A GUIDE TO PLANTS THAT CONTAIN THERAPEUTIC CANNABINOIDS.
New research into plants containing Phytocannabinoids other than cannabis/hemp.
Scientifically reviewed by: Dr. Vance Green, PharmD. | Updated on August 29, 2021
Did you know that hemp and cannabis aren’t the only plants with ‘cannabinoids’ in them?
This article collects several well-known plants and some lesser-known ones containing compounds that interact with our endocannabinoid system, just like cannabinoids from cannabis do.
That means they interact with our bodies in a somewhat similar way to cannabis, though, of course, most of these plants aren’t going to leave you feeling stoned. However, even tea and black truffles (two of the cannabinoid-rich foods we’ll discuss below) may be having subtle effects on us as we eat them.
It’s interesting to consider that our bodies engage with plants on more than just a superficial nutritional level. Compounds like cannabinoids and terpenes, which will come up again below, prove that what we eat affects our health on multiple levels.
All our internal systems are interconnected in complex and fascinating ways.
Below, we’ll look at some common (and uncommon) plants that contain phytocannabinoids or compounds similar to them. But, first, we’ll lay out some basic facts about the human endocannabinoid system and why any of this matters.
What plants contain cannabinoids, and why does it matter?
- Cannabinoids are compounds found primarily in hemp and cannabis which interact with the human endocannabinoid system.
- Found throughout our central nervous system (CNS) and all our bodies’ systems and organs, the endocannabinoid system is a series of specialized receptors and corresponding compounds made in our body. The endocannabinoid system seems to promote balance (homeostasis) in our systems.
- There are hundreds of cannabinoids in the hemp and cannabis plants, with CBD and THC being two of the most common and well-known.
- Other plants contain cannabinoids or compounds which mimic cannabinoids that interact with the endocannabinoid system.
- Some common plants with cannabinoids include cacao, tea, kava, rosemary, black pepper, black truffles, and echinacea.
- Lesser-known plants with cannabinoids include maca, liverwort, particular sunflowers found in South Africa, and acmella oleracea, also known as the “electric daisy.”
What are cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system?
To briefly explain, the endocannabinoid system is a series of receptors in our bodies and natural compounds which our bodies make to interact with these receptors.
Humans, and other mammals, too, naturally produce compounds that resemble those found in hemp and cannabis. Scientists call these endogenous (meaning from the body) cannabinoids or endocannabinoids. Throughout our nervous system and in all of our major organs, specialized receptors react to these compounds. Two of the most common receptors and important are known as the CB1 and CB2 receptors.
Compounds like CBD, CBG, and THC, found in hemp and cannabis, are called phytocannabinoids (phyto from the Greek root word meaning plant). In some ways, they can be seen as supplementing the endocannabinoids made in our bodies.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) works in many ways, influencing everything from pain response and inflammation to sleep and aspects of our digestive system.
Overall it seems to contribute to balance, or homeostasis, in our bodies’ systems.
The endocannabinoid system is complex, and we’re still learning a lot about it. And the way plants interact with our ECS is even more complicated. Just because something contains cannabinoids or similar compounds doesn’t mean you can “get high” from consuming it. The effects are likely more subtle if present.
Common plants that contain cannabinoids.
Here are some common plants containing cannabinoids or compounds similar enough to cannabinoids that interact with the endocannabinoid system. Scientists call this kind of compound a cannabimimetic.
The familiar green, black or white tea so many people brew contains more than just caffeine. Known by the scientific name Camellia sinensis, the tea plant contains unique compounds which differentiate it from coffee and help explain the subtly different effects.
One of these types of compounds is known as catechins, a type of flavonoid. A 2010 study in Phytomedicine found that tea catechins interact with human endocannabinoid receptors. These findings could help explain some of the benefits researchers link to green tea, such as lowering cholesterol and improving brain function.
Kava is a drink made from a plant native to the Pacific Islands, where it has centuries of traditional use. Today, it’s become popular both as a supplement and as a beverage. Consumers claim the drink is calming and even gently sedating.
Kava has multiple compounds which considered ‘active,’ called kavalactones. One of them, yangonin, interacts with the CB1 receptor in the endocannabinoid system. CB1 is the primary receptor that THC binds to after someone consumes cannabis, suggesting a link between the potential anti-anxiety effects of both plants.
