Why Did Cannabis Evolve to Produce Cannabinoids

They say you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but today we’ll be doing just that. 

Have you ever wondered why a plant like cannabis would evolve to produce compounds that interact with the nervous systems of mammals? Was it just a random chance, or do cannabinoids serve an evolutionary purpose? Let’s dig into cannabis science and find out!

What Is A Cannabinoid? 

Before we get into the history of cannabinoids, let’s first precisely define what a cannabinoid is. 

Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds found in the cannabis sativa plant. These compounds have similar structures and behave in similar ways to neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids which our bodies produce to send messages to our brains and nervous systems.

The two most common cannabinoids are the intoxicating THC which is responsible for marijuana’s signature “high,” and CBD, which has recently skyrocketed in popularity as a wellness supplement. While these are the two most researched and well-known cannabinoids out there, there are actually over 100 unique minor cannabinoids. Some minor cannabinoids that frequently appear in cannabis include: 

  • CBG
  • CBN
  • THCA
  • CBDA
  • Delta-8 THC 
list of common cannabinoids

What Is The Endocannabinoid System?

When we consume cannabinoids, they interact with our bodies via the endocannabinoid system (ECS, for short). The ECS is made up of neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors which receive them. The ECS helps modulate several key bodily functions such as mood, appetite, sleep patterns, memory, and reproduction.

Cannabinoids like THC or CBD bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the ECS and affect these functions.  

CB1 and CB2 receptors

The History Of Cannabis 

The history of marijuana and hemp begins in central Asia before humans were even around to cultivate it. This region, with its varied geographies and climates, forced cannabis to evolve defensive compounds. Interestingly, female plants grew to develop more of these compounds than their male counterparts—presumably since they serve a more vital role in the procreation and continuation of the species. 

Around 500 BC, humans began intentionally cultivating the plant for its fibers which were incredibly useful for textiles and paper-making. It’s around this time that we first see documentation of cannabis being used medicinally as well. As the ancient world became more connected via shipping routes, the cannabis plant made its way into Africa, Europe, and eventually the Americas.

Male vs Female Cannabis Plants 

Cannabis is a dioecious plant, which means that there are male and female plants with separate sex organs. Only female cannabis plants produce the flowering buds you find packaged in mylar bags at the local dispensary. The vast majority of cannabinoids are found in the buds of these female plants.

cannabis nug

Cannabis Evolution: Why Cannabinoids? 

Cannabis didn’t evolve cannabinoids with the mammalian endocannabinoid system in mind. The fact that they do interact with this system is just a happy coincidence. 

Cannabinoids form in tiny resinous glands called trichomes which appear all over the surface of cannabis buds. You can actually spot these crystalline structures with the naked eye—especially on cannabinoid-rich plant breeds. Trichomes serve the plant in several different ways. 

For one, they can help prevent the plant from getting overheated in dry, open climates. Surprisingly, trichomes can also be beneficial for the opposite reason. In colder climates, trichomes insulate the cannabis plant during a frost. 

Cannabinoids aren’t the only compounds found in trichomes. They also contain aromatic molecules called terpenes. Terpenes produce pungent odors that can discourage herbivorous insects and animals from feasting on their plant material. Conversely, terpenes also create aromas that attract pollinators. 

History Science