Cannabis 101 Understanding Cannabinoids, the Endocannabinoid System and Terpenes Featured Image

Cannabis 101: Understanding Cannabinoids, the Endocannabinoid System and Terpenes

Whether you use cannabis or not, we each have our own, unique endocannabinoid system (ECS) that helps us regulate mood, memory, sleep, inflammation, and pain sensations.

The ECS works with cannabinoids, terpenes, and other synergistic compounds to aid in emotional regulation.

Cannabinoids and terpenes are typically associated with cannabis or medical marijuana. However, terpenes are also found in the foods and beverages we eat every day! Let’s take a closer look.

This article will break down some botanical basics to help you understand how to maximize the cannabis plant in your lifestyle. Class is now in session for Cannabis 101!

None of the information presented in this post is meant to provide or replace medical advice. Consult with a physician.
This post contains affiliate links*. As an Amazon Associate + Green Compass Advocate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

Cannabis 101: Understanding Cannabinoids

A cannabinoid is an active constituent found in the cannabis plant, but there are different subtypes of cannabinoids. Phytocannabinoids are plant-based cannabinoids, such as CBD or THC, that we find in the cannabis plant and must be inhaled or ingested to feel any benefit or effect.

Whereas endocannabinoids are those found in the brain, organs, immune cells, glands, gut, and connective tissues that interact with the exogenous cannabinoids in a complementary fashion. (1)

Cannabis Dosing

Cannabinoids are best utilized when taken in the smallest possible dose that provides the greatest benefit (i.e. maximum effective dose).

When we overconsume, we may experience the “biphasic effect” in which a higher dose produces less of an effect, while a small dose might produce a greater one.

Cannabis 101 Lesson #1: less is often more when it comes to cannabis.

When you’ve reached the point of excess with little to no benefit, it’s critical to reset your ECS every so often to keep it running efficiently by fasting from cannabis for at least 48 hours. More on this later. (1)

In addition, each cannabinoid starts off in its acidic (inactive) form (i.e. CBDA or THCA), and must be decarboxylated (i.e. heated) in order to activate its compounds for function. There are several ways to decarboxylate depending on the delivery method of choice.

The acidic forms produce little to no effect but can act as “boosters“* to the active cannabinoids (i.e. enhanced effect).

However, there’s emerging research in individuals who are too sensitive to the active compounds who may find relief in the acidic counterparts. For example, a CBDA tea can be made in which you simply steep raw cannabis flower/bud in hot (not boiling) water. (2)

Cannabis 101: Hemp vs. Cannabis

Both hemp and cannabis (marijuana) belong to the Cannabis sativa L plant family. The differences lie in the amount of THC present which also affects its legality state-to-state and potential for psychoactivity.

By legal standards, hemp-derived CBD should contain no more than 0.3% THC (if grown properly without cross-contamination since it is a bioaccumulator), making it federally legal thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill.

But be cautious when using full spectrum hemp-derived CBD as you could still test positively for THC on a drug screen.

On the other hand, CBD derived from cannabis could contain 30% or more THC, making it federally illegal across state lines. (6)

cannabis 101 - Hemp was removed from the Schedule 1 class of substances thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill with jars of hemp seeds on a hemp cloth and cannabis fan leaves

Hemp-derived CBD can be a great option for children, the elderly, and pets since there’s no impairing effect associated with its use.

It can also be a great starting point for anyone new to cannabis looking to experience the therapeutic effects without the mind-altering compounds found in THC.

Cannabis 101: CBD vs. THC

If you’ve made it this far, you’re no stranger to these cannabinoids at this point. Below I’ll cover the differences and synergy between the most popular cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant in a concept known as “The Entourage Effect”.

Photo of the five main characters of the Warner Brothers' series Entourage
Entourage on HBO courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Cannabidiol (CBD)

Cannabidiol (CBD) is gaining much more recognition in the healing space since it produces little to no psychoactive effects (non-impairing) on its own and is great for daytime use. CBD can potentially help with (2):

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Seizures
  • Inflammation
  • Muscle spasms/spastic disorders
  • Tension headaches
  • Psychosis
  • Nausea
cannabis 101 - CBD is psychotropic - not psychoactive Psychotropic: a drug that affects someone's mental state, PsychoactiveL a drug that alters consciousness, thoughts and mood
Psychotropic does not necessarily mean psychoactive. Antidepressants are considered psychotropic to improve symptoms but are not mind-altering/hallucinogenic. Comparatively, alcohol and tobacco, in addition to THC, are considered psychoactive drugs.

Cannabis 101 Lesson #2: “Start low, and go slow”.

