Green cannabis plant

Phytocannabinoids: The Power within the Cannabis Plant

You have probably read the term “phytocannabinoids” on our page a lot of times. However, you may have been confused by its nuances with other compounds in the cannabis plant.

So how do phytocannabinoids differ from other cannabis compounds? Are cannabinoids and phytocannabinoids the same? Let’s find out below.

What is a Phytocannabinoid?

Phytocannabinoids are bioactive substances in particular  fungi, liverworts, and flowering plants. Initially, people believed that phytocannabinoids only existed in the cannabis plant. Still, later research revealed their presence in several non-cannabis plants, such as Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, Acmelia oleracea, and Radula marginata.

In the cannabis plant, phytocannabinoids are those cannabinoids that are produced by the plant naturally. The glandular trichomes (hairy outgrowths) of the female plant’s flowering heads are where phytocannabinoids are most concentrated.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the two most abundant phytocannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Classical cannabinoids, such as THC, are created when phytocannabinoids’ respective 2-carboxylic acids (2-COOH) are decarboxylated. These cannabinoids are prevalent in the viscous resin that the cannabis plant’s glandular structures, known as trichomes, produce. Terpenes, which give the cannabis plant its distinctive scent, are also abundant in this resin.

During the drying and curing of buds, partially decarboxylated acidic phytocannabinoids are primarily found in dry plant material, accompanied by some of their active neutral forms. A thorough drying process would result in a decrease in acidic phytocannabinoids and an increase in neutral ones. Every acidic cannabinoid in the plant is subjected to decarboxylation in its neutral form when it is smoked or fried.

Phytocannabinoids vs. Cannabinoids

People often use the terms phytocannabinoids and cannabinoids interchangeably, but technically, they are not the same. As discussed earlier, phytocannabinoids are a subset of cannabinoids, a class of chemical substances found mostly in cannabis plants. In the simplest terms, cannabinoids are an umbrella term under which the phytocannabinoids belong, but let’s try to go a little deeper.

Cannabinoids are a class of molecules that interact with the body’s Endocannabinoid System, which is responsible for various physiological and cognitive processes. Phytocannabinoids, endocannabinoids, and synthetic cannabinoids are the three primary categories of cannabinoids.

Cannabinoids from plants are known as phytocannabinoids, whereas endocannabinoids are cannabinoids made by the human body. People refer to lab-made cannabinoids as synthetic cannabinoids.

Researchers have recognized only about 70 of the over 480 distinct compounds found in cannabis as cannabinoids. Delta-9 THC is the most well-known among these compounds.

Cannabinoid receptors on the cell surface

Phytocannabinoids, Terpenes, and the Entourage Effect

The interaction between phytocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors on the cell surface of various central nervous system cells is how phytocannabinoids produce their psychoactive effects. This process occurs in the Endocannabinoid System, which consists of cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 with which psychoactive phytocannabinoids like THC bind. 

Non-psychoactive compounds like CBD and THCa cannot bind with CB1 and CB2 receptors because of their large or extra molecules.

Different phytocannabinoids can also be compounded at different concentrations to produce the so-called entourage effect, referring to multiple cannabis compounds working synergistically to enhance psychoactive effects.

Although they do not have any intoxicating properties on their own, terpenes, which are naturally occurring chemical compounds in the cannabis plant, like phytocannabinoids, also help in producing the entourage effect when combined with the latter. 

Types of Phytocannabinoids

As we have just mentioned, the cannabis plant has around 70 cannabinoids. Below, we provide brief descriptions of the most  common phytocannabinoids and some of their effects based on initial studies:

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – One of the plant’s main psychotropic compounds is THC. Numerous physiological systems, including the control of gastrointestinal, hepatic, and cardiovascular functions, the feeling of pain, and the modulation of neurotransmitter release in the nervous system, are claimed to be  triggered by THC.

Cannabidiol (CBD) One of the most prevalent non-psychoactive components of the cannabis plant is CBD. According to early studies, CBD has therapeutic potential for treating conditions affecting the central nervous system, such as epilepsy, anxiety, and depression, without causing concurrent psychotic side effects.

Cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) – CBDA is the chemical precursor to CBD. Like CBD, CBDA does not bind with the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2, even though it selectively inhibits COX-2 and has reported anti-inflammatory properties. It can also interact with several vanilloid receptors, although the full extent of its effects is still unknown. 

Cannabigerol (CBG) – CBG occurs only in trace amounts in the cannabis plant. It has reported antibacterial and antiproliferative properties. It is a ligand for the CB2 cannabinoid receptor and prevents anandamide from being reabsorbed.

Cannabichromene (CBC) – CBC is a minor part of the cannabis plant and has a weak affinity for CB1 and CB2 receptors. It can cause hypothermia, drowsiness, and hypoactivity and has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and mild analgesic properties. Furthermore, it is a potent vanilloid antagonist and a negligible inhibitor of anandamide re-absorption.

Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa)  THCa is the acidic precursor to THC. It is non-psychoactive when consumed raw but can offer the same benefits as THC when converted into the latter through decarboxylation.

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