What is a Phytocannabinoid


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Any cannabinoid produced in the trichomes of a cannabis plant are called phytocannabinoids. Phytocannabinoids interact with our body’s receptors to produce therapeutic and psychotropic effects when they are extracted from the plant and consumed. Plants and animals both produce their own cannabinoids and those produced inside the human body are called endocannabinoids.


What are phytocannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are a type of lipophilic molecules that interact with the human body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). Exogenous cannabinoids, or phytocannabinoids, are plant-derived cannabinoids produced by the trichomes covering the surface of the cannabis plant. All of the plant’s desirable compounds are produced by trichomes. Although research in their effects has only been done of the most prominent cannabinoids, cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), more than 100 cannabinoids have been discovered in the cannabis plant.


What is the difference between phytocannabinoids and cannabinoids?

Cannabinoid refers to a broad class of chemical compounds produced by many biological species. Essentially, these chemicals help to regulate and balance a number of different biological functions.

Typically, cannabinoids can be broken down into two main categories: endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are produced by mammals while phytocannabinoids are produced by plants.

Cannabinoids produced inside the mammalian body are called endogenous cannabinoids or endocannabinoids. In order to perform at maximum capacity every function in our bodies requires a specific balance of factors. It’s called homeostasis when this balance is achieved. By helping the body maintain homeostasis endocannabinoids play a major role in survival. We’re inherently endowed with many targets the cannabis plant can activate since our bodies already use cannabinoid molecules to regulate many functions.

On a structural level phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids aren’t necessarily different. By binding to cannabinoid receptors they both activate the body’s ECS. By bringing the body to a balanced state of health, endocannabinoids activate a homeostatic effect. Our cells produce them in an “on-demand” fashion.

Phytocannabinoids may be making up for endocannabinoid deficiencies in the body when they trigger therapeutic responses since they have the ability to produce more overtly medicinal effects. Phytocannabinoids can also produce intoxication, which endocannabinoids alone cannot do.


Why does the plant produce cannabinoids?

Through the activation of homeostasis the human body produces cannabinoids for survival. In a far more direct response to external pressures, the cannabis plant also produces cannabinoids for its survival. As a defense against environmental hazards such as insects and harsh weather conditions, hytocannabinoids, produced by the cannabis plant’s trichomes cover the surface of the plant.


Biosynthetic pathways

Biosynthesis, in which enzymes trigger a series of chemical reactions that create complex molecules from simple ones, is how cannabinoids are produced. Most of us are familiar with cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) synthase, cannabichromenic acid (CBCA) synthase and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) synthase – the enzymes responsible for producing the cannabinoids. These enzymes then take the central cannabinoid precursors, cannabigerovarin acid (CBGVA) and cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), and convert them into the acidic cannabinoids CBDA, CBCA and THCA.

Decarboxylation is how these cannabinoids may be altered further. Either by heat or prolonged exposure to environmental stress, when a chemical compound decarboxylates it loses carbon atoms and releases carbon dioxide. THCA and CBDA exhibit psychoactive effects once they decarboxylate into THC and CBD respectively. CBD, THC and other neutral cannabinoids can then be metabolized, or broken down into other cannabinoids by way of oxidation, or exposure to oxygen. CBD may be oxidized into the metabolites cannabidinodiol (CBND) and cannabielsoin (CBE), as an example.


How phytocannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system

Through its three main components the ECS helps the body maintain functional balance: “messenger” molecules that our bodies synthesize, the receptors that these molecules bind to and the enzymes that break them down. Appetite, pain, energy metabolism, stress, reward and motivation, sleep, reproduction and cardiovascular function are a few of the functions influenced by the endogenous cannabinoid system.

What is the Endocannabinoid System

CB1 and CB2 are the two categories that cannabinoid receptors fall into. CB1 receptors regulate a wide variety of brain functions as they are mostly found in the central nervous system. They’re actually the most widely expressed protein of their kind in the brain . The CB1 receptor’s major role is to control the timing and frequency of the release of other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, glutamate and serotonin. Immune cells, which circulate throughout the body and brain via the bloodstream is where CB2 receptors are mostly found as well as on neurons in a few select brain regions. Immune responses, including inflammation and pain, are governed by CB2 receptors. By binding to these receptors phytocannabinoids interact with the ECS, which in turn elicit a regulatory response from the body.

All of our endocannabinoid systems are unique. The number of cannabinoid receptors in our bodies varies widely as do the rates of endocannabinoid production. The brain reduces the number of CB1 receptors that are available for activation from prolonged use of cannabis. We can observe that just 48 hours of abstinence from cannabis is enough to resensitize the system and bring the expression of CB1 proteins to a level comparable to non-cannabis users.


The entourage and ensemble effect

Hundreds of molecules that have the ability to interact with our minds and bodies directly are contained in cannabis. Other plant-derived molecules such as terpenes and flavonoids also bind our cells and influence our experiences besides the cannabinoid molecules that are relatively unique to the cannabis plant. The most desirable effects are potentially enhanced by all of these cannabis-derived molecules working synergistically with one another. Due to their potential for supporting, if not enhancing, the therapeutic potency of cannabinoids such as CBD and THC, terpenes are an essential piece of the cannabis puzzle. This relationship between cannabis compounds is known as the entourage, or ensemble, effect.

To explain how a combination of cannabis compounds is more effective than an isolated compound Israeli researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam coined the term entourage effect. Rather than one type of cannabinoid leading the charge while the rest follow, as the word entourage implies, the term ensemble effect has been used as an arguably more accurate description of the way terpenes, phytocannabinoids and other cannabis compounds work together cooperatively.


