Understanding Cannabinoids, Terpenes & Cannabis Effects

Below is a basic primer on cannabis effects, including how the different compounds in cannabis impact the human body and the distinct effects of sativa vs. indica strains.

Basic medical science is a useful lens when it comes to understanding the physical and psychological effects of cannabis. Our brains and nervous systems contain endogenous cannabinoid (endocannabinoid) receptors, which are involved in many physiological functions, such as mood, memory, pain sensory, and appetite. Our bodies naturally create endocannabinoids, which bind to the receptors in the endocannabinoid system. Like our natural endocannabinoids, the cannabinoids found in cannabis plants act through the same receptors.

Cannabinoid Compounds

There are a variety of cannabinoid compounds present in cannabis that bind to the endocannabinoid receptors, thereby influencing such functions as pain, mood, appetite, sleep, and immune system — just to name a few. Of the 100+ known cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant, the best known are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which give us different cannabis effects.

THC, a psychoactive compound, is the most abundant cannabinoid in cannabis (over 30% in the most potent strains) and can be responsible for a feeling of euphoria, exerting effects over pain, nausea, sleep, and stress. THC is also responsible for the unpleasant effects of cannabis, including anxiety, paranoia, and panic that can accompany excessive intake. When we talk about the strength or potency of marijuana, we are referring to its THC content.

CBD, on the other hand, is not considered psychoactive. It can help reduce pain and inflammation and encourage calmness and sleep. This compound is often the active ingredient in topical ointments and other pain-relieving cannabis products for exactly these effects. CBD also regulates the effect of THC, taming some of the potentially unpleasant feelings.

Smelling Good, Feeling Good With Terpenes

Recent attention has been focused on another class of compounds found in cannabis called terpenes. Terpenes are a huge class of aromatic compounds that are found in almost all flowers and herbs. In cannabis plants, they not only influence the aroma and flavor profile of marijuana strains, they act synergistically with cannabinoids in influencing the cannabis effects we experience.

For example, the terpene pinene smells — as the name suggests — like pine and has been shown to help with focus and alertness. Another terpene linalool (also found in lavender) helps with stress and anxiety, while citrusy limonene can help improve mood. Myrcene contributes to the sedating qualities of indicas.

Indica vs. Sativa Strains

The indica vs. sativa classification of cannabis, which is by no means precise, is still regarded as a useful framework for determining the effects of different flower strains. Taking a historical perspective, cannabis plants are thought to have originated in modern-day Kazakhstan over 10,000 years ago. Traders, nomads, conquerors, and farmers helped to spread it across the world. The plants that traveled to the eastern regions of Asia — colder, with shorter growing seasons — evolved into indica species, while those that traveled west to warmer climates developed into what are known as sativa species.

Marijuana plants that are considered indica strains generally create more of a calming, sedating body high and can produce a profound “couch-locked” state of relaxation. These strains are useful for pain, anxiety, nausea, and inducing sleep. Sativa strains are known for their cerebral highs and can be energizing, focusing, mood-lifting, and used to enhance creativity. Today, many marijuana strains are a hybrid of the two, providing a blended experience of both varieties.

To say the least, the physical and psychological effects of cannabis are influenced by the cannabis plant’s complex chemistry, not to speak of one’s own unique and ever-changing body chemistry. It is important for each person to discover his or her own sweet spot through thoughtful and responsible trial of the spectrum of cannabis flowers and other products now available.