The discovery of the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the 1980s provided researchers a totally new perspective on the compounds in hemp and marijuana that had previously been identified 40 years earlier – that these compounds interacted with and acted on a widespread regulatory system in the human body. 

The name given to these compounds was phytocannabinoids – “phyto” for plant.  

More than 80 phytocannabinoids have been identified in marijuana and hemp. The psychoactive phytocannabinoid in marijuana – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – represents only one of the many phytocannabinoids now being widely studied for the many health benefits they can provide.1

The more science learns about the far-reaching effects of the ECS in supporting brain health, in enhancing immune function, in maintaining a healthy inflammatory response, and in promoting GI health, fertility, bone health, and more, the more interest there is in finding these phytocannabinoids in nature and learning how they affect human health. 

Because of this widespread interest, phytocannabinoids have now been identified in many plants outside of the Cannabis species; for example, plants like clove, black pepper, Echinacea, broccoli, ginseng, and carrots all contain phytocannabinoids.2

Phytocannabinoids in hemp

Although most people have now heard of cannabadiol (CBD), it is only one of many of the constituents in hemp that interact with the ECS.  Two other notable phytocannabinoids include:

Cannabichromene (CBC)

  • CBC was first studied in the 1980s when it was found to modulate a normal inflammatory response in a rat model.3  More recently CBC has been shown to promote brain health,skin health,5 and maintain normal motility in the digestive system.6

Cannabigerol (CBG)

  • CBG is being increasingly studied for its ability to support nervous system health.  CBG has multiple functions in the ECS, including inhibiting the reuptake of anandamide, a very beneficial endocannabinoid we make in our own bodies.  CBG might also provide support for immune function, skin health, and a positive mood.  CBG is typically found in much higher concentrations in industrial hemp than in marijuana.7

Phytocannabinoids in other plants

Ongoing research is finding phytocannabionids in many other plants. Some of these include:

Beta-caryophyllene (BCP)

  • Although BCP is found in the flowers and leaves of hemp, because only the hemp stalk is used in supplements, much BCP content is lost.  However, BCP is contained in many other plants, such as cloves and black pepper.  BCP binds to the CB2 cannabinoid receptor in the body, and by doing so it helps maintain a healthy inflammatory response and promotes the health of the digestive system, skin, and liver.8,9

Diindolylmethane (DIM)

  • DIM is a compound we produce in our bodies when we eat cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.  DIM is also a readily available dietary supplement.  Like beta-caryophyllene, DIM binds to the CB2 cannabinoid receptor.10 Because the immune system is rich with CB2 receptors, this might explain the immune-supportive health benefits of these foods.

Alkylamides

  • Found in the familiar herb Echinacea, alkylamides are also drawing interest for their role in the ECS.  These unique compounds act on the CB2 cannabinoid receptor to regulate cytokine synthesis and to support immune function.11  This action likely helps explain some of the common uses of Echinacea.

Falcarinol

  • Found in carrots, celery, parsley, and Panax ginseng, this interesting compound might not be one you want to touch.  Falcarinol binds to the CB1 cannabinoid receptor and has the opposite effect of anandamide (the cannabinoid our bodies make that binds to this receptor). Because of this tendency, falcarinol can cause an allergic skin reaction that is thought to be due to it blocking our own ECS from modulating local inflammation.12

Yangonin

  • This phytocannabinoid, found in the Kava plant (Piper methysticum), binds to CB1 cannabinoid receptors and also acts on GABA receptors in the nervous system.  Although yangonin appears to promote relaxation and modulate responses to stress, it might also be unhealthy for the liver.13

Knowledge of the endocannabinoid system is expanding rapidly.  As this knowledge does expand, science will continue to find more phytocannabinoids in foods and plants that are useful in supporting health in many ways.


References

  1. Borgelt L, Franson K, Nussbaum A, Wang G. The pharmacologic and clinical effects of medical cannabis. Pharmacotherapy 2013;33(2):195-209.
  2. Gertsch J, Roger G, Vincenzo D. Phytocannabinoids beyond the cannabis plant – do they exist? Br J Pharmacol 2010;160(3):523-529.
  3. Wirth P, Watson E, ElSohly M, et al. Anti-inflammatory properties of cannabichromene. Life Sci 1980;26(23):1991-1995.
  4. Shinjyo N, Di Marzo V. The effect of cannabichromene on adult neural stem/progenitor cells. Neurochem Int 2013;63(5):432-437.
  5. Izzo A, Capasso R, Aviello G, et al. Inhibitory effect of cannabichromene, a major non?psychotropic cannabinoid extracted from Cannabis sativa, on inflammation?induced hypermotility in mice. Br J Pharmacol 2012;166(4):1444-1460.
  6. Oláh A, Markovics A, Szabó?Papp J, et al. Differential effectiveness of selected non?psychotropic phytocannabinoids on human sebocyte functions implicates their introduction in dry/seborrheic skin and acne treatment. Exp Dermatol 2016;25(9):701-707.
  7. De Meijer E, Hammond K. The inheritance of chemical phenotype in Cannabis sativa L.(II): cannabigerol predominant plants. Euphytica 2005;145(1-2):189-198.
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  9. Klauke A, Racz I, Pradier B, et al. The cannabinoid CB2 receptor-selective phytocannabinoid beta-caryophyllene exerts analgesic effects in mouse models of inflammatory and neuropathic pain. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol 2014;24(4):608-620.
  10. Yin H, Chu A, Li W, et al. Lipid G protein-coupled receptor ligand identification using β-arrestin PathHunter™ assay. J Biol Chem 2009;284(18):12328-12338.
  11. Raduner S, Majewska A, Chen J, et al. Alkylamides from Echinacea are a new class of cannabinomimetics Cannabinoid type 2 receptor-dependent and-independent immunomodulatory effects. J Biol Chem 2006;281(20):14192-14206.
  12. Leonti M, Casu L, Raduner S, et al. Falcarinol is a covalent cannabinoid CB1 receptor antagonist and induces pro-allergic effects in skin. Biochem Pharmacol 2010;79(12):1815-1826.
  13. Tang J, Dunlop R, Rowe A, et al. Kavalactones Yangonin and Methysticin induce apoptosis in human hepatocytes (HepG2) in vitro. Phytother Res 2011;25(3):417-423.