The Major Types of Cannabinoids in Hemp Products and How They Differ

by Dec 4, 2020Hemp & CBD Use

When most of us were young, hemp was known primarily for ropes and as the low-THC version of weed that icons like Abe Lincoln and Thomas J. had legendarily toked while relaxing on their own front porches. THC was the only cannabinoid many of us knew about, and that was without even knowing the term “cannabinoid”.

But in the last few years, CBD has gone mainstream in addition to THC, along with an alphabet soup of compounds that might all sound the same to the untrained reader. For that reader, we hope this breakdown will help differentiate the major cannabinoid types.

The primary activated cannabinoid compounds found in hemp products, by their typical levels of concentration, are:

  • CBD (Cannabidiol)
  • CBG (Cannabigerol)
  • CBC (Cannabichromene)
  • THC (Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol)
  • CBN (Cannabinol)

CBD tends to be the most prominent cannabinoid found in cured hemp flower, sometimes making up over 10% of flower weight. CBG is usually next in the low single digits, then CBC around 1%. THC is required to be below 0.3% by law, and CBN, a product of THC’s decay, tends to occur even less. [3]

But this list of five actually ignores nearly 20 total derivatives – each with its own physical properties and therapeutic effects – and still less than 20 of the 113 total plant-derived phytocannabinoids that scientists have identified to date. [4]


What are the Major Types of Cannabinoids in Hemp and How do They Occur?

While cannabinoids do come in seemingly-countless variations of the same few reorganized letters, there actually is a method to the CB-madness and a way to organize them in one’s own head:

First, the primary cannabinoids most of us are familiar with, THC and CBD, aren’t even produced directly by the hemp plant. The same goes for CBG and CBC. CBN is different from these too, and even further-removed from natural plant synthesis. [3]

This isn’t to say that our most well-known cannabinoids aren’t natural, however:

Instead of springing forth initially in their most familiar forms, the top cannabinoids we know, THC, CBD, CBG, and CBC, exist first in the hemp plant as the cannabinoid acids THCA, CBDA, CBGA and CBCA. [3]

Phytocannabinoid Fun Fact:
These naturally-occurring acids exist in high-enough concentrations that THCA or CBDA (whether marijuana or hemp) can be the predominantly-consumed cannabinoid in some hemp products, over the better-known non-acidic decarboxylated compounds THC and CBD. These lesser-known derivatives do have their own properties too. THCA doesn’t seem to have the psychoactive effects that THC does for instance, and CBDA is reported to taste less harsh than CBD while having similar therapeutic effect.

Each of these acids have a less prominent “short-chain” acid variant to be aware of also, noted as THCVA, CBDVA, CBGVA, and CBCVA.

Decarboxylating, or “activating” these major cannabinoid acids with heat or UV light during use or in processing yields the four non-acidic cannabinoids we’re most familiar with, mentioned above.

The decarboxylated short-chain variant compounds THCV, CBDV, CBGV, and CBCV can also be made from aforementioned THCVA, CBDVA, CBGVA, and CBCVA by the same process.

Further, these major cannabinoid acids and their short-chain variants all start as one of the two precursors CBGA or CBGVA, then break down into the others using enzymes in the plant, and may eventually end up as CBN or CBV, which form when THC or THCV oxidizes. [3]

In all, the five most-commonly-known cannabinoids we listed above account for at least 18 known cannabinoid derivatives:

PreCursors

  • CBGBA (acid)
  • CBG (decarboxylated)
  • CBGVA (short-chain acid)
  • CBGV (decarb’d short-chain)

Synthesized

  • THCA (acid)
  • THC (decarboxylated)
  • THCVA (short-chain acid)
  • THCV (decarb’d short-chain)
  • CBDA (acid)
  • CBD (decarb’d)
  • CBDVA (short-chain acid)
  • CBDV (decarb’d short-chain)
  • CBCA (acid)
  • CBC (decarb’d)
  • CBCVA (short-chain acid)
  • CBCV (decarb’d short-chain)

Oxidized

  • CBN (from THC)
  • CBV (from THCV)

Rather than oxidize to CBN, THC can also isomerize into “Delta 8” THC, [7] which scientists and enthusiasts are interested in for myriad reasons. It typically occurs at volumes of less than 0.1% in hemp though, [6] and therefore won’t be discussed further here.

Re-tracing the life-cycle of the major cannabinoids described above another way can paint a helpful picture of how they relate to each other, in plant function and in product concentrations.

