Understanding the Distinctions: Endocannabinoids, Phytocannabinoids, and Synthetic Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids have garnered significant attention in recent years due to their potential therapeutic applications. However, there are distinct differences between the various types of cannabinoids. 

In this discussion, we will delve into the disparities between endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids, and synthetic cannabinoids, exploring their origins, properties, and implications for therapeutics.

Endocannabinoids: Nature's Internal Messengers

Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids produced naturally within the human body. The two primary endocannabinoids identified thus far are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). These compounds are synthesized on-demand in response to specific physiological signals.

The significance of endocannabinoids lies in their interaction with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a regulatory network found throughout the body. By binding to cannabinoid receptors, namely CB1 and CB2, endocannabinoids modulate functions such as mood, appetite, pain perception, and sleep.

Endocannabinoid system

Phytocannabinoids: Nature's Botanical Compounds

Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids naturally occurring in plants, with cannabis being the most well-known source. They include compounds like delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Similar to endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids interact with the ECS by binding to cannabinoid receptors. THC, the primary component of cannabis, has been researched for over 70 years and has been demonstrated to be of therapeutic value for treatment of mood, appetite, pain perception, and sleep.  It is unfortunately often solely associated with its side effect of intoxication.  CBD, on the other hand, while non-intoxicating, has been associated with potential therapeutic benefits such as pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties that have yet to be proven in human beings.


Synthetic Cannabinoids: Lab-Made Compounds

Synthetic cannabinoids are artificially produced compounds designed to mimic the effects of natural or plant-based cannabinoids. These laboratory-created substances are developed by modifying the chemical structure of cannabinoids or creating entirely new compounds. Synthetic cannabinoids are often used for scientific research purposes or as pharmaceutical drugs.  Unfortunately, synthetic cannabinoids are also used in the illicit market as cheap substitutes for cannabis, like K2/Spice, and more recently semi-synthetic cannabinoids have been derived from hemp CBD to make legal, but unregulated (unsafe) intoxicating cannabinoids like delta-8 or delta-10 THC.

One of the significant concerns regarding synthetic cannabinoids is their unpredictable and potent effects. These compounds can be much more potent than natural cannabinoids, leading to an increased risk of adverse reactions and potentially dangerous side effects.

K2 Spice

Implications for Medical Research

Understanding the distinctions between endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids, and synthetic cannabinoids has important implications for medical research. Phytocannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, have shown promise in various therapeutic applications, including pain management, neuroprotection, and anti-inflammatory effects.

Endocannabinoids, being the body's internal messengers, play vital roles in maintaining physiological balance. Modulating the ECS through targeted drug therapies could offer potential treatments for a wide range of conditions, including mood disorders, chronic pain, and neurodegenerative diseases.

While synthetic cannabinoids have been developed for research purposes and pharmaceutical use, their unpredictable nature and associated risks highlight the need for careful regulation and further investigation.

Researcher with microscope


Cannabinoids encompass a diverse group of compounds with distinct origins and properties. Endocannabinoids are naturally produced within the human body, phytocannabinoids are derived from plants like cannabis, and synthetic cannabinoids are lab-made substances. Understanding the differences between these three categories is crucial for exploring their potential therapeutic applications and ensuring safe usage.

Moving forward, continued research into the effects and mechanisms of action of cannabinoids will provide valuable insights into their medical potential. By harnessing the power of these compounds, we may unlock innovative treatments for a variety of health conditions.


  1. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2014 Nov 1; 0: 12–41. Published online 2014 Aug 18. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2014.08.005
  2. Phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids: different in nature. CANNABIS AND CANNABINOIDS. Open access. Published: 15 October 2020, volume 31, pages931–938 (2020)