Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids that occur naturally in the cannabis plant. The classical cannabinoids are formed through decarboxylation of their respective 2-carboxylic acids (2-COOH), a process which is catalyzed by heat, light or alkaline conditions.

These cannabinoids are abundant in the viscous resin that is produced by glandular structures in the cannabis plant called trichomes. This resin is also rich in terpenes, which are responsible for the characteristic smell of the cannabis plant. The phytocannabinoids are mostly insoluble in water but are soluble in alcohol and fat and other non-polar organic solvents. In alkaline conditions, they can form water-soluble phenolate salts, being essentially phenols.

Of over 480 different compounds present in the cannabis plant, only around 66 have been identified as cannabinoids The most well known of these compounds is the delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in the plant. Other common cannabinoids include cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN).

Classes of cannabinoids

The cannabinoids are separated into subclasses that include:

  • Cannabigerols (CBG)
  • Cannabichromenes (CBC)
  • Cannabidiols (CBD)
  • Tetrahydrocannabinols (THC)
  • Cannabinol (CBN)
  • Cannabinodiol (CBDL)
  • Cannabicyclol (CBL)
  • Cannabielsoin (CBE)
  • Cannabitriol (CBT)
  • Cannabivarin (CBV)
  • Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV)
  • Cannabidivarin (CBDV)
  • Cannabichromevarin (CBCV)
  • Cannabigerovarin (CBGV)
  • Cannabigerol Monoethyl Ether (CBGM)

Of these, THC is the main psychoactive component in the plant. This compound reduces pain perception in the brain and is also neuroprotective. THC has a similar affinity for the CB1 and CB2 receptors.

Cannabidiol (CBD), on the other hand, is not psychoactive and has been found to act as a CB1 receptor antagonist. CBN is effective at relieving convulsions or seizures, anxiety, nausea and inflammatory changes. Cannabigerol is also not psychoactive and acts as a CB1 receptor antagonist.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 26, 2019

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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  1. Rich Pea Rich Pea United States says:

    There are now 85 cannabinoids that have been isolated, and the majority have anti-proliferating effects on cancerous cell growth. In other words they cure cancer!

  2. Andrew Dussault Andrew Dussault United States says:

    There is a TYPO under the list of cannabinoids; second paragraph, where it states Cannabidiol as 'CBN'

  3. Donna Evans Donna Evans Canada says:

    Dr Mandal mistakenly states:

    "Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids that occur naturally in the cannabis plant".  

    This implies that phytocannabinoids cannot be found in plants outside the cannabis species.

    The most relevant phytocannabinoid identified to date - in terms of therapeutic actions in the body - is found in many plants, including the essential oil of the cannabis plant.  It is called: beta-caryophyllene.

    At the time of posting this comment, beta-caryophyllene is the only known selective agonist of the CB2 receptor and does not produce psychoactive effects.  By the way, CBD (cannabidiol) is a weak agonist of both CB1 and CB2 and science increasingly believes that CBD's therapeutic actions are not via the cannabinoid receptors.

  4. Rob Mooneyhan Rob Mooneyhan United States says:

    Do Phytocannabinoids contain THC or is it more on the level of CBDs?

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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