Hemp cannabis leaf over CBD molecule graphic

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Apr 12, 2019

What Are Cannabinoids?

Hemp is a member of the Cannabis sativa L family of plants. All cannabis plants contain a diverse array of compounds called cannabinoids. But what are cannabinoids and what do they do?

What Are Cannabinoids?

To understand what CBD is and why it can be effective at providing therapeutic benefits, it is essential to first understand cannabinoids.

Cannabinoids are a diverse class of naturally occurring compounds that form primarily in the flowers of hemp (Cannabis Sativa) plants. There are over 100 known cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, with THC and CBD being the most predominant—and the most well-known—by consumers.

These plant-borne cannabinoids (or phytocannabinoids) can interact with systems in our bodies (the endocannabinoid system) because they mimic endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring cannabinoids in humans, mammals, birds, and fish.

All 100 cannabinoid compounds in hemp plants are considered cousins. They are in the same family tree, but they have different parents (which we will explain shortly).

Different cannabinoids affect the body in different ways when they interact with receptors in our endocannabinoid system. They work best when they are all working together, but they also have their merits when consumed on their own in an isolate hemp product.

Below, we explain everything you need to know to understand the basics of cannabinoids!

How Are Cannabinoids Formed?

Cannabis plants are an ongoing symphony of processes known as biosynthesis. Biosynthesis is a multi-step organic process that converts simple compounds into more complex compounds in living organisms like plants, animals, and humans.

As the cannabis plant matures, cannabinoids are produced as a result of the biosynthesis that’s happening at the molecular level.

In raw form, all cannabinoids start in an acidic form known as cannabinoid acids. From these initial cannabinoid acids, all other cannabinoids can be formed through exposure to heat or UV light.

The four main cannabinoid acids are CBGA, THCA, CBDA, and CBCA. If the acronyms seem overwhelming, don’t worry. We explain them all next!

A key thing to remember here is that all cannabinoids start in an acidic form. The acidic forms of cannabinoids (cannabinoid acids) have an "A" at the end of their acronym. These acidic compounds can produce other compounds when heated or exposed to UV light.

So, all the building blocks for cannabinoids are already in the mature cannabis plant because of biosynthesis, but the cannabinoid acids need to be exposed to some elements to let the non-acidic cannabinoids shine as individuals because—SCIENCE!

Next, we’ll explain the cannabinoid acids in more detail.

How are cannabinoids formed?

CBGA - The Parent Molecule

CBGA (cannabigerolic acid) is considered a chemical precursor to all the other cannabinoids found in hemp. It has even been dubbed a "stem cell cannabinoid" and “the mother of all cannabinoids” because, without it, no other cannabinoids would exist.

Just like stem cells in the human body have the potential to become many different types of cells, CBGA can develop into several different cannabinoids.

From CBGA—THCA, CBDA, CBCA, and CBG can be formed.

CBGA is produced in the cannabis plant as a way to regulate the plant's health. For instance, CBGA will help kill off diseased leaves that could jeopardize other parts of the plant.

CBGA was discovered around 30 years ago (20 years after CBG). and despite it being such an important part of all other cannabinoids, it remains relatively understudied. However, it is thought to have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and pain-relieving properties.

Interestingly, CBGA is non-psychoactive (meaning that it will not make you feel high), but it is a starting point for Delta-9 THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) which comes from THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid).

We cover THCA next!


One of the most common compounds produced by CBGA is THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid). It is a non-intoxicating acidic compound that is thermally unstable. This means that it can be altered with the application of heat or UV light.

When cannabis is exposed to sunlight or the heat of a flame, a percentage of THCA molecules become Delta-9 THC (or what most people know simply as THC).

THCA becomes THC through a process called decarboxylation (or "decarbing"). Decarboxylation occurs when heat and/or oxidation removes a carboxylic acid group from THCA.

As a cannabinoid acid (which are the precursors to all other cannabinoids), THCA can also be converted into other cannabinoids like CBNA, CBN, and Delta-8-THC in addition to Delta-9 THC.

THCA will not make you feel high, but it does have its merits beyond being the precursor of the cannabinoid that does make your feel intoxicated - THC.

THCA is frequently used as a “superfood” supplement and is thought to have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and antiemetic properties when ingested.

We’ll put this one on the shelf for now and move on to explaining how CBD (the second most prominent cannabinoid in the hemp plant) comes to be!


CBD (cannabidiol) typically gets most of the attention as one of the most abundant and popular cannabinoids in hemp products, but its chemical precursor - CBDA (cannabidiolic acid) - is also worth noting.

Like other acidic precursors, CBDA is thermally unstable and is converted into CBD through a decarboxylation process. Without CBDA, CBD could not exist!

