Introduction to Hemp Cannabinoids

What are cannabinoids? How to cannabinoids affect human health?

To answer that question, it helps to first pull back the curtain on one of the world’s most misunderstood plants: Hemp.

Brief History of Hemp and Cannabinoids

Hemp has long been a significant crop for mankind. As early as 8,000 BC, ancient Mesopotamians used the versatile plant to produce clothing and primitive textiles. By 900 BC, Arab cultures developed hemp paper to write on. And for nearly 3,000 years afterward, hemp steadily became a major crop in the western world.

Hemp as medicine. As early as the third millennium BC, the Chinese are known to have used hemp extracts to treat pain and cramps (i). More than 3,000 years ago, hemp edibles became a common treatment for anxiety in India (ii). Hemp extracts spread throughout the west and eventually became a common medicinal herb in America until 1937 (iii).

Following the Farm Bill of 2014, pilot farms gained the right to legally grow hemp again, and the industry has experienced explosive growth. The cash crop generated $688 million in 2016 alone—up 22% since 2014—and is projected to reach $1.8 billion in sales by 2020 (iv).

Today’s hemp users report significant improvements to mood and physiology. After a decade of research and more than 20,000 different animal and human studies, researchers attribute those health benefits to the unique phyto-composition of the hemp plant. Specifically, hemp is comprised of dozens of phytochemicals and compounds that are thought to dramatically improve health by helping the body’s own endocannabinoid system mediate optimal function through homeostasis, or balance.

These phytochemicals include cannabinoids, like CBD, as well as other nutrients and terpenes.

How Many Cannabinoids are in the Hemp Plant?

There are 21 known cannabinoids in the hemp plant. Each of these cannabinoids is biosynthesized from cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), a plant compound that some liken to a “stem cell” for the hemp plant. From CBGA, all other cannabinoids are formed. Some of these cannabinoids form naturally, while others are the product of specific cultivation practices.



From the chart above, we see how CBGA is the building block for 3 other vital cannabinoids: THCA, CBDA, and CBCA.

THCA forms THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid that most users associate with feeling high.

From CBDA, we get non-psychoactive cannabinoids like CBD. In both human and animal studies, CBD demonstrates a wide range of health benefits—without causing intoxicating effects.

The lesser-known cannabinoids of the hemp plant belong to the CBCA family, from which CBG is formed. CBG is thought to have therapeutic benefits as well, although it (perhaps unfairly) stands in the shadow of its more popular cousin, CBD.

Hemp Isolate vs. Full Spectrum

The beneficial compounds of the hemp plant can be extracted and processed in a variety of ways. Ultimately, this has an impact on how the cannabinoids interact with the Endocannabinoid System (as described in the following section).

Isolate is produced by extracting just one cannabinoid from the hemp plant. For example, CBD isolate is created by extracting only cannabidiol (CBD) from the hemp, discarding all other plant material.

Full spectrum formulas are created by keeping the plant intact, which includes a full array of not just cannabinoids, but other beneficial plant compounds, phytonutrients, and terpenes as well. These compounds are believed to work synergistically, creating an entourage effect that seems to promote therapeutic benefit (v).

Hemp Cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System

An overwhelming amount of research indicates that hemp cannabinoids help to balance the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). Extending through the brain, glands, soft tissues, major organs, and immune cells, the ECS is responsible for promoting biological balance throughout the body. We know that a balanced ECS creates homeostasis, while an imbalanced and dysregulated ECS can cause significant mental, emotional, and physiological conditions. Anxiety, fatigue, arthritis, epilepsy, and cancer are just a few of the conditions scientists are currently correlating with the Endocannabinoid System.

Along with eating well and minimizing stress, scientists believe ECS balance can be achieved by supplementing with exogenous cannabinoids, like cannabidiol (CBD). According to this model, CBD oil provides a source of extra cannabinoids that bind to the body’s existing cannabinoid receptors, much like a key fits into a lock. This improves the ability of the ECS to communicate and maintain biological stability within the body.

By increasing cannabinoid levels—and thus, more keys fitting into more locks—research shows a variety of health outcomes can be achieved.

To learn more, visit the following page on the Endocannabinoid System.



(i) Mechoulam R. The pharmacohistory of cannabis sativa. In: Mechoulam R, editor. Cannabis as Therapeutic Agent. CRC Press; Boca Raton, FL: 1986. pp. 1–19.

(ii) The Endocannabinoid System as an Emerging Target of Pharmacotherapy. URL:

(iii) See above.

(iv) Hemp Industry Size and Market Intelligence. URL:

(v) Overcoming the Bell-Shaped Dose-Response of Cannabidiol by Using Cannabis Extract Enriched with Cannabidiol. URL: