Humans have understood the medicinal benefits of cannabis for millennia. However, the shifting global attitude has opened avenues for research into specific qualities of these plants. Cannabinoid acids and their therapeutic benefits are one such area.
Read on to learn more about types of acidic cannabinoids, how they communicate with the body, and the different ways they could promote health and wellness.
The Endocannabinoid System
Cannabinoid acids are compounds produced by cannabis plants. These work alongside the body’s endocannabinoid system (or ECS). Cannabinoids such as THC and CBD begin as cannabinoid acids. The distinction between cannabinoid acid and cannabinoid is important to keep in mind.
Cannabinoid acids were discovered in the 1960s by Israeli chemist Dr Raphael Mechoulam. Dr Mechoulam was also the first to identify the tetrahydrocannabinol or THC molecule from “5 kilos of Lebanese hashish” (Gorelick 2020). For cannabis consumers, cannabinoids produce physiological and psychoactive effects. These effects can be beneficial in healthcare settings, potentially helping with a variety of ailments.
Cannabis can affect its consumers because cannabinoids bind to ECS receptors found in cells throughout the body. So far, two types of receptors have been identified. The ECS receptor called CB1 works mainly in the nervous system, connective tissues, glands, and organs. The receptor called CB2 is found in the immune system.
The ECS interacts with the body’s systems in different ways. This allows the body to maintain a stable environment that can react to unpredictable external factors. For example, the ECS is thought to be capable of controlling the body’s inflammatory response when a bone is fractured. This allows it to prevent the response from going overboard (which can further damage the body). Similarly, it can reduce pain signals throughout the brain when cannabinoids stimulate CB1 receptors.
Unlike THC, cannabinoid acids do not produce intoxicating, psychoactive effects. Instead, these compounds are geared towards helping cannabis plants defend themselves against pests and predators.
For example, cannabinoid acids have antimicrobial, antioxidative, and even insecticidal properties. People who are familiar with cannabis plants will know their trichomes well, and it is in these trichomes that the important compounds can be found.
Cannabigerolic Acid, or CBGA – the foundation for major cannabinoids
When a plant begins to produce cannabinoid acids, the first one it creates is cannabigerolic acid or CBGA. This compound serves as the foundation for other cannabinoids. CBGA is transformed into THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid), CBDA (cannabidiolic acid), and CBCA (cannabichromene acid) during the plant’s life. These are also cannabinoid acids.
Heat can transform these cannabinoid acids into the well-known cannabinoids THC, CBD, and the lesser-known CBC (cannabichromene) and CBN (cannabinol). In these forms, cannabinoids can interact with ECS receptors. The interactions between these cannabinoids and the ECS receptors in the body are thought to be responsible for the therapeutic and psychoactive effects felt by cannabis consumers.
CBGA is useful for cannabis plants because it protects their delicate flowers from being damaged by the sun’s UV rays. This is important because while light helps cannabis plants flourish, if left unregulated, it can also destroy them. CBGA also protects cannabis plants by neutralising free radicals. Free radicals are the chemically reactive molecules that degrade cells, so it’s good to have a way of fighting them. In humans, free radicals have been known to cause cancer and diminish healing.
Because CBGA is also an antioxidant, it can potentially help control complications from diabetes such as cardiovascular disease. In addition, these same antioxidant properties were thought to positively impact brain cell degeneration caused by Parkinson’s disease (Garcia et al., 2018).
Another potential benefit of CBGA is that it has antibacterial properties. A study of CBGA’s impact on MRSA (Farha et al., 2020) showed it could disrupt the bacteria’s defence mechanisms. It does this by targeting the bacteria’s ability to form protective membranes. In the same study, CBGA was found to work with antibiotics against drug-resistant pathogens.
Like all living things, cannabis plants flourish when they can efficiently use their energy. CBGA contributes to this effort by stimulating necrosis (or cell death) in older leaves. This allows plants to redirect their energy towards flower production. Interestingly, in 2018 CBGA was found to induce the same result in colorectal cancer cells (Nallathambi et al.) but not in normal colon cells.
Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid, or THCA – a potent medicinal compound
Most CBGA research has so far been focused on its role in the sustainable production of THCA. THCA is a non-psychoactive compound that can become 9-THC. THCA can be converted to THC either by the application of heat or as a result of time passing. This conversion process is also known as decarboxylation or decarbing.
THCA is the “raw” version of THC. In this raw form, its chemical structure is entirely different. It is significantly larger and usually cannot “fit” into CB1 receptors in the body’s ECS. To deliver its psychoactive payload, a cannabinoid must fit perfectly with the CB1 receptor.
However, a 2018 study by Moreno-Sanz shows that THCA has a “small but measurable” ability to bind to CB1. Furthermore, this interaction is possible without decarboxylation, meaning that THCA would remain non-psychoactive. The ability of THCA to remain non-psychoactive is key to its impressive potential. As a result, this compound can potentially provide medicinal benefits without the anxiety-inducing side effects of THC.
Recent research is revealing the tremendous potential of THCA. It is now thought to be a potent anti-inflammatory agent in limiting symptoms of arthritis and lupus. It can also potentially mitigate the complications of irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease.
Clinical trials in 2017 (Sulak et al.) investigated the potency of THCA dosage compared with CBD in the treatment of epilepsy in children. This study revealed that THCA is more effective than CBD in smaller amounts. It found that THCA can stop seizures using doses that were 10-100 times lower than the CBD counterpart.
THCA also has the potential to improve the health of our brains. For example, a 2017 study by Nadal et al. showed THCA could protect brain cells from the toxicity caused by neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington’s disease.
As we have already seen, it is not only our brains that can benefit from THCA. A 2013 study explored THCA’s anti-nausea properties in rodents. The study suggested it was a more potent alternative to THC (Rock et al.). THCA shows tremendous potential as a medicinal compound. It should be front and centre in any conversation about the pharmacological value of cannabis.
Cannabidiolic Acid, or CBDA – new research opens possibilities
Continuing the theme of original compounds, cannabidiolic acid or CBDA is the precursor to the minor cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD). It is also one of the earliest cannabinoids to be researched and was isolated by Dr Rafael Mechoulam in 1965. CBDA is not psychoactive, but it is very useful for many reasons. One reason being its anti-inflammatory properties (Takeda, 2008).
CBDA restrains the production of prostaglandins. These fatty acids are responsible for inflammation and blood clot formation. The 2008 study by Takeda et al also discovered the similarities between CBDA’s molecular structure and the structure of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
In 2019, Dr Mechoulam and pharmaceutical company EPM developed a formula to create CBDA without cannabis plants. This innovation opens the door for further research into the benefits of cannabinoid acids. EPM’s formula will provide companies with a foundation for research into therapies without the need to cultivate cannabis plants.
British company GW Pharmaceuticals have used CBD to create epilepsy medication since 2018. GW is also exploring CBDA as a more effective seizure medication in a patent filed in 2017. Additionally, in 2011 they filed a patent for the use of cannabinoid acids in the development of antipsychotic medications.
A 2012 study by Takeda concluded that CBDA could limit the mobility of highly invasive breast cancer cells. CBDA is thought to have played a role in the suppression of genes involved in the development of cancer cells in a study done in 2014.
Scientists and medical researchers are only scratching the surface of the vast potential of cannabinoid acids. Healthcare needs are constantly evolving, and cannabis plants produce over one hundred different cannabinoids. More have yet to be discovered. This means that there is plenty of opportunity for these compounds to make their impact.