CBDA is interesting because it doesn’t bind to receptors in the endocannabinoid system in the same way that most cannabinoids do. Instead, it interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) by inhibiting the cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) enzyme. This is suspected as the reason that it could have anti-inflammatory properties.

It has also been found to affect serotonin levels which are responsible for regulating things like sleep, hunger, digestion, and mood.


CBCA (cannabichromenic acid) is a lesser-known cannabinoid acid and very little research has been completed on it to date.

Like CBGA, CBCA is thought to play a role in defending the cannabis plant against threats like disease. It does this by promoting cell death so that pathogens cannot spread as quickly throughout the plant.

In the human body, it may have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal properties, but more research is needed.

When heated or exposed to UV light, CBGA can produce CBC (cannabichromene) and CBLA (cannabicyclol acid).

Both CBC and CBLA can become CBL (cannabicyclol). CBL is only present in low amounts and is one of the least studied cannabinoids so it doesn’t get a special highlight on the list this time.

CBG (Cannabigerol)

Despite being a descendant of the mother of all cannabinoids (CBGA), CBG is considered a minor cannabinoid because it’s only present in mature cannabis plants in very low amounts. It tends to be more abundant in younger cannabis plants though.

Because it is not abundant in mature cannabis, it is very resource-intensive to isolate even small quantities of this cannabinoid. However, it can be produced by leftover CBGA that hasn’t been synthesized into the previously mentioned cannabinoid lines.

In an effort to make CBG more readily accessible to consumers, hemp growers are experimenting to see if it’s possible to produce plants with higher concentrations of what some people call the "Rolls Royce cannabinoid".

The benefits of CBG are similar to CBD and you can consume it easily by using a full-spectrum (whole-plant) or broad-spectrum CBD oil without breaking the bank.

If you've made it this far, your head may be spinning trying to sort out how each cannabinoid comes to be via biosynthesis and the decarbing process.

If your brain feels broken, imagine how sore it would be if we tried to cover off how 100 cannabinoids are formed and the unique benefits of each!

How they are formed is important for scientists, hemp oil manufacturers, and people who like to nerd out over complex topics, but for the average consumer, you can get by if you don't have all of this memorized.

What is likely more important to you (and probably much more interesting), is how cannabinoids interact within our bodies!

Cannabinoid Synergy in The Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a vital role in balancing physiological processes in our bodies. When your ECS is unbalanced, there's a good chance other functions are being impacted as well.

The balance of physiological functions in our bodies is known as homeostasis or "the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes," by definition.

Our bodies are naturally wired to interact with cannabinoids thanks to receptors present in the ECS. The intricacy of the ECS is quite fascinating and it deserves its own time to shine, which is why we have a whole blog post dedicated to it!

[Check out our blog post to learn more about the endocannabinoid system!]

Cannabinoids and the Entourage Effect

Understanding cannabinoids and how these compounds work together in the body is a crucial first step to selecting the right hemp-derived products for your needs, so it’s important for you to understand the "entourage effect".

The "entourage effect" suggests that cannabinoids work best when they are working together with some or all of the other cannabinoids and terpenes - just like they would work together to support the functions of a live cannabis plant.

Even minor cannabinoids have their benefits and play a role in the health of the cannabis plant, so consuming all cannabinoids together in a full-spectrum (or whole plant) hemp oil is thought to provide maximum benefits.

The type of hemp oil that you select is ultimately a personal preference though. Some people do not want to consume any THC in their CBD oil, but they do want the benefits of all the other cannabinoids. In this case, broad-spectrum CBD is a suitable choice!

For people who regularly undergo drug testing or who want to consume CBD only, CBD isolates are their go-to option.

A Healthy Hemp Lifestyle

Cannabinoids are central to natural hemp CBD extracts and each cannabinoid has its own role to play. While they all originate from the mother of all cannabinoid acids (CBGA), all cannabinoids except CBGA have a precursor compound.

Each cannabinoid has its own unique benefits on the human body, but all cannabinoids are thought to work best when they are working together due to the "entourage effect".

The type of CBD oil you choose is a matter of preference, so you may try multiple formulas before you find one that works best for you!

At Hemplucid, we believe nature has given us everything we need to support a healthy lifestyle. Incorporating natural hemp products into your daily routine can lead to a healthier, happier you.

Learn more about the benefits of hemp and CBD on our blog, or check out the Hemplucid shop to read more about our natural hemp products.

Suggested Products From The Article

Organic Full-Spectrum CBD in Hemp Seed Oil

Organic Full-Spectrum CBD in Hemp Seed Oil

Topical CBDA Full-Spectrum Body Cream

Topical CBDA Full-Spectrum Body Cream