Put simply:

  1. Precursor Cannabinoid Acids
    CBGA or CBGVA help create…
  2. Synthesized Cannabinoid Acids
    THCA, CBDA, CBCA or THCVA, CBDVA, CBCVA which can be converted to…
  3. Decarboxylated Cannabinoid Compounds
    THC, CBD, CBG, CBC or THCV, CBDV, CBGV, CBCV of which some will degrade to…
  4. Oxidized Cannabinoid Compounds
    CBN or CBV slowly in time with air exposure after harvest.

From the major cannabinoid life-cycle description alone, some fundamental cannabinoid relationships can be inferred that are already being taken advantage of in the United States by savvy growers and producers seeking specific results:

  • CBGA/VA stores convert to THCA/VA, CBDA/VA, and CBCA/VA in time.
    Therefore there is an inverse-relationship between total CBGA/VA content, and everything else which it eventually becomes. Surely-enough, plants harvested earlier tend to contain more CBGA and CBGVA, and produce more CBG and CBGV concentration than their more-matured counterparts. [2]
  • Cannabinoid acid concentrations have an inverse relationship to cannabinoid compound concentrations.
    More simply, more “activated” cannabinoids means fewer remaining cannabinoid acids. [2]
  • There is a trade-off between THCA/VA vs. CBDA/VA vs. CBCA/VA in total cannabinoid acid production.
    Put another way, a hemp plant only has so much CBG precursor acids to go around. High production of CBD acids will constrain the production of THC and other acids, and visa-versa.
    In early hemp specimens this production would have been much more balanced, but humans have long selectively-bred certain varieties for their immediate euphoric effects. These selected varieties are the cultivars we often call “marijuana”, and illustrate the only true distinction between the two differently-identified versions of the cannabis hemp plant today.
  • Hemp’s cannabinoids and cannabinoid acids exist to serve a functional biological purpose.
    Many of the cannabinoid acids exhibit antibiotic, antifungal, or insecticidal properties because they exist partly to protect the plants they’re created in. [3] Aromatic terpenes and activated cannabinoids may similarly serve the evolutionary purpose of enticing animal users to consume the seeds and help with plant propagation.

How do the Effects of Cannabinoids in Hemp Vary?

With 19 separate cannabinoids described here and mention of 113 identified in-total, their effects and physical properties can vary quite widely. Here are the key effects and differences among the cannabinoids that are most commercially-prevalent:

On a high level, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the only prevalent cannabinoid definitively-known to intoxicate its consumer. THCV may have similar effect, but exists in insignificant volume and is generally only present alongside already-significant amounts of THC. [3]

Hemp’s distinguishing biological characteristic is that it was never selectively-bred to produce high amounts of THC. Thanks to this, CBG acids in different hemp cultivars have been allowed to break down into richly-diverse cannabinoid profiles, where the other major (CBD, CBC, remaining CBG) and minor cannabinoid compounds can exist in higher volume, better-accentuating their unique therapeutic effects.

Despite never being selected for its high THC production, hemp naturally still contains THC in trace amounts, legally defined as being less than 0.3% of plant volume, as part of its full spectrum of cannabinoids.

Full Spectrum vs. Broad Spectrum vs. Cannabinoid Isolates

Commercially, the term “full spectrum” is used to indicate THC’s naturally-small presence within a full profile of cannabinoids in some commercially-legal hemp products. Conversely, the term “broad spectrum” has been adopted to refer to products where THC has been actively removed during processing. Further, “isolates” can be produced for most major cannabinoids, isolating their compounds by various methods of chemical extraction.

While isolates and broad spectrum products are favored by some users as extra-assurance of never testing THC-positive, full spectrum products are generally (without guarantee) safe in this regard.

Many experts believe there is an exhibited “entourage effect” where certain cannabinoids are more therapeutic when delivered alongside THC and some other cannabinoids and terpenes, rather than delivered in isolation.

