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Understanding Cannabis: Why the Pharmacology is Important

 October 17, 2019  Written by Emma Chasen
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For the last century, reefer madness and prohibition have made people believe that cannabis is just one thing: THC. However, this could not be farther from the truth. Cannabis is what we call polydynamic, meaning that there are so many different compounds (over 500 currently identified!) in the plant’s matrix.

Each of these compounds has a range of associated physiological and synergistic properties that will ultimately influence the experience one might feel from consumption. Therefore it is imperative to look at the types and ratios of compounds present in a cannabis product while making a purchasing decision. 

Let’s take an introductory look at compounds you need to know:

Phytocannabinoids

The main class of compounds found in cannabis. Researchers have currently identified over 100 phytocannabinoids in the cannabis matrix! However, there are two major cannabinoids that consistently show up in dominant concentrations: THC and CBD. 

THC: tetrahydrocannabinol 

The cannabinoid known for delivering the cerebral high most people associate with cannabis. THC also has high therapeutic benefits including anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain relief) potential. However, if overdosed, THC can deliver an uncomfortable experience with side effects including anxiety, elevated heart rate, memory impairment and paranoia. 

CBD: cannabidiol

The cannabinoid is known for its wide range of therapeutic potential. Research has shown that CBD may exhibit anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), anti-depressant, anti-convulsant, and antipsychotic properties all with very low risk associated with use. CBD is non-intoxicating and therefore does not deliver a psychotropic high. Documented side effects include mild drowsiness. 

Three Types of Cannabis Cultivars

THC and CBD are so prevalent in cannabis cultivars that research scientists have suggested categorizing cannabis into three types:

Type I - Cannabis cultivars with THC dominance. 

Type II - Cannabis cultivars with a mixed ratio of THC and CBD.

Type III - Cannabis cultivars with CBD dominance.

When evaluating cannabis cultivars and infused products, choose the cannabinoid ratio that will work best for your needs. If you are prone to anxiety, choose something more CBD-forward. If you’re looking for a bit of euphoria, go with a THC-dominant variety. And if you want a mix of both while maximizing therapeutic benefit, go with a mixed ratio of THC and CBD. 

Phytocannabinoids are a great place to start, however, they are not the only compounds that should be evaluated when predicting a cannabis experience. Terpenes are major players in the cannabis matrix and work with cannabinoids to deliver specific experiences. If cannabinoids are the driving force behind cannabis, terpenes help to steer the experience in a variety of directions - sleepy, silly, relaxed, stimulated and all feelings in between. 

Terpenes

Often lauded as the ‘essential oils’ of cannabis, terpenes are aromatic compounds found in almost all plants and even some insects. They not only give cannabis varieties their unique smell, but also correlate to physiological properties. Therefore, you can use the aroma of a variety to help clue you in as to how it might make you feel. As the saying goes, “The Nose Knows!” There are suspected to be over 200 different terpenes in cannabis, however a handful show up consistently in dominant concentrations. Let’s explore the common aromas found in cannabis and their associated terpenes and effects.

Myrcene

  • Terpene: This compound is also found in mangoes and hops. Therefore, consuming a cannabis variety with a dominant concentration of myrcene may deliver a drowsy experience analogous to the effects of consuming a few beers.
  • Aroma: Earthy and sweet. Like tropical fruit, lemongrass or grape. 
  • Effect: May be indicative of mild muscle relaxation and a calming energy.

Limonene

  • Terpene: This compound is commonly found in the rinds of citrus fruits and household cleaning products. It may deliver a bright energy analogous to busting open a citrus fruit or going on a cleaning spree. 
  • Aroma: Sweet, bright citrus.
  • Effect: May be indicative of euphoria, playfulness and giggles.

Pinene

  • Terpene: This compound is commonly found in pine needles and can allow you to breathe deeper causing heightened mental focus and clarity. If you’ve ever walked through a pine forest, you know the feeling! Pinene has also been shown to counteract the uncomfortable side effects of THC. 
  • Aroma: Fresh, woody pine.
  • Effect: May be indicative of clarity, focus and heightened mental awareness.

Terpinolene

  • Terpene: When in combination with THC this compound can cause cerebral stimulation that may be focusing for some and overwhelming for others. Therefore, if you’re new to this compound make sure to take it slow to start and assess if it works for you. 
  • Aroma: Sharp, Pinesol cleaner.
  • Effect: May be indicative of both a cerebrally stimulating and hazy experience. 

Linalool

  1. Terpene: Found commonly in lavender, this compound delivers a very similar experience to the one we associate with lavender - sleepy, calming, and stress-relieving 
  2. Aroma: Sweet, floral lavender.
  3. Effect: May be indicative of a calming, sleepy experience.

B-caryophyllene

  • Terpene: Commonly found in black pepper and cinnamon, this compound helps to melt away anxiety and stress. It acts as both a gentle mood elevator as well as a muscle relaxant generating a chill but present experience. 
  • Aroma: Spicy, cinnamon, clove.
  • Effect: May be indicative of high therapeutic potential in the areas of pain relief, anti-anxiety, and anti-depressant effects.

There is so much more to explore when examining the cannabis matrix — flavonoids, polyphenols, phytonutrients — including synergistic properties among cannabinoids and terpenes. But we’ll save that for another article or two. For now, we’ll leave you with this introductory look into the complex world of cannabis pharmacology so you can begin to experiment with varieties that will work best for you. 

Please note that this blog is not to be considered medical advice. Always consult your physician for more information and/or questions related to your specific medical history.

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