It is not uncommon for people to cite cannabis as the only plants to contain cannabinoids. After all, they have “canna” in the name. But, as it turns out, there are many plants with cannabinoid-like compounds that interact with the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS), the series of receptors throughout mammalian brains and bodies that help maintain homeostasis. What are cannabinoids, what role do they play, and which other plants contain these compounds? Let’s take a closer look:
What are cannabinoids?
The term “cannabinoids” refers to the chemical compounds found within cannabis plants. The most famous of these include Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD), but there are many, many more found in any given plant.
These compounds bind to receptors found in the endocannabinoid system, known as the CB1 and CB2 receptors. The endocannabinoid system is thought to help regulate a wide range of bodily functions, particularly in the central nervous system and immune system.
What other plants contain cannabinoids?
Historically, cannabinoids were thought to be exclusive to the cannabis genus of plants -- and technically, that is true. However, there are many other plants out there that contain cannabinoid-like compounds that can interact with and influence the endocannabinoid system in a very similar way. Here are the top 5 showing some interesting potential in initial studies:
Yes, members of the humble sunflower genus contain cannabinoid-like compounds. Unfortunately, they’re not the ones common to our backyard gardens or grocery store shelves. Helichrysum, a genus consisting of 600 varieties of sunflowers, is native to South Africa and contains cannabigerol-like (CBG) phytocannabinoids called amorfrutins.
Echinacea has been used therapeutically for thousands of years, so it’s not too much of a surprise to find it contains cannabinoid-like compounds. Specifically, certain Echinacea species contain cannabimimetic compounds called N-alkylamides (NAAs) that aren’t exactly similar to cannabinoids but still trigger CB2 cannabinoid receptors. Echinacea is also commonly used as a precautionary measure, much like Vitamin C, to boost the immune system.
3. Black Truffles
The highly prized black truffle, eagerly hunted by rabassiers (French truffle hunters) with their well-trained, truffle-sniffing pigs, are valuable for more than their culinary exquisiteness. These incredibly expensive mushrooms sell for over $2,000 a pound (earning them the moniker “black diamonds”). They are a wildly popular ingredient in cooking, often making appearances in a wide variety of sauces or as shavings atop dishes like pasta or eggs. Truffles can even be found in certain ramen recipes.
Black truffles have been found to contain anandamide, an endocannabinoid found in and made by our bodies that interacts with the endocannabinoid system.
4. Black Pepper
This simple pantry staple does more than add a little bite to your favorite foods. Black pepper is a common household spice used to liven up any dish. This versatile spice is native to southern India, where it is widely cultivated. It is also commonly cultivated in Vietnam. Black pepper also contains beta-caryophyllene (BCP), a terpene found in cannabis (though at much higher concentrations).
The cacao tree, from where cacao is harvested, is native to the Amazon Basin. It has been part of human civilization for thousands of years, thought to have been first consumed by the Mayans and other contemporary civilizations of the region.
Need yet another reason to love chocolate? Cacao, the key ingredient in chocolate, contains beneficial N-acylethanolamines (NAEs). NAEs are cannabinoid-like fatty acids which can increase anandamide activity in the body.*
6. Electric Daisy
The Electric Daisy, a plant native to Brazil and known scientifically as Acmella oleracea, is well known for the numbing effect it produces when chewed (often likened to “electrocution,” as dramatic as that might seem). That strange sensation is caused by a compound found in the stems of the plants flowers called N-isobutylamides.
The Electric Daisy is also commonly used for soothing tooth discomfort due to the numbing effect caused by the N-isobutylamides. It is also used for upset stomachs purposes. How’s that for shocking?
7. Japanese Liverwort
Japanese Liverwort, scientifically known as Radula perrottetii, was found to contain a compound called perrottetinene by a Japanese phytochemist in 1994. Perrottetinene, interestingly enough, mimics the chemical structure of THC. Researchers went on to demonstrate in animal models that perrottetinene activates the receptors found in the endocannabinoid system in much the same way as THC and other cannabinoids.
Kava is an extract made from a native Pacific Islands plant called Piper methysticum. Kava is a bitter liquid often used as a social drink thought to produce a sedative-like calming effect when ingested. Kava also contains a compound called “yangonin,” which interacts with the CB1 receptors of the endocannabinoid system.
9. Chinese Rhododendron
Hailing from southern China, as the name suggests, the Chinese Rhododendron is often used to make an extract thought to fight off bacterial infections. The plant contains folic acids that resemble cannabinoids and interact with the endocannabinoid system. In addition, the Chinese Rhododendron contains a variety of flavonoids and terpenes.
10. Tea plants
Is it tea time, already? Tea is a globally celebrated plant, generally for the caffeinated drink it is famously used to produce. Several varieties of the tea plant are used to make black tea, green tea, yellow tea, and white tea.
Known as Camellia sinensis, this shrubby plant’s leaves and buds (which are used to brew tea) contain compounds known as “catechins,” which are a type of flavonoid known to interact with the endogenous cannabinoid system.
As you can see, phytocannabinoids (or at least compounds similar to them) aren’t just exclusive to cannabis and hemp — even if they are the richest source of them. What we’re curious to see as more studies emerge is this: since our body needs a balanced diet rich in nutrients to support our overall health, might we also benefit from diverse sources of phytocannabinoids to support our endocannabinoid system? Only time will tell.