You may have heard the term “phytocannabinoid” tossed around and wondered to yourself, “what are phytocannabinoids?” It’s a pretty serious sounding word, after all.
However, if you’re a regular consumer of medical or recreational cannabis, you’ve no doubt heard of THC and CBD. These compounds (properly known as tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol, respectively) are most often identified as the cause of cannabis’ psychoactive and physically soothing properties. And both THC and CBD are classified as phytocannabinoids, naturally occurring chemical substances that interact with receptors in the human brain. They’re far from the only ones, though.
So exactly what are phytocannabinoids and why do they matter? Let’s take a look.
What’s In A Name?
Although people have been reaping the benefits of phytocannabinoids for thousands of years, we’ve only been able to put a name to them in the last 50 or so. In the 1960s, Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam was able to isolate and identify THC as the active component in cannabis; subsequent research uncovered a whole suite of additional cannabis compounds.
As with so many other scientific discoveries, this expansion in knowledge led to an expanded vocabulary. While THC, CBD, and their many cousins were initially known as cannabinoids, the prefix phyto- (Ancient Greek for “plant”) has since been attached to specify that these substances come from the resin of actual cannabis flowers. This term also serves to distinguish them from endocannabinoids, compounds which are naturally produced by the human body and have cannabis-like effects; and from synthetic cannabinoids, i.e., lab-created compounds.
What Are Phytocannabinoids Good For?
Aside from THC and CBD, researchers have identified over 100 other phytocannabinoids. They include CBG (or cannabigerol) which may regulate the nervous system, CBV (cannabidivarin), which can have antiepileptic properties, and CBC (cannabichromene), an anti-inflammatory agent.
Although these other phytocannabinoids only exist in miniscule amounts compared to THC and CBD, their effect may be greater than the sum of their parts. Proponents of “whole plant” medicine argue that the complex and very specific mix of phytocannabinoids in a given sample of cannabis resin maximizes bioavailability, making cannabis flower (or “bud,” or whatever else you call it) a more effective form of medicine.
To complicate things even further, science is beginning to uncover phytocannabinoids in plants other than cannabis! These include BCP (beta-caryophyllene), a compound found in black pepper that may stimulate digestion, and yangonin, an active component of the Kava plant that has been shown to moderate stress.
While research is still ongoing as to the relative importance of phytocannabinoids other than THC and CBD, it’s clear that these organic molecules are safer for general consumption than synthetic cannabinoids. Created to mimic phytocannabinoids and their action on the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, synthetic cannabinoids were originally developed for benign research purposes to circumvent legal restrictions on cannabis. Unfortunately, beginning in the late 2000s, these “fake” cannabinoids began finding their way from labs into black markets. Marketed under names like Spice and K2, these unregulated drugs can trigger everything from seizures to psychosis.
The Whole is Better Than the Sum of its Parts
Although you might not be able to request a specific mix of phytocannabinoids when picking up at your local dispensary, consuming whole flowers (whether they’re ground up, vaped, or baked) may have a more holistic medical effect than ingesting THC-only or CBD-only products. This is due, in part, to the synergistic effects—the “entourage effect”—of all the components of the cannabis plant (phytocannabinoids and terpenes) working together