If the overwhelming popularity (and, not to mention, recent shortage) of CBD is any indication, THC isn’t the only cannabis compound worth talking about. There are, in fact, more than 100 cannabinoids that make up the plant as well as a wide spectrum of terpenes. Each one of these compounds has its own special way of interacting with us.
Common sense would tell us that to unlock the distinct effects of these different particles, we need to isolate them. In other words, to explore the benefits of CBD, remove THC (along with everything else) from the equation. But science has a way of subverting our expectation. Over the last two decades, studies are revealing that cannabinoids may actually be more effective then they work as a team, a full-spectrum phenomenon we call the entourage effect.
What are Cannabinoids?
To illustrate how the entourage effect of cannabis functions, it’s important to understand how cannabinoids work in the first place. In every bud of cannabis, there are hundreds and hundreds of different particles. The ones we classify as cannabinoids are those that interact (either directly or indirectly) with our endocannabinoid system—a network of receptors spreading throughout most of our bodies.
Within the endocannabinoid system, there are different types of receptors; the two most relevant for this conversation are CB1 and CB2. These receptors are situated everywhere from our brain to our bowels. They exist to maintain the body’s healthy equilibrium and are activated by their interaction with cannabinoids.
So, does all this mean that cannabis is some sort of mystical plant—one that’s necessary for our body’s homeostasis? It’s an intriguing thought but the answer is no. You see, cannabinoids aren’t only present in the cannabis plant; our bodies produce them, too. For instance, anandamide (one such cannabinoid) interacts with our CB1 receptors to regulate appetite.
THC and CBD
When we talk about the entourage effect, THC and CBD are generally the cannabinoids we’re most interested in. They’re the plant’s most prevalent and popular compounds. Let’s take a closer look at how each one functions.
How Does THC Work?
Tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, interacts with the CB1 and CB2 receptors by binding to them. The latter receptors are most commonly associated with our immune system. THC’s effect on them relates to the way we process pain along with a whole other slew of therapeutic responses.
Conversely, CB1 receptors are ubiquitous in the brain and central nervous system. When THC binds to these receptors, it alters the way neurons communicate with one another and thus, produces a sense of euphoria. Time and special awareness, pleasure, and short-term memory are all affected by this interaction.
How Does CBD Work?
Cannabidiol, or CBD, does something rather different. Whereas THC binds to the receptors, CBD instead changes the way these receptors work. In some instances, CBD makes our receptors more attuned to our body’s naturally produced cannabinoids. In other cases, it makes receptors less interested in bonding with compounds such as THC.
And it’s not just the CB1 and CB2 receptors that CBD performs its little dance with. Serotonin receptors, for instance, are activated by CBD, which is what makes the cannabinoid such a popular treatment for anxiety and depression.
How Do THC and CBD Work Together?
A prime example of how the entourage effect works can be found in the symbiotic relationship of these two compounds. CBD, for example, blocks THC from interacting with some CB1 receptors. Many cannabis users prefer higher CBD strains because of the cannabinoid’s ability to dull some of THC’s more paranoid or anxious sensations (also, CBD, unlike tetrahydrocannabinol, doesn’t produce a high).
On the flip side, the inclusion of a little THC in CBD seems to strengthen and even prolong the latter’s effects. Recent studies and anecdotal information support that CBD is more effective at lessening seizure frequency when just a small amount of THC is introduced. Moreover, dosages could be reduced by more than 75% when the two molecules were present in the treatment.
How Other Cannabinoids Contribute to the Entourage Effect
“Whole-plant cannabis” refers to more than just the interaction of TCH and CBD. There are 113 unique cannabinoids, many of which we’re only beginning to understand.
THCV is one such mysterious particle. In small doses, it acts somewhat like CBD in that it restricts THC from bonding with CB1 receptors. But in large doses, THCV has been shown to actually contribute to a more intense high. Not only does this particle interact with other compounds; it also seems to interact with itself depending on how much of it is present in your system.
Equally fascinating is CBN, a cannabinoid with properties similar to those in CBD. What’s so interesting about CBN is that the cannabinoid is not initially present in the bud; rather, it’s a natural by-product of THC’s breakdown. So, at the same time THC has its unique ways of mingling with different cannabinoids, it also catalyses a compound that has its own distinct set of interactions. All this to say, cannabis’s entourage is incredibly intricate.
The Entourage Effect and Terpenes
To appreciate the full complexity of the entourage effect, cannabinoids shouldn’t be the only compounds accounted for. Indeed, terpenes also contribute to these many interactions. These are the particles that give cannabis its distinct flavours and aromas. There are around 140 different terpenes in cannabis with profiles ranging from piney to peppery to citrusy.
But terpenes do more than just smell pretty—they also boast a slew of psychoactive and pharmacological properties. While most terpenes don’t bond with the CB1 and CB2 receptors, they do interact directly with cannabinoids, helping them enter the bloodstream. They engage with cannabinoids an a more one-on-one level, too. Myrcene, which provides an aroma of cloves and cardamom, can increase the potency of THC. It also has sedative properties as well as the potential to alleviate pain and inflammation.
Think we’ve covered everything? Not by a long shot. Along with cannabinoids and terpenes, there are also flavonoids to account for. These compounds provide cannabis with its distinct colour pigmentations (you’d think they’d be related to flavour, but the name is actually derived from the Latin word flavus, which means yellow). They also have pharmacological effects.
To date, there haven’t been many studies involving flavonoids, so the jury’s still out as to how much they impact cannabinoid and terpene interactions. As more research unfolds, their role in the entourage effect will certainly become clearer.
Whole-plant Cannabis and other Full-Spectrum Products
There are hundreds upon hundreds of compounds in the cannabis plant; accounting for every single combination would be a next-to-impossible task. We’re nowhere near understanding how it all works. The astronomical complexity of the full-spectrum entourage effect is precisely why many people advocate for whole-plant cannabis use. Consuming the whole bud ensures that we’re not missing out on any crucial interactions.
Of course, there are certain cases where isolates may prove to be more beneficial (i.e. CBD lessens the therapeutic effects of cannabis for people with glaucoma). But generally speaking, full-spectrum products are emerging as a superior consumer choice.
And for those who aren’t too keen on the effects of THC, there are many whole-plant products apart from the flower that minimize cannabis’s euphoric sensations. Full-spectrum CBD oil along with a slew of other whole-plant cannabis extracts focus not only on CBD-THC ratios but also interesting terpene blends.
More Studies to Come
Since legalisation, cannabis research has seen more funding than ever before. Our knowledge of the plant is evolving at a break-neck pace. So, while there’s still a huge amount of work to do in understanding and legitimizing the entourage effect, we’re hopeful that new developments are just around the corner. As the scientific community continues to crack the full-spectrum code, we’ll be here to share the exciting new finds.