What Exactly are Cannabis Compounds?
Trichomes are like little treasure troves
Those little frosty mushroom like protrusions covering the surface of your bud are one-of-a-kind manufacturing facilities for hundreds of known therapeutic compounds called cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. We’ll dive deeply into each of these topics over time but these are the most important takeaways for the uninitiated....
One of the very first things you’re likely to notice about cannabis is it’s skunky, grassy, lemony, fruity, freggin’ amazing smell. We have terpenes to thank for that! Terpenes are the long chain compounds produced by a number of plants, insects, termites, and even a weird species of butterfly. They often have a strong odor and may protect the plants that produce them by deterring herbivores. Fortunately for us, the resin-like essential oil has the ability to act on our brain's neurotransmitters to enhance norepinephrine activity (as an antidepressant), increase dopamine activity and augment GABA receptors for an elevated mood.
Terpenes in cannabis
The fragrant terpene oils found in cannabis lend their unique aromas in different combinations from strain to strain. This is why Sour Diesel has its distinctive fuel scent and Blueberry smells just like a pick your own patch in spring. There is some evidence to support the hypothesis that terpenes may serve as inhibitors to THC’s intoxicating effects, thereby increasing its ability to act therapeutically. This may increase the potential of cannabis-based medicinal extracts to treat pain, inflammation, fungal and bacterial infections, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy or even cancer.
In order to understand cannabinoids you will need a quick overview of the body's endocanabinoid system:
The human body is host to several special cannabinoid receptors that hang out on the surface of all kinds of different cell types. You can think of them as little locks waiting to open up a doorway to therapeutic effects. Luckily, we also produce several endocannabinoid compounds that act as 'keys'. They bind to these receptors to activate or 'unlock' them. Cannabis just so happens to produce a unique set of compounds (or phytocannabinoids) that attempt to mimic or counteract with the compounds naturally produced in the body. We call these compounds Cannabinoids.
There are at least 113 different cannabinoids isolated from cannabis that we know of, each with unique effects. The most popular cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant are THC (which is the compound responsible for that ‘floaty feeling’) and CBD (which is gaining some attention for its profoundly therapeutic effects).
Of Weed and Wine
One of my favorite analogies to illustrate the difference between cannabinoids and terpenes involves a glass of wine. Like cannabis, wine is complicated. It’s full of things like ‘notes’ and ‘legs’ and ‘terwar’. But boiled down to it’s most basic, wine has three things going on: alcohol content, flavor, and aroma.
Just for a moment, you can think of cannabinoid content like you would think of the booze content in your favorite wine. In much the same way as wine will get you drunk be it red, blush, or white, cannabinoids will make you feel a little ‘lifted’. No matter what the wine tastes like it will do the trick.
Now you can think of the wines ‘notes’ or flavor and aroma as the terpenes in cannabis. Terpenes don’t necessarily make you feel ‘high’ just like the flavor and aroma in a glass of wine won’t make you feel drunk. But they will change the experience of your ‘high’ by lending their distinctive aromatic quality to the experience.
Flavonoids are one of the largest nutrient families with upwards of 6,000 unique variations identified today. Many of these flavonoids are found in our favorite edible plants. They are the phytonutrients responsible for making eggplant a deep dark purple and bell pepper a cheery yellow or red. They are also what gives cannabis it’s lovely green shade. Because many flavonoids have high antioxidant properties that support the detoxification of tissue-damaging molecules, flavonoid consumption is often associated with a decreased risk of certain cancers, pain relief, and anti-inflammatory properties. It is speculated that alongside cannabinoids like THC and CBD and terpenes the flavonoids in cannabis produce a wide range of effects though more research is needed to really say what those are.
We are only just beginning to understand the healing effects of these amazing compounds
We haven’t even scratched the surface and new information is published every day. I encourage you to look beyond this very simple explanation and educate yourself as much as possible on the kinds of things you choose to put in, on, or around your totally beautiful body. Sign up for my newsletter for a step by step guide to cannabis science.
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Up Next: Cannabinoids
I'm Mary J Poppins, herbalist, cannabis connoisseur and founder of the Sativa Science Club. Keep an eye on my blog Cannabis for Curious Creatures for nifty new products reviews, DIY tutorials, and scientific insights.