Prominent phytocannabinoids and their potential health benefits

A wide range of medicinal and therapeutic applications are considered phytocannabinoid benefits. A sizeable amount of scientific research suggests that phytocannabinoids can reduce anxiety, pain and inflammation, and provide other healthful benefits, although there is a lot of research that still needs to be done. Here are some specific phytocannabinoids, as well as some of their health and wellness properties:


Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol – more commonly known as THC – is the main intoxicating component of cannabis. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for motor skills, decision-making attention and other executive functions, has increased blood flow to it with THC intoxication. THC’s effects on these functions will vary from person to person. Feelings of euphoria are triggered when THC binds to CB1 receptors in the brain’s reward system . Interaction with CB1 receptors in the midbrain are responsible for THC’s ability to relieve pain.


The most common cannabinoid found in the raw cannabis plant is tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA). When decarboxylated (by heat) non-intoxicating THCA converts into the intoxicating THC. THCA has its own potential for treating nausea and vomiting, inflammation and nervous system degeneration.


The second-most abundant cannabinoid in cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), has many potential therapeutic benefits , including analgesic, anti-epileptic, anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties. CBD can be sourced from both hemp and cannabis plants.


Cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) turns into CBD through decarboxylation (heating). If you’re consuming cannabis in any raw form you’re ingesting CBDA and not CBD. Animal studies suggest CBDA could be an effective anti-nausea , anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory agent.


Both CBD and CBDV derive from the cannabinoid precursor CBGVA making CBDV a relative of CBD.  CBDV has benn discovered to have anticonvulsant and anti-epileptic properties .


The acidic form of CBDV found in raw cannabis is Cannabidivarinic acid (CBDVa).


A decarboxylated form of CBGA is cannabigerol (CBG) and it weakly binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors . It also inhibits the “bliss molecule” (endogenous cannabinoid anandamide). CBG has and is currently being investigated for its potential to stimulate appetite and treat irritable bowel disease and Huntington’s , along with other health benefits.


Commonly found in old or aging cannabis, cannabinol (CBN) is a degraded form of THC. Although research has not shown such results in humans, CBN remains primarily referenced as a potent sleep aid. It does, however, have potential in fighting pain, inflammation, bacteria and convulsions, and has been shown to stimulate bone-cell growth and appetite.


A decarboxylated form of cannabichromene carboxylic acid (CBCA) is cannabichromene (CBC). It may boost neural cells that assist in brain function as well as alleviate pain .


Typically only found in cannabis in trace amounts, tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) may contribute to the anticonvulsant and anti-epileptic effects of cannabis. THCV may also be useful in treating obesity , although research is still ongoing .


The acidic form of THCV is tetrahydrocannabivaric acid (THCVa). To full understand its potential effects more research is needed.


Delta-8-THC is a close relative of the more prominent delta-9-THC, as the name suggests. The placement of one atomic double bond is the only difference from delta-9-THC. Early studies indicate that the former may be less intoxicating, although more research is needed to discern the exact differences between delta-8-thc and delta-9.



There are a staggering number of chemotypes (chemical phenotypes) of cannabis. The chemical profile of a cannabis plant, i.e., it’s terpene and cannabinoid content, is represented by a cannabis chemotype.

Chemotypes of cultivated varieties

The expression of predominantly CBD and THC in most strains is the result of selective breeding. One cultivated variety does not necessarily express one unifying chemotype, but rather, may exhibit a spectrum of chemotypes, research suggests. Two plants of the same cultivated variety may have slightly different chemical expressions, in other words. As concluded by a recent study , classifying cannabis by its terpene and cannabinoid contents would be more effective than our current sativa/indica/hybrid taxonomy in identifying the best medical uses for a given cultivar.

Chemotypes of landrace varieties

A cannabis plant grown in its native environment and geographical region is called a landrace (wild). Durban Poison, Panama Red, Acapulco Gold and Afghanistan are examples of original landrace strains of cannabis domesticated for traditional cultivation. The cannabinoid profiles that nature intended before humans intervened with intensive breeding are represented by these strains.

What is phytocannabinoid-rich hemp?

Also known as full-spectrum or whole-plant hemp, phytocannabinoid-rich hemp is simply hemp with its full range of organically-occurring  phytocannabinoids intact.


Phytocannabinoid products

Isolate and concentrates

In recent years concentrates have taken the cannabis world by storm. All of the most desirable properties from cannabis trichomes – namely terpenes and cannabinoids – are isolated and accumulated into one product. You may have used or at least heard of full-spectrum extracts, distillate or sauce. These are all forms of cannabis concentrates.

Infused into cannabis goods

You can find a wide selection of high-quality beverages, baked goods and treats infused with cannabis flower or concentrate thanks to advances in the cannabis culinary arts and the emergence of distillate. Edibles offer the effects of phytocannabinoids  and other cannabis compounds without having to smoke or vapourize them.

Resulting in delayed onset compared to inhalation and sublingual delivery, edibles are absorbed through the digestive system. Metabolized in the liver, the absorbed compounds are converted into a compound called 11-hydroxy-THC. It is typically more sedating and more potent than THC that’s smoked. It can take 45 to 180 minutes for the effects of edibles to appear while the duration of the effects can vary.

Cannabis tinctures – When Western medicine adopted the use of medical cannabis in the mid-to-late 19th century, cannabis tinctures – concentrated extracts suspended in a liquid, most commonly alcohol or glycerin – came to prominence as a medicine. Medical cannabis reached its peak in Europe and the U.S., largely in the form of tinctures and extracts, during the 1890s in particular.

For the same reason they were popular in the 19th century, the ability of users to administer consistent doses, tinctures are making a comeback. Capsules and sublingual sprays have emerged as popular forms of ingesting tinctures.

Cannabis-infused products applied to the skin in the form of oils, patches, lotions, soaps, bath salts, lubricants, sprays and cool or warm balms are called topicals.

This post is also available in: Français (French)

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