When we hear about the power of cannabis, CBD and THC tend to steal the spotlight. THC is responsible for the characteristic cannabis high, and CBD has taken the health and wellness scene by storm. But what about the unsung heroes of the cannabis plant?
Every botanical compound in cannabis can be compared to an instrument in an orchestra. On its own, each instrument is capable of creating music, but when pieced together, the tones complement each other to create a harmonious symphony.
Cannabinoids, like CBD, can be powerful when used alone, but when surrounded by other cannabis-based compounds, this can amplify their therapeutic properties. This is known as the entourage effect.
What is CBD?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the active ingredients found in the Cannabis sativa plant. It is a hugely popular supplement that is widely used for its potent therapeutic properties, without the psychoactive effects that are characteristic of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
CBD interacts with our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), which plays an important role in regulating our mood, appetite, sleep, pain perception, fertility, immune function, and much more. By modulating the activity of cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, CBD has been shown to improve the symptoms of epilepsy, mood disorders, chronic pain, and neurodegenerative disease.
CBD and its ‘entourage’
CBD can either be isolated from the cannabis plant and used on its own or alongside its ‘entourage’, which is made up of other cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids.
The cannabis plant is most well known for its two major cannabinoids, CBD and THC. There are actually well over 100 natural compounds in Cannabis sativa, termed phytocannabinoids (from phytón, meaning ‘plant’ in Greek).
Cannabinoids can be found at very low levels in the plant in their acidic form. To become active, they need to be heated. Like CBD, the majority of cannabinoids are non-psychoactive, but they do have beneficial effects across the body.
Aside from CBD and THC, the most common cannabinoids include:
- CBG (Cannabigerol)
- CBC (Cannabichromene)
- CBGV (Cannabigerivarin)
- THCV (Tetrahydrocannabivarin)
- CBDV (Cannabidivarin)
- CBCV (Cannabichromevarin)
Cannabis also contains over 150 aromatic compounds called terpenes, which give the plant its characteristic smell and taste. Evolutionarily, these compounds are essential to the survival of the cannabis plant; stronger aromas can deter certain pests and insects, and terpenes can also help to protect the plant from the surrounding environment.
For those unfamiliar with the smell of cannabis, you’ve most certainly experienced the power of terpenes before in other forms, since terpenes are responsible for the distinct aromas of citrus fruits, pepper, basil, cumin, and many more.
Many cannabis fanatics will understand the importance of terpenes in their preferred cultivar; the unique blend of terpenes and cannabinoids will determine how a cannabis strain acts throughout the body—and this is largely due to the entourage effect.
Flavonoids are what is known as ‘phytonutrients’, compounds found in fruit, vegetables, and plants that have powerful health benefits. Not only do they contribute to the pigmentation and scent of the cannabis plant, but they also help to protect it from UV rays and other environmental threats.
Three of the major flavonoids found in cannabis are cannaflavin A, B, and C, which appear to possess some medicinal benefits. They have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and even anti-cancer properties, so they may also assist cannabis and CBD in their therapeutic action.
Evidence of the entourage effect
The entourage effect is a mechanism proposed by scientists where the compounds in cannabis work synergistically to induce therapeutic effects. This means that the combined effect of these compounds are greater than the sum of its parts—or that CBD or THC have more potent action when administered with other cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids.
In 2011, the British Journal of Pharmacology published a review of the evidence of the entourage effect. When THCV, CBG, CBC, and numerous terpenes are taken alongside THC, this has been shown to improve the effectiveness of THC in the treatment of pain, inflammation, mood disorders, and seizures.
Currently, rare forms of epilepsy can be treated with Epidiolex, a pure CBD extract. Though researchers have shown that CBD-rich cannabis, containing terpenes and other cannabinoids, is 4x more potent than CBD alone, which is some pretty solid evidence for the entourage effect.
How does this work? We know that CBD doesn’t always directly activate cannabinoid receptors. Instead, it has a more indirect action. But when used in conjunction with other cannabinoids, receptors throughout the ECS become activated, which can enhance CBD’s effect. For example, CBD rich in CBN is thought to act as a better sleep aid than CBD alone.
Terpenes can also activate CB1 receptors, as well as other signalling pathways throughout the body. Therefore, they can enhance cannabinoid activity and further contribute to the entourage effect.
Which CBD products will give the entourage effect?
Much of the research into the entourage effect focuses on THC but, in the UK, it is not legal to buy or sell cannabis-based products that contain more than 0.2% THC. Instead, many choose to get their cannabinoid fix from CBD.
There are countless ways to take CBD. These will typically fall into one of three categories—CBD isolate, broad-spectrum, and full-spectrum CBD. The major difference between them is the presence, or lack of, the entourage effect.
The purest form of CBD on the market is CBD isolate. It undergoes a specific extraction process to produce 99% pure CBD, without any other cannabinoids, terpenes, or flavonoids—and, thus, without the entourage effect.
Though this may seem to be the ‘least effective’ form of CBD, it may be more suitable for those new to cannabinoids, or those looking to take a high CBD dose without any interaction with other compounds. It’s all personal preference, so it may be useful to try out different products to figure out what works best for you.
Broad-spectrum is effectively the middle ground of CBD. Unlike CBD isolate, it contains some other cannabis compounds, but it won’t have any THC. Since broad-spectrum CBD is consumed alongside other cannabinoids and terpenes, it may have some additional health benefits due to the entourage effect.
Full-spectrum CBD contains the whole-plant extract—cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids galore. In countries without restrictions on cannabis use, full-spectrum CBD will include THC. This produces the maximum entourage effect, as CBD and THC are known to have a complementary relationship.
In the UK, however, full-spectrum CBD must contain very low levels of THC so will have no mind-altering effects. It is therefore important to buy full-spectrum CBD from a reputable CBD brand to avoid any legal issues with the THC content. To learn more about the vast array of products available, see our beginner’s guide to CBD.
There is an abundance of anecdotal reports suggesting that full-spectrum CBD is therapeutically better than broad-spectrum CBD and that these are both more effective than CBD isolate, but this hasn’t yet been investigated clinically.
The entourage effect remains a theory, albeit a strong one. So, although the research is still in its infancy, it’s highly likely that the entourage effect is a true phenomenon. It makes sense; consuming cannabis-based products that are as close to their whole-plant form yields the greatest benefits. It’s just as nature intended!