Do you feel better when you're on your own, or when you're out on the town with your crew of friends? It turns out, cannabis prefers the latter. This is known as the Entourage effect.
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As cannabis legalization spreads throughout the globe and research becomes more commonplace, interest surrounding the plant has continued to skyrocket.
Cannabis has shown huge potential for curing epilepsy, as well as early evidence in assisting with the reduction of tumors, reducing the symptoms of PTSD and providing relief for chronic pain. You've also got companies developing CBD-based medicines to treat insomnia, sleep apnoea and a host of other issues.
We know cannabis can provide a myriad of benefits—both recreationally and medicinally— but we're only just now finding out how, and why the plant contains these therapeutic qualities.
As time goes on, researchers are isolating different cannabinoids, flavonoids and terpenes to find out their unique benefits and individual effects. However, researchers have also discovered that these compounds seem to work better together, rather than when they're individually isolated.
For example, one of the lesser-known compounds in cannabis, referred to as CBN, has famously provided a sedative effect to users. But, when researchers dug a little deeper, they found that CBN only provided sedative effects when combined with THC, as the compound had very little effect on its own.
This is known as the Entourage effect.
The Entourage effect of cannabis is described by Wired Magazine as being "like a rock star, [which] only reaches its full potential when it rolls with a crew, consisting of hundreds of other compounds in the plant that scientists know about so far."
Put simply, it's believed that the whole of the cannabis plant is greater than the sum of its parts.
Front and Center: Welcome THC
When the contents of cannabis were first researched, the compound which received the most attention was none other than tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the compound that causes users to get "high."
THC was believed to bring about most of the medicinal effects of the plant, leading to the creation of a drug known as Marinol in the 1980s. Marinol was the name of a synthetic form of THC, originally developed to assist with some of the symptoms of AIDs.
However, as time went on patients were showing a clear preference for raw flower over synthetic versions of cannabis. A survey conducted in 2011, which involved 953 participants revealed that "herbal non-pharmaceutical cannabinoid medicines received higher appreciation scores by participants than pharmaceutical products containing cannabinoids."
Patients taking Marinol reported having stomach issues or becoming nauseous, despite the drug being advertised as curing both of those symptoms.
And the disparity between the benefits of raw, whole-plant matter versus synthetic cannabinoids suggested that it wasn't simply THC that was doing all the heavy lifting.
From this point, it was believed that THC needed the rest of its posse of cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenoids in order to have the fullest effect. THC needed its entourage – hence the birth of the term 'Entourage Effect'.
Though due to marijuana's status as a schedule I drug, THC hasn't been the most readily accessible substance. While legal in certain states for medicinal or recreational purposes, marijuana still remains federally illegal, which adds difficulty when researching the plant.
This has since pushed focus onto hemp, which was made federally legal in 2018 to cultivate and distribute. While hemp has lower THC content than marijuana plants, a hemp plant instead has high stores of the cannabinoid known as Cannabidiol (CBD.)
The lax legality of hemp-derived CBD has allowed for the compound to spread across the states, disrupting the wellness, food, beverages, athletics, medicine and textile industries. And the belief in the entourage effect carries over to the CBD industry too, where products are divided up into two major forms; isolate CBD and full-spectrum.
Isolate CBD is CBD in a pure form, separate from all other cannabinoids, while full-spectrum CBD contains the full gamut of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.
Full-spectrum CBD also includes THC, however the THC levels in hemp are too low to get users high. Instead, people opt for full-spectrum CBD in the hopes that they can utilise the entourage effect.
Entourage or Ensemble?
While the effects of THC are certainly the most noticeable when ingesting cannabis, some argue that the compound isn't the head honcho of the cannabis plant. For this reason, some believe that the term 'entourage effect' gives THC too large a role in the matter. They feel that it should instead be labeled the 'ensemble effect,' as it isn't as simple as the other compounds working to amplify THC's effects.
The argument was made by a Harvard Professor, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, who told High Times that:
"I think that the ensemble is a better idea than entourage because the word 'entourage' implies one item moving in this direction – and it has company," Dr. Grinspoon explained, "and it is [the item] that is responsible for that activity, and the others just go along. That's entourage."
The reason the doctor hesitated to say entourage effect was because in some cases, it wasn't so much the other compounds amplifying the benefits of THC, but in fact negating it. CBD, for example, has been anecdotally found to modulate some of the effects associated with THC such as anxiety or feeling "too high" and provides users a more balanced experience.
This is why it's believed that the THC-based synthetic cannabinoid product Marinol was negatively received, as users were given too large a dose THC without CBD to modulate the anxiety-inducing effects.
Dr. Grinspoon spoke of the modulating effect of CBD, stating that, " If you take a large dose of CBD for therapy during the day and you try to use THC at night, you won't get high. On the other hand, you can make the THC high compared to the CBD, the ratio is reversed, and you will get a high."
"As long as you have the two of them, and the phytochemicals, the terpenoids, you will get a therapeutic effect," he said.
While the evidence isn't clear cut when it comes to the entourage effect, there have been a few studies that give credence to the theory of cannabis synergy.
These studies mostly revolve around Epidiolex, a CBD-isolate used to treat rare forms of epilepsy. Conducted in 2016, 2017, and 2018, the studies found that patients experienced a greater reduction in seizures when they were given a full-spectrum CBD product that contained THC, rather than just an isolate.
Wake Up And Smell The Terpenes
An orchestra is about much more than just the conductor, and cannabis is much more than just THC and CBD. The final piece of the puzzle in creating the Entourage Effect is Terpenes.
Terpenes, also known as Terpenoids, are slowly making a name for themselves on the cannabis stage.
Known as a hydrocarbon, terpenes are a combination of hydrogen and carbon, with each type of terpene hosting a unique scent and function attached to it. From AK-47 to Lemon Haze, most cannabis fans have a strain or two that they particularly enjoy – and a lot of this favoritism is often thanks to terpenes.
There are over 100 known terpenes that have already been discovered in the cannabis plant. Like cannabinoids, terpenes bind with certain receptors and neurotransmitters in our body and brain, which gives rise to specific effects. Some terpenes enhance your mood, others boost your energy.
Terpenes have most famously found themselves on the V.I.P list for Kim Kardashian's baby shower, which was CBD-themed and included terpene-infused teas that were given to guests as gifts.
However, terpenes aren't unique to cannabis. In fact, they're actually found in many plants. Much like the other members of the entourage, terpenes have benefits which you can enjoy alone, without CBD or THC getting in the way.
There's the terpene known as Linalool, which can reduce insomnia and anxiety, and Limonene for when you need to reduce pain and inflammation – and that's just scratching the surface.
Companies are even testing out using different ratios of THC, CBD, and terpenes in order to elicit specific effects, which is giving rise to mood-altering vaporizers. LucidMood and Dosist are two vaporizer companies that have capitalized on the terpene trend, each coming out with vapes and cartridges designed to "chill" users, or simulate the experience of places like Bali or New York.
Dave Georgies, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of LucidMood, likens this experience to changing the radio station in your car.
"You've got your radio station and your volume control. Now you can change your radio station. Terpenes carry a synergetic relationship with cannabinoids. It's all about finding the right blend," he said.
And Georgies is right. While terpenes, CBD and THC each contain their own unique host of benefits and perks, they may need to synergize before users can enjoy their fullest effects. So next time you're at a dispensary, don't immediately rush toward the highest THC or purest CBD product you can find. Remember, they aren't the only players on the field.