And as Janice Newell Bissex adds “but don’t be afraid to go all the way”. Cannabis tolerance is highly individualized and may require several weeks of trial and error before you discover the perfect dose and type of cannabinoid therapy that’s best for you. (5,14)

Be patient, and don’t give up! Click here for dosing protocols, guidelines, and tips.

In clinical trials, participants felt more alert when given CBD with improved clear-headedness, sharpness in thinking, and the sensation of feeling awakened and focused.

And one of its other superpowers is that it can help reduce some of the psychoactive effects of THC, especially if you’ve gotten a little too “elevated”.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

The most popular phytocannabinoid, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is responsible for psychoactive and euphoric properties but has its own medicinal benefits.

Plus CBD needs THC in order to bind to receptors in the brain and is incapable on its own. THC works differently than CBD because it interacts with two ECS receptors known as CB1 and CB2.

Due to the action of these cannabinoid receptors, THC can then mimic the activity of the endocannabinoids, further contributing to overall health, physiology, and neuroplasticity regulation. (2,3)

Much like our own ECS, THC tolerance is very individualized and will affect different people in different ways. When taken in the proper doses, THC can provide the following (3):

  • Neuron protection 
  • Cellular growth promotion (for tissue repair)
  • Euphoria
  • Changes in mood, coordination and perception
cannabis 101 - tension headache? dose with more cbd and less thc, migraine? dose with more thc (2.5 to 25 mg) and less cbd, one to one still best for neuropathic and musculoskeletal pain with two glass bottles with cannabis buds and a wooden bowl with cannabis buds

In addition, THC can also assist in relief from (2):

  • Inflammation
  • Spasticity
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Migraines
  • Seizures
  • Itching
  • Nausea

Pairing and dosing are critical components to proper cannabis use. As a basic rule of thumb, when first trying cannabis, stick to a 1:1 CBD-to-THC ratio preferably during a time when you don’t need to be productive or active.

If you feel too much psychoactivity or want to experience virtually none of it, increase the CBD ratio to something like 20:1 or 30:1. This is also a good method if you’ve gotten too high – take more doses of CBD to help to level off the effects of THC. (2,3,6)

The Entourage Effect

“The whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts”, and those parts include cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. You’ll find lots of different product types out there, such as isolates/concentrates, broad spectrum, and full spectrum products and flower. (6)

Isolates and concentrates separate out the cannabinoids, and do not contain any of the other synergistic cannabinoids, terpenes, or flavonoids. However, cannabis works most effectively and efficiently when all of its components are utilized together. (2,3,6)

Broad spectrum refers to all of the plant’s components described above except for THC. Whereas full-spectrum is just like broad-spectrum but with THC.

If your state is not yet recreationally legal (we’re closer to gettin’ all 50 on board!), then hemp-derived broad and full spectrum (if not subjected to drug testing) choices will be your best bet.

Broad spectrum is great if you want to experience no psychoactivity while still yielding the greatest medicinal benefits possible. Full spectrum will likely produce the greatest medicinal effect of all three options. In order to get the greatest possible benefits of this plant, broad or full spectrum is the way to go. (6)

Cannabis 101: Understanding the Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a physiologic system that was previously unknown to researchers for years, but soon became a critical component in understanding the health and healing of all mammals for the regulation of sleep, mood, pain, and appetite.

It contains three major components:

  • Endocannabinoids (anandamide + 2-AG)
  • Cannabinoid receptors (CB1 + CB2)
  • Enzymes (FAAH and MAGL). (2,3,6) 

The ECS is also known as the endogenous cannabinoid system since these cannabinoids are produced within the body (endogenously). Inversely, the cannabinoids we consume via ingestion or inhalation are considered exogenous (outside the body) cannabinoids. (1)


Endocannabinoids are found in the brain, organs, immune cells, glands, gut, and connective tissues, and while they each perform a distinctive function, they all have the same goal: maintaining homeostasis.

The ECS already produces compounds that respond to injury and illness and can control “excessive activity”, such as muscle spasms and nerve excitement (2,3,4). 

Known as the “bliss molecule” in Sanskrit, anandamide affects pleasure, mood, and reward centers, while 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) has protective effects for neurodegenerative diseases/conditions and cranial injuries.

Studies conducted on “knock out” mice have helped to explain why some people develop fibromyalgia or other chronic pain sensations over time as anandamide levels start to decrease as we age. “Knock out” mice have been stripped of all anandamide, feeling every pain sensation possible. (4)

Cannabinoid Receptors: CB1 + CB2

Cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2) are activated by cannabinoids found in both cannabis, hemp, and foods. Each receptor resides in and affects different areas of the body. Interestingly, different cannabinoids act on certain receptors, while some cannabinoids don’t act on them at all. (3)

Everyone has a unique pattern and network of receptors in the brain. Thanks to genetics, depending on where these receptors are located will determine if you’re programmed for more of a reaction than others.


