The practice of using the entire plant as medication is an important part of alternative medicine. Mainstream medicine tends to revolve around extracting and using only certain active compounds in a plant. One of the greatest mysteries that continues to elude scientists is how the cluster of compounds in cannabis work together to generate the massive array of medicinal effects associated with the plant. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “entourage effect”.
The connections between various compounds in cannabis. Source
There are many examples of the entourage effect. For one, it’s been shown that THC feels different when combined with CBD – and scientists don’t yet know why. In effect, THC only reaches its maximum potential when it mixes with CBD and the host of other naturally occurring compounds in cannabis. Some scientists prefer to call it the ensemble effect rather than the entourage effect.
The entourage effect refers to the highly dynamic medicinal properties resulting from the synergistic operations of the large number of different compounds present in cannabis. On their own, none of these compounds can influence the body as powerfully as they can in combination with other properties of the plant. These compounds work to amplify and enrich each other’s chemistry, giving the whole plant a much greater potential for medicinal applications than the same components when they are extracted separately.
The 5 Key Aspects of the Entourage Effect of Cannabis
- Different effects with different proportions of THC and CBD: It has been shown in several studies that cannabis strains with more THC than CBD induce intoxication, or the hallmark “high” effect. Strains with a greater proportion of CBD than THC have been proven to relieve symptoms without intoxication. However, it is the hybrid strains with roughly equal amounts of THC and CBD that are the most effective in the treatment of pain and many other symptoms.
- The combined effect of all compounds: More than just CBD and THC, various compounds contained in the plant give it an even more dynamic profile of medicinal effects. Wilson Poe, a researcher who studies the benefits of cannabis for pain management at Washington University, St. Louis highlights the heightened anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis resulting from the synergy of multiple compounds. According to Poe, although CBD and THC have good anti-inflammatory properties on their own, “… if you were to vaporize a whole flower, you'd be consuming potentially a couple dozen anti-inflammatory molecules at once.” “In this sense I think of whole-plant cannabis as like a multivitamin for inflammation” he added.
Endocannabinoid system also is also a key determinant of the outcome of the entourage effect. Source
- The endocannabinoid system as a factor: The same cannabis strain can produce different effects in different people, or even in the same user at different times. This nuance can be traced to the varying chemical composition of each person’s unique endocannabinoid system. “We're pretty aware that the endocannabinoid system is not a static picture throughout the day” says Wilson-Poe. While THC excites CB1, a key cannabinoid receptor in the endocannabinoid system, CBD tends to “sort of sit in the pocket”, according to Wilson Poe. “It can compete with THC for the spot in the receptor,” he added.
These findings imply that CBD limits the range of receptors which THC can activate, reducing the psychoactive effects of THC. Wilson-Poe notes that “CBD has at least 14 distinct mechanisms of action in the central nervous system. So it does a little bit of something at a whole bunch of places, and we probably can't attribute the anti-paranoia or anti-anxiety effects just to CB1 occupancy.”
- The suppression of some medicinal effects: However, there are instances where the entourage effect may be counteractive to the medicinal properties of certain compounds in the plant. For instance, THC only treats glaucoma when consumed in its purest form. CBD also has its own potential for treating glaucoma, although it also prevents those of THC from taking effect.
- Terpenoid Effects: Terpenoids are naturally-occurring compounds found across the plant kingdom. With characteristic scents, terpenoids are a critical part of the defense mechanism used by plants to fend off insects. But research show that these terpenoids can have certain effects on the brain. Linalool, a terpenoid found in cannabis has been shown to have sedating and anti-anxiety characteristics.
Connecting the Dots
There are multiple layers and complexities to the entourage effect. But fortunately, each major discovery of the underlying mechanics of how the plant helps humans is allowing scientists discover more ways that the plant can be harnessed to cure symptoms. “We need to understand which constellations of plant chemistry are best suited for which indications and which kinds of patients, and which form of the CB1 receptor you happen to carry, because there are lots of mutations in that gene,” says Wilson-Poe. “So understanding these mechanisms is absolutely crucial for providing these patients with personalized medicine that alleviates their symptoms without producing the unwanted side effects.” The interactions of the different chemicals found in cannabis, when used both separately and together, produce effects that science has only just begun to explore – which can only be good news for those who need relief that cannabis can bring.