will include absolutely no THC. This is essential for those who are sensitive to the effects of THC.

Alternatively, full spectrum extracts include a broader mixture of compounds from cannabis. This may include terpenes, fatty acids, and trace cannabinoids. In the United States, federal law states that CBD products must contain less than 0.3% THC. However, they may contain higher concentrations of other biologically active cannabinoids.

Full spectrum CBD products may contain a large number of different trace cannabinoids in addition to CBD and THC. The most abundant and well-studied of these compounds are cannabichromene (CBC), cannabigerol (CBG), and cannabinol (CBN).

In addition, each cannabinoid has an acid form. None of the cannabinoid acids are intoxicating. This is why many cannabis products must be heated — or decarboxylated — before being used in order to get the pronounced psychoactive effects associated with being “high.”

The process of decarboxylation converts cannabidiolic acid, or CBDA, into CBD. It also converts the non-intoxicating phytocannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, or THCA, into THC. Though the cannabinoid acids are often thought of as “inactive” precursors, they can have unique biological effects.

What Do We Know About Trace Phytocannabinoids?

Cannabinoid research still has a long way to go. As a result, what we can say now is very limited and based on a small number of studies.

Still, the existing body of cannabinoid research has already revealed some important information about a handful of trace cannabinoids. Read on to learn what we know so far about the most common phytocannabinoids in CBD products.

What is Δ8-THC?

Full name: Δ8-tetrahydrocannabinol

Is it intoxicating? Yes

Where is the research? Very early stages

Possible benefits of Δ8-THC:
Δ8-THC Facts

Δ8-THC, or delta-8-THC, is very similar to the better-known Δ9-THC. It has the same shape as Δ9-THC, only differing in the placement of a double bond.

Its biological effects are also similar to THC. It is slightly less intoxicating than Δ9-THC.

While it has not been studied extensively, researchers are currently investigating its potential to treat nausea and pain. It also shows potential as an appetite stimulant.

What is CBDV?

Full name: cannabidivarin

Is it intoxicating? No

Where is the research? Early stages

Possible benefits of CBDV:
CBDV Facts

CBDV is another non-intoxicating, medically useful cannabinoid that is similar to CBD.

It is just beginning to be researched, but initial studies show a lot of promise. Its potential applications include promoting bone growth and working as an anti-convulsant in the treatment of epilepsy.

What is CBN?

Full name: cannabinol

Is it intoxicating? Mildly

Where is the research? It’s one of the more thoroughly researched phytocannabinoids

Possible benefits of CBN:
CBN Facts

CBN is one of the most prevalent trace cannabinoids. It was one of the first cannabinoids to be identified and was originally thought to be the primary psychoactive cannabinoid.

We now know that CBN is a degraded form of THC that occurs primarily in older cannabis products.

While CBN is psychoactive, it is about 10 times less potent than THC.

Though it has been associated with low-quality cannabis, CBN has some unique medical potential. It has many of the properties of THC with lessened intoxicating effects. Therefore, it may be useful for those sensitive to the effects of THC.

That said, CBN may also increase some of the effects of THC when combined.

What is CBC?

Full name: cannabichromene

Is it intoxicating? No

Where is the research? Very little research so far

Possible benefits of CBC:
CBC Facts

CBC is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that has received little attention so far.

That’s surprising, because it is the third most prevalent cannabinoid after THC and CBD. It occurs in high concentrations in cannabis strains grown for textiles as well as young plants, but not in intoxicating cannabis products.

It shows medical potential for a number of conditions including depression, pain, and inflammation. However, much more research is needed to understand the effects of this cannabinoid.

What is CBG?

Full name: cannabigerol

Is it intoxicating? No

Where is the research? Very little research so far

Possible benefits of CBG:
CBG Facts

CBG is a non-intoxicating phytocannabinoid with many potential medical benefits.

THC, CBD, and CBC are actually all produced from CBG in the cannabis plant. Though this means all cannabis plants produce CBG, most of it is eventually converted into one of these three other phytocannabinoids.

This process leaves lower concentrations of CBG in most final cannabis products. However, CBG is found in higher concentrations in cannabis leaves and cannabis grown for fiber. It has shown great potential for the treatment of a wide range of medical conditions.

What is CBDA?

Full name: cannabidiolic acid

Is it intoxicating? No

Where is the research? Some research exists

Possible benefits of CBDA:
CBDA Facts

CBDA is not technically a “trace” cannabinoid, as all CBD actually starts off as CBDA.

Fresh plant material is high in this “acid” version of CBD. Then, time and heat convert CBDA to the more commonly studied CBD.

CBD is generally considered to be more effective than CBDA. CBDA still has medical potential, however, and may act differently from CBD.

More research is needed into CBDA as well as other cannabinoids acids to understand their effects.

Don’t Ignore the Little Guys

The compounds mentioned above are the most abundant trace cannabinoids in CBD products. This makes them the easiest to identify, extract and study.

But it’s important to remember that the potency of cannabinoids is extremely variable. This means tiny amounts of other cannabinoids could change the effects of a CBD product. And there are more than 70 cannabinoids that have been identified in the cannabis plant. Each of these exerts its influence on the overall effect of cannabis preparations.

These varying effects may make certain preparations better for certain conditions. This is one reason why full spectrum CBD products are popular.

It may also be part of the reason that a specific product or mixture of cannabinoids may provide the best relief for one user, while having a different effect on another. Though important, it is clear that the concentration of CBD and THC isn’t the only factor at play.

Even Better Together

In full spectrum extracts, phytocannabinoids are not delivered in isolation. The mixtures of cannabinoids in these products work in concert to provide a unique benefit. For example, using THC, CBD, and CBDA in combination may be more effective at treating nausea than using any of these compounds alone.

This complexity makes it more difficult to understand the effects and medical potential of cannabis. However, this complexity also provides an opportunity.

Patrick Griffith of XO CBD told us that he hopes one day patients will be prescribed custom mixtures of cannabinoids. “Finding the right mixtures for different needs is essential.”

Complex cannabinoid mixtures could allow these medications to target the unique needs of each patient. Though this is still far off, new research is laying the groundwork.

The first step to harnessing these interactions is to understand the effects of cannabinoids in isolation and in combination.

“By understanding the effects of different mixtures, doctors will be able to prescribe the right medicine for each patient’s needs,” Griffith explained. “It is our job to figure out what [these trace cannabinoids] do.”

The Future of Phytocannabinoids

Today research into cannabis and its chemical constituents is on the rise. As many US states have legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use, the DEA has finally begun to allow more research into cannabis.

But there is still a stigma associated with this field. Stressing that the legal status of cannabis will have a large impact on how research progresses, Appendino said, “cannabinoid research needs to become mainstream and not be marginalized.”

Griffith is excited about the growth in cannabis research. “We are seeing a lot of academics getting involved. This will lead to far more serious research into the effects of trace cannabinoids. We can now use advanced tools and software to understand and predict the effects of different cannabinoids based on their structure.”

Though much of this research will focus on medical applications for cannabinoids, recreational cannabis will benefit as well. A better understanding of these substances will help us understand which compounds are more useful in medicine or for recreation.

As research continues,  Appendino suggests that “the idea that medicinal and recreational cannabis are two different things will gain acceptance.”


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