As global interest in the medicinal properties of cannabis continues to skyrocket, THC and CBD have become household names. Yet these two headline-grabbers are far from the only ingredients present in cannabis, which happens to be loaded with several other cannabinoids as well as more than 200 terpenes.
Choosing a product with the most effective combination of these ingredients isn’t always a straightforward task, and internet forums are bulging with conflicting opinions regarding which components of cannabis are most suitable for certain medical conditions. Yet a new study in the scientific journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Molecular Basis of Disease[i] may help to settle some these disputes by suggesting that full-spectrum cannabis extracts are more effective than isolated cannabinoids at treating most illnesses.
This idea is certainly nothing new, and researchers have been aware of the so-called ‘entourage effect’ for many years. This term refers to the idea that the efficacy of cannabis is derived from the full combination of its constituents, and that the interaction between these various ingredients somehow potentiates each of them. It’s an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Among the proponents of full-spectrum cannabinoids is Sarah Godfrey, who survived a terminal Crohn’s disease diagnosis by devising her own medicinal cannabis regimen. She told Seedsman that she likes to use cannabis oil that contains “as many different cannabinoids as possible, as this seems to have a more rounded effect and treats more problems” than using an isolate such as CBD.
“If you don’t include all the cannabinoids, you’re missing something,” she said.
To help explain why this might be the case, the authors of this latest study describe the molecular mechanisms that underpin the entourage effect, revealing how the various compounds found in cannabis work together.
Of particular interest are the many terpenes that are present in marijuana, and which complement the action of the cannabinoids. For example, β-myrcene has been found to supplement the pain-killing effect of THC and CBD by triggering the release of natural opioids, while it also immobilises some carcinogenic substances and may therefore contribute to the cancer-fighting properties of cannabis.
Because of its sedative effects, β-myrcene is thought to be at least partially responsible for the so-called ‘couch lock’ phenomenon often associated with weed – otherwise known as ‘monging out’.
Another terpene called β-caryophyllene, meanwhile, enhances marijuana’s capacity to treat inflammation by interacting with a compound called prostaglandin E1, which plays a role in suppressing inflammation.
The list goes on, with yet another terpene called D-limonene helping to treat stress and anxiety by modulating the release of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, while also killing breast cancer cells.
Aside from terpenes, marijuana also contains a range of cannabinoids that are less famous than CBD and THC. Among these are cannabichromene (CBC), which works on prostaglandins to reduce inflammation, and cannabigerol (CBG), which produces feelings of wellbeing by increasing the availability of a neurotransmitter called anandamine. It’s worth noting that anandamine takes its name from the Sanskrit word “ananda”, which roughly translates as “bliss”.
As evidence supporting the entourage effect continues to grow, many of those who have spent decades championing its efficacy are hoping that future research will help us to harness this synergy with greater finesse and accuracy.
Leading cannabis expert Boaz Wachtel, who played a key role in establishing the National Medical Cannabis Programme in Israel, told Seedsman that “the entourage effect provides a well-balanced, natural and effective formulation for various conditions, giving more effective relief and with a better safety profile than most isolates, analogues or synthetics.”
Yet with different cannabis strains containing different concentrations of each ingredient, there remains a huge amount of variation within full-spectrum cannabis products. Boaz therefore says that the key to mastering the entourage effect lies in “finding the right ratios between the different cannabinoids,” thereby creating more targeted cannabis strains for certain conditions.
Godfrey agrees, and says that taking a more holistic approach to cannabis research could yield benefits that extend beyond the treatment of specific ailments.
“If we can understand plant synergy and how our bodies interact with the entourage effect, then we may be a step closer to understanding how our bodies work,” she says.
[i] Maayah ZH, Takahara S, Ferdaoussi M, Dyck JR. The molecular mechanisms that underpin the biological benefit of full spectrum cannabis extract in the treatment of neuropathic pain and inflammation. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-Molecular Basis of Disease. 2020 Mar 19:165771. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0925443920301162