For example, CB1 is only activated in the presence of THC meaning that CBD isolates, concentrates or broad spectrum products would not activate CB1. Additionally, the acidic form of THC, THCA, will not activate either CB1 or CB2. (3)

CB1 receptors can be found in the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. CB1 is an excitatory neurotransmitter that gives the brain the “green light” for neurotransmission, and drives energy production. (3)

Cannabis 101 Lesson #3: CBD cannot bind to CB1 receptors in the brain without the presence of THC


CB2 receptors can be found in the immune cells, gut cells, and every organ in the body. CB2 is significantly activated by trauma to the brain, and these receptors start to spike to initiate the inflammatory response. (3)

The highest levels of CB2 are found on the T cells (immune system’s killer cells), helping to explain how cannabis can combat disease. (2,3)

Furthermore, certain terpenes (like beta caryophyllene) activate and bind to CB2 for pain management.

Cellular Machinery: FAAH & MAGL

Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH) is an enzyme that breaks down anandamide to regulate the ECS and may balance anandamide and 2-AG to maximize ECS activity. FAAH molecules are present on neurons, astrocytes in the brain, and immune cells. (3)

CBD actually inhibits the release of FAAH, increasing anandamide levels, therefore increasing its interaction with the CB1 receptor to start to reduce inflammation and control pain.

Although CBD has an indirect binding effect and cannot bind to CB1 on its own, its inhibition of enzymatic activity is what allows for it to be a useful therapeutic tool in inflammatory management. (3)

Monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL) is the enzyme responsible for breaking down 2-AG. Inhibiting MAGL allows for more 2-AG, which facilitates brain injury repair, enhances short-term, synaptic depression, and allows for more 2-AG to get to the brain injury site. (3)

ECS Deficiency

An endocannabinoid system (ECS) deficiency is typically characterized by low levels of endocannabinoid and missing or defective receptors that can contribute to the onset of chronic diseases.

Chronic stress can deplete the ECS, while overusing cannabis (i.e. biphasic effect) may disrupt the typical functioning of the ECS. (2,3)

According to Dr. Ethan Russo, the concept of ECS deficiency is based on the theory that low levels of endocannabinoids might manifest into chronic disorders, such as neurotransmitter diseases (i.e. Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s), or depression due to suppression of serotonin and norepinephrine.

Therefore, much like any other system in the body, you need to work diligently to maintain homeostasis in order to keep your ECS functioning properly. Try to engage in creative activities or find ways to decompress so that your stress does not negatively affect your ECS. (7)

Oftentimes, conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraines, and seizures, are closely associated with an ECS deficiency. (7)

Cannabis 101: Understanding Terpenes

Terpenes are natural compounds found in hemp, cannabis, foods, beverages, and essential oils that provide aroma and flavor, along with therapeutic effects when paired properly. There are over 150 terpenes, each with its own, unique profile offering different benefits. (2,3,6)

For example, lemons, oranges, and limes are filled with limonene, while your favorite lavender essential oil has linalool in it.

Essential oils are a great way to incorporate more terpenes into your environment with a 0% chance of any psychoactive effect. Simply smelling aromatics can create a sense of calm and relaxation.

Each terpene is derived from a natural compound and may be enhanced by pairing based on the sensation you’re after. To increase/alter the therapeutic effects, you can either pair cannabis terpenes with other cannabis terpenes OR cannabis terpenes with food and beverage terpenes.

For example, pairing limonene and myrcene together can create a more sedative effect.

Or perhaps you got a little too high? Terpenes can also be used to reduce your high, such as pinene or beta caryophyllene. You can help lessen your high by incorporating terpenes from food and beverages. (3)

Cannabis 101 Lesson #4: Terpenes are not only found in hemp and cannabis, but also in essential oils and the foods and beverages we eat every day!

>>> What Are Terpenes? free download <<<


Found in citrus fruits, limonene is a sedative terpene that offers anti-anxiety, antidepressant, and anti-reflux effects with a more sedative sensation. If you’re looking to heighten its effects, pair limonene with other sedative terpenes, like linalool and/or myrcene.

