What Are Phytocannabinoids? The Full Guide


Phytocannabinoids Explained

CBD and THC may receive the majority of the attention, but there are a total of 113 ‘phytocannabinoids’ among the 545 compounds found within a ‘typical’ marijuana plant.

Most of the time these are referred to simply as ‘cannabinoids‘ with the ‘Phyto’ added simply as an umbrella term that identifies these compounds as being derived from plants.

The key to understand is that there are a lot of them! While CBD and THC tend to make up the largest percentages, there’s a growing interest in how these additional cannabinoids interact with each other alongside terpenes and flavinoids also found within the plant.

Most cannabinoids tend to be found within the plant’s resin and the quantities they contain can vary depending on the particular kind of strain. Even though over a hundred may have been identified we do not yet understand very much about them.

The majority of research over the years has focused on the psychoactive qualities of THC with comparatively little interest in CBD, CBDa, or the perhaps the most interesting ‘new’ compounds – CBC and CBN.

Photocanninoids are derived from the plant, while it may surprise some to discover that the body also produces its own natural cannabinoids. These are referred to as endocannabinoids and have their own receptors dotted throughout the body. Phytocannabinoid oils are increasingly taken to help support our individual endocannabinoid system and give a boost to what we can (or may not be able to) naturally produce – just like how we may take any other supplement.

Some scientific research suggests that they may help with an enormous variety of health problems.

Phytocannabinoids – Why They Exist

So why do cannabis plants need phytocannabinoids? It’s for the same reason why the human body also requires them – to fight off external threats to their health.

Most phytocannabinoids are produced from the trichomes that cover the surface from leaves to stalk. It can essentially offer a kind of shield against bad weather/temperatures and even dissuade predators from eating them.

Trichomes are effective at:

  • Offering protection against frosts.
  • Preventing the loss of moisture to wind.
  • Stopping many predators from consuming the plant material.
  • Encouraging pollination.
  • Keeping the plant at a steady temperature in hot and humid environments.
Trichomes On Cannabis

Trichomes are also the primary producer of THC

Some other plants produce trichomes but the “high” is almost exclusive to the cannabis plant.

As for why the cannabis plant produces THC, the best theories tend to lean towards it being able to prevent microbial diseases. Unlike the human immune system, the plant needs to fight off risks before they have the opportunity to infect as they do not have any kind of remedial system. Trichomes are basically their first and only line of defense.

An interesting point worth mentioning here is that while trichomes do seem to serve as a deterrent to contamination, plants with higher levels of THC are no more or less susceptible to those with far less of these qualities. It seems that quantity/strength makes no difference at all.

So while phytocannabinoids serve some kind of protective role we are still quite some way from understanding exactly how this relates to the quantities/presence of THC – or why the psychoactive element exists at all.

How They Are Made

Phytocannabinoids are created by a process known as biosynthesis. Small enzymes such as THCA, CBCA, and CBDA react together alongside the cannabinoid precursors CBGA and CBGVA to create the core cannabinoids CBDA and THCA. Now the plant needs to expose these to heat (decarboxylation) during which some CO2 and carbon atoms will be shed. This will take a degree of time and accounts for the difference in speed that plants grow in varying conditions.

Over the final stages of the process, the CBDA will become CBD and THCA converts to THC. They can also then be broken down into other cannabinoids such as CBND and many others through oxidation – which is basically why there are so many cannabinoids in the plant.

How Do Photocannabinoids Interact With The Endocannabinoid System?

Earlier we briefly touched upon how scientific interest, research, and investment into the properties of cannabis have been stymied by a fascination with THC and the ‘high’ it gives. So little concern was placed into the cannabinoid receptors within the body that they were not really discovered until the late 1980’s.

You’d think such a groundbreaking discovery would have caused a rethink in the scientific approach to the properties of cannabinoids (and the health-supporting properties they might contain) – but nope! Research has so far identified only CB1 and CB2 receptors and has only recently started to believe that there could be a third (GPR55).

What makes this snails-pace progress even more bizarre is the solid proof for CB receptors being the most common neuroreceptor in the entire body. They play a vital role in the control and release of hormones, are essential to the immune and nervous systems, and have a considerable role to play in how the body both handles inflammation and copes with pain.

