Cannabinoids are known as compounds found in cannabis species of the plant kingdom. The two most well-known cannabinoids are indubitably THC and CBD, but there are more than 100 cannabinoids we are currently aware of. This begs the question, are these special compounds found only in the cannabis species? Or can we find cannabinoids in other plants too?
The answer is a bit of a paradox, so let’s explore.
Before diving into the plant world it is important to understand the differences between cannabinoid compounds. The well-known compounds THC and CBD, along with other lesser-known cannabinoids such as CBG, CBC and over 100 more are known as phytocannabinoids. The preface phyto- indicates the compound is plant-derived.
Endocannabinoids may be a little less recognisable. These are made within the body of most animals, including humans, and interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The two endocannabinoids we know so far are anandamide and 2-AG. Don’t worry if you don’t recognise these obscure names, as endocannabinoids and the ECS – despite their vital importance to human physiology – have yet to be included in medical education, let alone high school biology.
These compounds play a role in metabolism, reproductive processes, sleep and much more. And while the local GP may not have been educated in their importance, our specialist doctors at CA Clinics have extensive training in all things related to medical cannabis and the ECS.
Lastly, plants that contain cannabimimetic compounds have the capacity to mimic the action of phytocannabinoids or interact with ECS processes. This means that even without the presence of cannabis, processes stimulated by phytocannabinoids can be mimicked by other plant compounds. After you’ve tripped over the pronunciation a few times, understanding what cannabimimetic compounds do is much easier than saying it.
There are a number of plants that interact with the ECS. Some attach directly to endocannabinoid receptors initiating action, while others contain compounds or activate enzymes that modify how the body processes phyto- or endocannabinoids.
Echinacea species is a group of herbs commonly used as immunomodulators, anti-inflammatory agents and in the prevention and treatment of respiratory tract infections. Phytocompounds in echinacea interact directly with the ECS via CB1 receptors, and this may have implications for inflammatory conditions, sleep and mood disorders.
Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is a herb traditionally used in some Pacific islands. In modern botanical medicine, it has been shown to ease anxiety, improve insomnia and positively impact areas of the brain related to addictive behaviours. These actions directly mirror conditions where cannabis is being investigated, which may be associated with the Kava kava root binding to CB1 receptors.
Many people’s favourite sweet treat also interacts with the ECS: chocolate or more accurately cacao. Despite misinformation circulating about cacao’s cannabinoids content, we now know it does not contain the endocannabinoid anandamide as once thought, but impacts pathways that control anandamide degradation.
Anandamide plays a role in regulating inflammatory process and the nervous system, so even though chocolate itself doesn’t contain endocannabinoids, its impact on the ECS more broadly could be construed as a reason to eat more chocolate – in case you needed one.
Excitingly recent research has uncovered the presence of anandamide and metabolic structures of an ECS in truffles (Tuber melanosporum). The prospects for extracting anandamide from truffles is futuristic, yet the knowledge of endocannabinoids in the fungi kingdom portends to huge advancements in our understanding of the ECS.
There is a huge range of plants that have been investigated for having compounds similar to those found in cannabis, many of them are common and recognisable plant species.
Common pepper (Piper nigrum) contains high levels of the terpene 𝛽-caryophyllene, which is found in appreciable quantities in cannabis plants and medical cannabis formulations. 𝛽-caryophyllene is considered as a potent anti-inflammatory and also interacts with the ECS.
Turmeric and frankincense (Curcurma longa and Boswellia carterii) both have compounds similar to cannabinoids, acting as agonists via different pathways that regulate inflammation, oxidation and pain. Echinacea also contains a compound that regulates pain and the immune system in a similar fashion to THC.
Other common cannabimimetic plants include capsicum, ginger, carrot and hops. Whilst eating a bunch of these foods won’t elicit effects similar to cannabis, their active constituents are synonymous enough with cannabinoids to warrant further investigation into their therapeutic potential.
There is one final plant deserving of a mention, the Helichrysum species originating from South Africa have been discovered to contain CBG decades ago. Much discussion, but little additional research has happened since then. Yet one can imagine as our understanding of the therapeutic potential of minor cannabinoids grows, so too will interest in extracting them from other sources.
In Australia and around the globe there is a growing interest in producing cannabinoids by means other than growing cannabis plants. Aside from chemically producing compounds in a lab, innovative other ways of creating cannabinoids are being toyed with.
One concept that seems relatively imminent is the potential of modifying other plants to produce cannabinoids on their own. This is currently being explored in Australia with the intention of producing CBD from hops. Similarly, by modifying enzymes or genes in specific yeast strains there are a number of international companies that have bioengineered yeasts to produce cannabinoids.
Lastly, terpenes are compounds also found in a huge range of plants, including the cannabis species and are being explored for their potential medical application. Terpenes are partly responsible for the entourage effect that is observed in the application of medical cannabis formulations.
There is a world of possibilities for cannabinoids or cannibimimetics beyond cannabis. As researchers continue to uncover potentials for medical cannabis, there is a possibility the future of medical cannabis formulations could expand beyond the cannabis plant itself.
By Jessica Kindynis