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What Are Cannabinoids?

There's more to your medicine than meets the eye. We take a deep dive into cannabinoids to explain what they are and how they work.

Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that naturally occur in the resin of the Cannabis sativa plant, commonly called marijuana. These chemicals have a drug-like effect on the human central nervous system and immune system, leading to altered moods, pain relief, and other temporary changes. Cannabinoids include THC, the well-known substance that causes the psychoactive (“high”) effect associated with marijuana use, but many other cannabinoids have shown promising medical effects in research studies without making the subject “high” (1).

Isn’t Marijuana Use Illegal?

Yes, federal law prohibits the use, sale, and possession of marijuana. However, some states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana with a doctor’s prescription for certain medical conditions (2).

How Do Cannabinoids Work?

Over 20 years of research has revealed that human brain cells and nerve cells have two types of cannabinoid receptors, or special molecules that grab cannabinoids. When a cannabinoid meets a receptor, it can cause an effect to occur within the cell, similar to the way a locked door will not open until a particular key (cannabinoid) is inserted and turned in the lock (receptor).

The cannabinoid receptors are found in the parts of the brain that handle cognition, memory, psychomotor skills, feelings of rewards, and pain perception. When certain cannabinoids, such as THC, meet the receptors, the individual may feel a “high” effect. However, other cannabinoids, such as CBD Cannabidiol, interact with the receptors to reduce feelings of pain or anxiety.

The fact that the human body contains these receptors suggests that cannabinoids play a natural role within the immune system. This theory is further supported by the existence of the endocannabinoid system, which includes naturally occurring chemicals with the human body that stimulate the cannabinoid receptors.

What medical conditions and symptoms can be treated with cannabinoids?

Researchers still have a lot to learn about the benefits of using non-psychoactive cannabinoids such as CBD. So far, preliminary studies have indicated that these substances may (1):

  • Inhibit tumor growth, making chemotherapy more effective without harming healthy cells and tissues

  • Simulate the appetite and reduce weight loss

  • Relieve pain and inflammation, including chronic pain and cancer pain

  • Reduce nausea and vomiting

  • Lessen anxiety

  • Improve quality of sleep

  • Fight viruses and viral infections

  • Relieve the muscle spasms of multiple sclerosis

CBD, one of the most abundant cannabinoids (2), has shown remarkable potential in research studies for its ability to (3):

  • Lower convulsions, anxiety, inflammation, and nausea

  • Lessen the psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia

  • Reduce or prevent metastasis in breast cancer and other types of cancers

Many patients have found cannabinoids useful for treating the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

Can cannabinoids be used without using marijuana?

Yes. CBD and other beneficial cannabinoids can be extracted from the cannabis plant to eliminate the unwanted psychoactive side effect. Synthetic cannabinoids can also be produced in a laboratory to mimic natural cannabinoids and stimulate similar medical effects.


(1) Questions and Answers about Cannabis. Retrieved from

(2) Learn about Marijuana. Retrieved from

(3) Cannabinoid. Retrieved from

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