Currently these synergies are built on more anecdote and logic than hard science, but encouraging observation and study show likely benefits to many combinations, particularly in pairing CBD or CBG with THC in varying amounts. [2]

All that said, here are the key facts, properties, and effects to be aware of for CBD, CBG, CBC, THC, CBN and their top derivatives too:

Effects of CBD (Cannabidiol) and Key Facts

  • CBD doesn’t get its user high or create psychoactive impairment, but does often create a noticeable calming effect.
  • CBD can actually counteract the psychoactive effects of THC [4] and is thought to be more therapeutically effective when delivered in conjunction with THC. [5]
  • CBD is the most prevalent cannabinoid in most cultivars of hemp, and the most commercially-significant legal cannabinoid identified so far.
  • CBD is thought to be most-effective against neuropathic pain and inflammation, [1] and is currently being used to attempt treatment of anxiety and other psychiatric conditions, seizure disorders, muscle spasms, and tumor growth in willing participants. [4]
  • CBD’s most-exciting potential may be in it’s ability to suppress epileptic seizures, especially in children. [1]

Effects of CBDA and Key Facts

  • CBDA is the non-activated cannabinoid acid of CBD and similarly exhibits many of CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties [2]
  • CBDA is reported to taste less harsh than activated CBD, due to not being heated during processing.
  • CBDA is present in greater amounts than activated CBD in many non-heated products such as tinctures and salves.
  • Like most cannabinoid acids, CBDA has considerably-strong antibiotic properties compared to its activated cousin. [3]

Effects of CBG (Cannabigerol) and Key Facts

  • CBG (rather CBGA) is the cannabis plant’s originator of the other major cannabinoids CBD, THC, CBC, and many minor others that have been identified. [2]
  • CBG (particularly CBGA) is shown to have especially strong antibiotic properties, even acting in conjunction with CBD to effectively fight MRSA in some cases. [5]
  • CBG’s most exciting properties seem to be in its antibiotic strength and potential to inhibit cell growth in tumors. [8]
  • CBG also may be effective against glaucoma, pain, inflammation, anxiety, and bladder problems, [4] and may even promote bone growth in some users. [8]

Effects of CBC (Cannabichromene) and Key Facts

  • Little-known compared to its peers, CBC makes up under 1% of most hemp plants, with higher concentrations occurring in tropical varieties, generally.
  • CBC appears to boost most users’ moods, particularly when consumed in conjunction with CBD or THC.
  • Like CBG, CBC shows promising potential at inhibiting the growth of tumors while promoting healthy bone growth. [8]
  • CBC most-interestingly interacts with body receptors outside of the endocannabinoid system, and is unique that way among major cannabinoid groups. [4]

Effects of THC (Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol) and Key Facts

  • THC/THCA are typically the most-prominent cannabinoids found in marijuana strains not classified as hemp.
  • Activated Delta-9-THC is the only major cannabinoid known to have a psychoactive effect.
  • THC is shown to be a mild painkiller and antioxidant, [8] but most-interestingly seems to synergize the effects of CBD, CBG, [5] and CBC [2] when used in conjunction with any of them.
  • THC is the precursor to CBN, which it oxidizes to in time.

Effects of CBN (Cannabinol) and Key Facts

  • With prolonged exposure, activated THC will oxidize into the more stable cannabinoid molecule CBN. [7]
  • CBN has minor effects similar to many other cannabinoids, but most-significantly appears to be a strong sedative. [2]
  • As a derivative of THC, CBN typically occurs in very small volume in hemp plants.

Where Else Can the Cannabinoids in Hemp be Found?

Interestingly, molecules similar to these remarkable acid chains and decarboxylated compounds exist naturally throughout our human bodies and elsewhere, regularly interacting with the same system of receptors that hemp’s cannabinoids do.

Do I Have Cannabinoid Compounds in Me Already?

Yes, you have cannabinoids present throughout you already. The order in which we realized this allowed for our internally-derived versions to be named “endocannabinoids”, as part of our “endocannabinoid system”, working on our “CB1” and “CB2” receptors, all named from cannabis hemp.

Do Animals Have an Endocannabinoid System?

In addition to humans, endocannabinoid systems appear to be pervasive in all mammals, present in all vertebrates, and even existing in life as simple as the invertebrate Hydra. Interestingly though, there does not seem to be any endocannabinoid activity observable in insects. [9]

Do Other Plants Have Cannabinoids?

While cannabis hemp is the heavy-hitter here that we know, cannabinoids, aptly called “phytocannabinoids” when originating in plants, are shown to exist in some other groups too.

Known cannabinoid producing plants include Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, Acmella oleracea, Helichrysum umbraculigerum, and Radula marginata. Most of these include different cannabinoid compounds than hemp and in smaller amounts, but still may have moderate psychoactive effects. [10]

Regardless where other cannabinoids can be found, we have enough packed into hemp to hold our interest in this remarkable plant for many years to come. We hope this ultimate guide to the alphabet soup of cannabinoids can be useful; please contact our team if there is more that you would like to know.


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