Here’s an example of what understanding just one of these endocannabinoids can deliver. Back in 1992 anandamide was identified by a team at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. It very closely resembles THC by being able to regulate mood, memory, pleasure, and appetite. Colloquially known as the ‘bliss molecule’ it’s thought to be one of the reasons why we sometimes feel high after performing some extensive exercise – basically like a natural reward for our hard efforts.

Since this discovery the same research department went on to identify a handful of other endocannabinoids: 2-AG is perhaps the best example for showing how important this could be. It plays a key role within the central nervous system and is essential to helping our immune system run effectively. Further studies have suggested that it may also be integral for pain control.

Despite these groundbreaking results, research into endocannabinoids remains far from even halfway accounting for the many ways that these are essential for keeping the body operating smoothly.

A Selection Of Interesting Phytocannabinoids

Understanding precisely what purpose all of these phytocannabinoids play is still far from understood. It’s far from pessimistic to assume that we are decades away from figuring out how they combine and work together. Yet there is some cause for optimism. What has been discovered so far (as noted with 2-AG) is overwhelmingly positive, and serves as a solid indicator that future discoveries are going to be extremely important.

Plenty of CBD enthusiasts have long believed in the ‘entourage effect’ whereby all of these cannabinoids can combine together somehow to provide a much more positive and beneficial effect on the body. We may still be a long way from categorically proving this theory, but it’s fair to say that early evidence suggests that they may well be on the right lines.

What Are Phytocannabinoids?

1) THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol)

THC is one of the most abundant compound found in the cannabis plant and tends to be removed for practical and legal reasons in most medical supplements. It’s the sole cannabinoid which provides the euphoric highs that the plant remains most famous for. By stimulating the brain’s reward center it can also affect appetite and mood.

2) THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid)

THCA is actually the most abundant phytocannabinoid in raw marijuana and converts to THC when it’s heated (decarboxylated). Very early research suggests a possibility that it may help to protect the brain, especially memory and recall. It’s early days but future studies are likely to focus on how it reacts with people suffering degenerative diseases.

3) CBD (Cannabidiol)

This is the second most common phytocannabinoid (behind THC) and most probably now the best known.

It’s an alternative to ‘medical marijuana’ whereby the whole plant is taken and can be found in products such as CBD oils.

As the industry is largely unregulated the quality and provenance of many of these products are often questionable.

4) CBDA (Cannabidiolic Acid)

Just like THCA, this will convert to CBD when subjected to decarboxylation. It has actually been one of the most studied phytocannabinoids.

5) THCV & THCVa (Tetrahydrocannabivarin & Tetrahydrocannabivaric Acid)

Generally speaking, this is only found in very small quantities but is thought to stimulate the appetite. Anyone who has ever had the “munchies” and blamed THC – now you know the real villain!

6) CBN (Cannabinol)

Even though CBN is the third most present phytocannabinoid in marijuana it still comprises under 1% in most strains although late harvests tend to contain a little more. CBN is an off-shoot from THC and is comparatively very benign.

Most studies (and they’re quite limited so far) focus on the potential it could hold for treating sleep disorders due to its mildly sedating effects.

7) CBC (Cannabichromen)

Here’s another compound that’s believed to be able to stimulate neural cell growth and production. It also needs to be subjected to heat in order to form.

8) CBDV & CBDVa (Cannabidivarin & Cannabidivarinic Acid)

Only found in raw plants, it is thought that when isolated this precursor could have strong anticonvulsant properties. Quite possibly one of the breakthrough aspects of medicinal marijuana.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, there’s plenty that we still have to discover when it comes to phytocannabinoids and how they affect and influence the human body.

Thanks to the sudden growth in popularity with cannabis/hemp-derived supplements the good news is that it has also stimulated a renewed interest within the scientific and medicinal research fields.

Unfortunately, identifying specific cannabinoids and understanding how they can interact with identifiable health conditions is invariably an expensive, time consuming and frustrating process.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that phytocannabinoids do appear to play a significant role in helping supplements effectively bind with the endocannabinoid system. It has long been theorised, but now the trickle of scientific finding is starting to indicate that there is some kind of weight in the ‘entourage effect’ concept.