What the Heck Is a Cannabinoid?

The Third Chapter from the Diary of a Budding Cannabis Nurse

Meredith Patterson (right) entering a grow room on a tour of the Culivation Labs facility in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2018.

When I started to dig into the science of cannabis (which involved learning how to say and spell marijuana’s proper name), something called cannabinoids kept creeping into the conversation.  And to understand this big word, I had to revisit chemistry class.

I took chemistry class in high school because I thought it would be useful later on.  My teacher happened to be a ham radio hobbyist and he loved to show his students his cobbled-together radio contraption which looked like my dad’s “hi fi system” but with a cool speaker attachment and lots of silver knobs. For the fall semester, I don’t think we learned much about chemistry other than a cursory introduction the Periodic Table of Elements.  Then we went back to twirling knobs.

The following semester we Chem students made combinations of elements, creating “compounds” by drawing diagrams of hexagons or creating  3-dimensional versions  fashioned out of plastic colored balls and connecting wooden sticks, like dumbbells gone awry. The recipes for compounds made practical things – put a few elements together and make water, hydrogen peroxide, or whatever.

In a similar fashion, the compounds found in the cannabis plant are called cannabinoids.  And when you break down the plant there are hundreds of these compounds, about 80 of which are unique to cannabis.

The most famous cannabinoid, the primary psychoactive component of the plant and the star of “Reefer Madness”, is THC.  And let’s be honest – THC is what most people think about whenever the subject of cannabis is mentioned.   But the other compounds, many of which keep you firmly rooted in reality, can be used alone or in combinations for all kinds of medical purposes.  Three classes of cannabinoids, the CBG, CBC and CBD are not known to have any psychoactive effect at all.

Now here’s where cannabis science has me jumping into the deep end of the pool with both feet – our human brains and bodies have specific receptor sites that bind with cannabinoids.   That’s right – we have our own built-in system specifically designed to respond to cannabinoids.   Even some animals have receptor sites.   There are many receptors.  The chief among these were ingeniously named CB1 and CB2 and were discovered in the mid 1990’s.  The CB1 receptor is expressed mainly in the brain, but also in the lungs, liver and kidneys. The CB2 receptor lives in the immune system and in cells which have to do with the formation of new blood cells.  CB1 helps to modulate neurotransmitters; those are the magic brain chemicals which act as messengers and drive communication between brain cells.

Brain functions controlled by CB1-modulated neurotransmitters are diverse and of utmost significance as they include how we think, remember, learn new things, express emotions.  And that’s just for starters.  They also lord over bodily movement, fear, stress, pain, appetite and body temperature, among other critical functions.

Not to be outdone, the CB2 receptors play a different, yet equally helpful, health role by regulating   immune and anti-inflammatory responses. They control the release of cytokines which are little messenger cells that tell the other cells what do when responding to inflammation or an infectious invader.

Little wonder that potential medical uses for cannabis are so diverse!  Incredulous as it may seem, it would appear that our brains and bodies are patiently standing by to receive cannabinoids, like missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

How is it that I never knew this?

Meredith Patterson, RN, BSN, CRRN


Meredith Patterson is a nurse specializing in neurology. She writes about the brain and brain health at her blog – www.BrainStormmindfitness.com.



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