In fact, limonene is most beneficial when in combination with linalool and myrcene. If you’re feeling a bit too sleepy, then add some pinene or beta caryophyllene to help wake you up. (2,3,6)

Limonene-containing cannabis strains (8

  • Berry White (17% THC)
  • Quantum Kush (19% THC)
  • Do-Si-Dos (20% THC)
  • Wedding Cake (22% THC)
cannabis 101 understanding terpenes - three lemons and two spoons on counter from Photo by <a href="">Katherine Chase</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

*in addition to the sedating properties of limonene, the THC content will also significantly contribute to the overall sedation/hallucinogenic profile.

Limonene-containing foods

  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Essential oils (food-grade only for oral consumption – aromatic essential oils should never be ingested)


Present in lavender with a lavender-like aroma, linalool offers pain-relieving, anti-convulsant, antispasmodic, and anti-anxiety properties with a soothing effect that promotes relaxation and calm.

If you’re looking to increase its effects, then pair linalool with other sedative terpenes, like limonene and/or myrcene. If you’re feeling a bit too sleepy, then add some pinene or beta caryophyllene to offset some sedation. (2,3,6)

Linalool-containing cannabis strains (9

  • Zkittles (19% THC)
  • Do-Si-Dos  (20% THC)
  • Kosher Kush (22% THC)
  • Scooby Snacks (23% THC)

Linalool-containing foods

  • Lavender
  • Pineapple
  • Peaches
  • Plums
  • Apricots
  • Dates
cannabis 101 - cannabis bud with blurred leaves in the background. Photo by Photo by <a href="">Sebastian Lopez</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

*in addition to the sedating properties of linalool, the THC content will also significantly contribute to the overall sedation/hallucinogenic profile.


Found in lemongrass and hops (weed’s botanical brother), myrcene provides fruity/earthy and clove-like aromas to promote pain relief, sedation, muscle relaxation, and anti-inflammation.

If you’re looking to elevate its effects, then pair myrcene with other calming terpenes, like limonene and/or linalool. If you’re feeling a little drowsy, then add some pinene or beta caryophyllene. (2,3,6)

Myrcene-containing cannabis strains (10)

  • ACDC (14% CBD / 1% THC) 
  • Agent Orange (15% THC)
  • Grape Ape (17% THC)
  • OG Kush (18% THC)
  • Kosher Tangie (21% THC)
cannabis 101 understanding terpenes - two mango halves diced with a white daisy and green leaves

*in addition to the sedating properties of myrcene, the THC content will also significantly contribute to the overall sedation/hallucinogenic profile.

Myrcene-containing foods

  • Hops
  • Mango
  • Lemongrass
  • Thyme 


As the most abundant terpene found in nature, pinene is derived from pine trees, and gives an obvious pine-like aroma. I always like to pump up the pinene around the holidays for a Merry “Lit”mas (see what I did there?).

Pinene creates a more awakened sensation compared to some of the other, more sleep-inducing terpenes, and works to boost memory and relax constricted airways while providing anti-inflammatory and antibiotic effects.

If you’re ever feeling a bit too rundown, whether from terpenes or just the stress of the day, add in a bit more pinene to wake you up and offset some of the sleep-inducing properties. (2,3,6)

Pinene-containing cannabis strains (11

  • Purple Punch (19% THC)
  • Mimosa (19% THC)
  • Slurricane (21% THC)
  • MAC (22% THC)

Pinene-containing foods

  • Pine nuts
  • Basil
  • Dill
  • Parsley
cannabis 101 understanding terpenes - cannabis buds in wooden bowl with pink flower and joint from Photo by Botanical Rising on Unsplash

Beta Caryophyllene

Found in black pepper, cloves, and several herbs, beta caryophyllene is a major terpene found in hemp seed oil that acts as a cannabinoid as a full agonist, binding to CB2 without stimulating CB1. (3)

Due to this receptor stimulation, this terpene is useful for inflammation, nerve pain relief along with antifungal, antimalarial and gastroprotective properties. If you’re ever feeling too “elevated”, beta caryophyllene is one of your best defenses to help bring you down a little faster.

Note that it won’t work immediately, but will lessen the duration of psychoactivity. (2,3,6)

Beta caryophyllene-containing cannabis strains (12)

  • Bubba Kush (17% THC)
  • Gelato (17% THC)
  • Sour Diesel (18% THC)
  • Pineapple Express (18% THC)
  • GSC (Girl Scout Cookies) (19% THC)

Beta caryophyllene-containing foods

  • Black pepper
  • Sage
  • Cloves
  • Many herbs
cannabis 101 understanding terpenes - two banana fan leaves with one whole lemon, two lemon slices and three containers of cannabis gummy edibles with gummy edibles spread around the table.


Abundant in black pepper, hops, and ginseng, humulene works as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent, as well as an appetite suppressant, providing spicy and earthy notes.

