A Concerto of Cannabinoids, Terpenoids & More: An Evidence-Based Exploration of the Entourage Effect in Cannabis Sativa
This piece was written in collaboration with Ali Shana, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and dynamic science journalist for the cannabis and psychedelic industry.
Have you ever wondered what those sticky dots of resin are that coat the surface of cannabis buds? These resinous, hair-like structures frosting the flowers of the cannabis plant are called trichomes and contain a myriad of active compounds. While the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the most well known of these components, the trichomes on cannabis actually contain a wide diversity of different compounds, from various cannabinoids and terpenes to flavonoids and esters. The harmonic interplay between these various chemical compounds, known as the entourage effect, gives each strain and plant its own unique effects.
What Is The Entourage Effect?
When one consumes cannabis sativa, they are enjoying the effects of the cannabinoids THC and CBD in addition to multiple other compounds (e.g., terpenes, flavonoids, etc.) The integration of these compounds creates the entourage effect, which overall enhances the psychoactive and medicinal properties of the drug, resulting in different profiles among various strains. In fact, there can even be significant variation among clones of the same strain, since cannabis is, after all, “living medicine.”
This “chemical teamwork” or harmonic interplay exhibited by compounds in cannabis results in the entourage effect creating properties otherwise not found in pure CBD or THC. In fact, many experts believe these entourage compounds are working in concert to produce the very beneficial effects that give cannabis products their medicinal utility.
How Does The Entourage Effect Work In Our Brain?
Simply put, the entourage effect occurs when these various components of the cannabis plant modulate the activity of naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors in our brain as well as our endogenous cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids, that act on them. Endocannabinoids are products of dietary fatty acids, making the endocannabinoid system a topic of interest in food-intake and metabolism studies. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that cannabinoid receptors exert influence on not only mood and pain perception, but also appetite, digestion, and much more.
What Does The Entourage Effect Do For The User?
One of the better known applications of the entourage effect is CBD’s role in reducing the side effects of THC. For example, CBD antagonizes undesirable effects of THC such as tachycardia, unpleasant intoxication, and anxiety. While CBD is minimizing these unwanted side effects, it is simultaneously contributing analgesic properties. In more severe medical scenarios, CBD’s anticonvulsant and anti-nausea properties also play a major role in delivering a therapeutic entourage effect.
However, CBD’s role in taming THC is just one of numerous examples of the entourage effect phenomena. Much of what we know about the therapeutic potential of the entourage effect can be traced back to a 2011 British Journal of Pharmacology article by Dr. Ethan Russo entitled Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid terpenoid entourage effects.
Here, the interaction of phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids found exclusively in the cannabis plant) and terpenoids (responsible for the aroma of cannabis) is concluded to “produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections,” (Russo, 2011).
The article goes on to say that careful breeding of selective cannabis chemotypes “rich in ameliorative phytocannabinoid and terpenoid content offer complementary pharmacological activities that may strengthen and broaden clinical applications and improve the therapeutic index of cannabis extracts containing THC,” (Russo, 2011). In other words, cannabis can be bred to emphasize certain non-THC compounds concentrations to treat select health problems. This very well may play a role in healthcare solutions in the years to come.
How The Entourage Effect Applies To Consumer Products
Knowing that terpenes, flavonoids, and other lesser-known cannabis compounds play a role in producing a synergistic, robust, and over encompassing entourage effect, how might this knowledge impact a consumer’s choice of cannabis product? One thing to consider is the difference between full-spectrum CBD and CBD isolate.
Full-spectrum CBD products contain small amounts of THC and the lesser-known cannabinoids mentioned throughout this piece. As demonstrated in the 2011 British Journal of Pharmacology article, CBD combined with other cannabinoids may be more useful in the treatment of anxiety, pain, inflammation, and more.
CBD isolate products, on the other hand, are refined to contain only CBD. Therefore, these products do not facilitate an entourage effect. However, those especially weary or sensitive to the psychoactive effects of THC, even in the minute/fractional quantities required by law, may prefer a CBD isolate. The lack of terpenes also results in a flavorless (and seemingly odorless) product, which may be ideal when selecting a CBD oil.
Taking Advantage Of Cannabis Safely
While this evidence-based review of the entourage effect is rooted in vigorous research methodology, more studies on the synergies between these different cannabis compounds ought to be conducted. This piece should be used for informational purposes only. This doesn’t mean that those dealing with physical pain, anxiety, depression, and other conditions should rule out the medicinal value of full-spectrum cannabis. Rather, this information should be used as a stepping stone for further inquiries with your doctor. In other words, this information should be an adjunct to medical advice, not a substitution.
Naughton, S. S., Mathai, M. L., Hryciw, D. H., & McAinch, A. J. (2013). Fatty Acid Modulation of the Endocannabinoid System and the Effect on Food Intake and Metabolism. International Journal of Endocrinology, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/361895
Russo, E. B. (2011). Taming THC: Potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British Journal of Pharmacology, 163(7), 1344–1364. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01238.x
Koch, M. (2017). Cannabinoid Receptor Signaling in Central Regulation of Feeding Behavior: A Mini-Review. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2017.00293