Rosemary and Black Pepper
Common herbs and spices like rosemary and black pepper contain β-caryophyllene, a unique terpene. Terpenes are scented compounds found throughout nature, and many of them can affect the human body or nervous system. However, caryophyllene is the only terpene that interacts directly with the CB2 receptor in the human endocannabinoid system.
Many cannabis and hemp strains also contain high quantities of this spicy compound, adding to their unique effects. Other plants which include β-caryophyllene include cloves and hops, though the beer brewing process removes much of this terpene.
Echinacea is another plant used in traditional medicine, with a great deal of both historic and modern popularity. Today, consumers claim it can boost the immune system, among other uses. However, while this plant is a very popular supplement, the scientific evidence for its benefits is less supportive.
Echinacea does contain cannabimimetic compounds, however. Known by their scientific name as N-alkyl amides, or NAAs, these compounds bind to the CB2 receptor, which CBD also activates.
Many people report feeling better moods after consuming chocolate. One possible factor could be the compounds N-acylethanolamines or NAEs found in cacao, a key ingredient in chocolate. In comparison, the beans of the cacao plant are what end up in our desserts, the cacao fruit itself, prized as a superfood.
How does this relate to the endocannabinoid system? It turns out that NAEs may increase the activity of anandamide, one of the key endocannabinoids. Anandamide translates roughly to “bliss chemical,” and bliss certainly describes how many of us feel after eating quality chocolate.
Another superfood, flax, is a seed full of essential amino acids and other valuable nutrients. People add flax seeds to their salads and yogurt or consume flax oil and mix it into smoothies and other food. So actually, hemp is one of the few seeds that compete with hemp in terms of nutritional benefits.
In 2012, researchers discovered cannabinoid-like compounds in flax fibers which seem to have anti-inflammatory properties. The scientists suggested this flax compound could someday get used in bandages or other wound dressings.
Given the prized rarity of black truffles, it might be difficult to call them “common” plants with cannabinoids in them. However, black truffle mushrooms can sell for over $2,000 per pound!
Still, they’re a well-known ingredient that we can use to round out our list, as black truffles also interact with the endocannabinoid system. Which may play a role in why truffle are reported to not only have high nutritional value, but also acts as a powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, hepatoprotective, anti-mutagenic, antituberculoid immunomodulatory, antitumor, antimicrobial, and aphrodisiac. (Source)
In addition to being a decadent addition to any dish, Black truffles contain anandamide, the bliss molecule we mentioned above in the entry on cacao.
Even more, plants that contain cannabinoids.
We wanted to focus this article on plants that our readers would encounter in their everyday lives or were likely to hear about. But, unfortunately, this list still only scratches the surface when it comes to plants that contain cannabinoids and cannabimimetic.
Here are some more plants with cannabinoids:
- Particular South African sunflowers — This compound isn’t found in the sunflowers common to where most of our readers live. Still, some South African varieties of the Helichrysum family of plants contain a compound that resembles CBG (Cannabigerol), an important cannabinoid now popular in many supplements.
- Maca — A plant native to the Andes of Peru, maca is a root used in traditional medicine. Maca is highly nutritious, full of fiber, beneficial carbohydrates, and some vitamins. However, scientists can’t yet prove its other purported benefits at this time. Compounds in maca seem to block an enzyme called FAAH, which breaks down endocannabinoids, causing them to last longer in the body.
- Electric Daisy — Acmella oleracea, a plant native to Brazil, is more commonly known as the electric daisy because of the numbing effect people feel when they chew it. The compounds responsible, N-isobutyl amides, interact with the endocannabinoid system.
- Japanese Liverwort — In the 1990s, researchers discovered a compound in Japanese liverwort or Radula perrottetii; that’s chemically very similar to THC. In animal studies, it also seems to activate CB1 receptors.
- Chinese Rhododendron — Part of Chinese Traditional Medicine, where it’s used for its purported antibacterial properties, Chinese rhododendron plants contain folic acids which interact with the endocannabinoid system.
It’s interesting to consider that our bodies engage with plants on more than just a superficial nutritional level.
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