Its appetite-suppressing properties make it an ideal choice for anyone who’s been betrayed by the onset of the infamous munchies and looking to enjoy the therapeutic effects of cannabis while avoiding excess calories (because let’s be honest, a munchie snack is usually never a healthy one).

Humulene also appears to be found in the presence of beta caryophyllene, and actually works in a very similar fashion with the same chemical formula. So much synergy!

Humulene-containing cannabis strains (13

  • Candyland (18% THC)
  • Headband (18% THC)
  • Thin Mint GSC (19% THC) – Girl Scout Cookie
  • Deathstar (20% THC)

Humulene-containing foods

  • Hops
  • Sage
  • Ginseng
cannabis 101 understanding terpenes - burning sage in left hand with pink himalayan sea salt lamp on an end table with plants. Photo attribute: Photo by <a href="">Marcos Paulo Prado</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

Special thanks to Leafly for always providing accurate cannabinoid and terpene profiles.

Cannabis 101: Odor vs. Aroma

While terpenes provide the beautiful and pleasant aromas that we can smell in the raw flower/bud, smoked cannabis has a very distinct, and often unpleasant, odor.

We are no stranger to walking past someone smoking some super cheap skunkweed, but even the best quality cannabis can produce an unwanted smell, especially if you rent your residence or live in an apartment/condo/townhouse in which you’re connected to others.

cannabis 101 - candle burning with matches and a potted plant on an end table from Photo by <a href="">Bannon Morrissy</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

There’s enough negative stigma associated with recreational marijuana use, so let’s do our part to act as responsible, and considerate, cannaconsumers.

Disclaimer – there is no scientific evidence to this DIY home remedyand just what I happen to do that seems to work well for me in my space. Please do not confuse any of this with medical advice for those sensitive to smoke or assume this method will work as a slam dunk should your unit be inspected by property management. 

Take an empty paper towel roll and stuff it with a few dryer sheets. Take a puff, then blow the smoke through the paper towel roll (if using fresh dryer sheets, it should even smell like a fresh load of laundry!).

Just to be safe, I then spray a light water-based air freshener afterward without any heavy perfumes.

Essential oil diffusers can also be useful in combating some of the cannabis smoke odor (say hello to more terpenes in the air!), while air purifier machines are usually the most “aggressive” in terms of removing unwanted smells and requires a small monetary investment.

Now the method above only works for inhalation via pen, pipe, dab, vaporizer, joint, blunt or bong. Use whatever method makes the most sense for you and your space, situation and budget.

If you’re looking to make edibles at home, there are several considerations to make to reduce the smell (even with an infusion machine) since the decarboxylation process is highly odorous and can engulf the entire residence.

Cannabis 101: Final Grades

Cannabis use involves so much more than the typical image of a hippie with dreadlocks. As you can see, while the strain names, puns, and jokes are super fun, “it’s actually very scientific”, and there are many factors to consider when selecting the proper choice for you and your needs.

It's actually very scientific gif from the movie Pineapple Express from
Philosophical Sal from Pineapple Express (2008) –
Columbia Pictures/Relativity Media/Apatow Productions

Now that you’ve got some general Cannabis 101 knowledge about this palliative plant, I hope that you can start to find relief in the different strains, cannabinoids, and terpene pairings.

Now you’re ready to check out how you can make the cannabinoid compounds and terpenes work in your favor to enhance the therapeutic effects with food/nutrient pairing and timing

Read up on The Endocannabinoid Diet: An Endocannabinoid System Booster.

Share this article with the cannanewbies and seasoned stoners in your life

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6. Newell Bissex, J., MS, RDN, FAND. (n.d.). Simple Guide to CBD: Fact, Fiction, and a Path Forward. Melrose, MA: JNB Press.

2 thoughts on “Cannabis 101: Understanding Cannabinoids, the Endocannabinoid System and Terpenes”

  1. Hi Sam,
    Wonderful information! I’ve been taking CBD for a few years now, it a little difficult to find the a good CBD with TMC oils. I’m always looking for the best products. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you!!

    1. Samantha M. Coogan

      Oh, what a wonderful question! I highly trust products from Dr. Sulak, Co-Founder of Healer, and Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RDN, FAND, owner of Jannabis Wellness. If you’re looking for CBD oil with THC, then definitely check out Dr. Sulak’s line of products at He has THC/THCA & CBD/CBDA tinctures, and all kinds of other broad and full-spectrum products. Dr. Sulak specializes in cannabinoid/cannabis therapy, and has his own practice in Maine. And if you’re ever looking for hemp-derived (<0.3% THC) products, has capsules, tincures, salves and even dog treats!! Hope these suggestions help, and let me know if you try any of them out!

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