How Cannabis Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
Humans have been using whole-plant medicines since the dawn of time.
When we discover prehistoric settlements and the remains of ancient explorers, we often find the remains of medicinal herbs, and many wild animals instinctively consume plant medicine — suggesting that herbal remedies have been our companions throughout our evolutionary history.
As designed by Nature, beneficial plants contain a diverse spectrum of active molecules that work together in concert, and cannabis is no exception.
It's a botanical medicine with a rich therapeutic history, and pharmaceutical companies have attempted to capture cannabis’ therapeutic properties by extracting single molecules (like THC crystals, or CBD isolate).
But these purified drugs are typically less effective — or have undesirable side effects when compared to the whole plant.
Why is this?
This article will clear up your questions about why full-spectrum and broad-spectrum cannabis & hemp extracts are more powerful than single isolates & purified synthetics.
There are hundreds of active compounds in cannabis — and we'll explore how these cannabinoids, terpenes and phenolics work best together, according to Nature’s design.
Discovering the Entourage
The idea that the strength of cannabis lies in the teamwork of its many active compounds has been nicknamed the “entourage effect.”
Although the concept may seem obvious to you, it took scientists a long time to catch on. Here are some of the findings that helped researchers understand that the entourage effect is real:
THC is the most abundant and psychoactive compound in cannabis, so everyone first assumed it was also the active ingredient behind all the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. Although purified THC relieves pain, nausea and muscle spasms, it also comes with some downsides: it can increase anxiety, affect memory, and might even lead to atrophy in the brain’s hippocampus.
On the other hand, when scientists use whole-plant extracts or study people who regularly smoke or consume cannabis products with higher CBD content, the positive effects are stronger and the negative side effects decrease or even reverse. For instance, botanical extracts are more effective at fighting breast cancer cellsthan THC alone, and the anxiety induced by THC is reduced by CBD — and probably other cannabinoids as well.
Not learning their lesson the first time, scientists next focused their attention on CBD as a standalone therapeutic molecule. CBD has anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving and anti-anxiety properties, but (like purified THC) CBD isolate also comes with its downsides.
The most important downside is what’s known as the bell-shaped response curve. Although purified CBD is effective against inflammation and anxiety in rodent and human experiments, its effectiveness peaks at a medium dose but tapers off for higher doses AND lower doses — which graphically looks like an inverted “U” or a bell. Unfortunately, the bell-shaped curve means that purified CBD has limited usefulness — because its effective dose is narrow and difficult to pinpoint.
However, when scientists repeat their experiments with a full-spectrum, CBD-rich extract, the bell-shaped response disappears. In a study involving inflammation in the paws of mice, researchers observed that purified CBD was only anti-inflammatory at a moderate dose, whereas a CBD-rich extract became more effective with a higher dose.
Cannabis is Greater than the Sum of its Parts
When CBD is combined with a full-spectrum or broad-spectrum (meaning there’s no THC) of cannabinoids, terps and phenolics, we often see two results: lower doses are required, and the bell-shaped response curve disappears. Why does this happen?
Back-up support: First off, many terpenes and phenolics have effects similar to those of CBD on mood, pain and inflammation. Although CBD has more than 65 targets throughout the body, its activity at each individual target varies. Other members of the entourage could be even more effective than CBD where you need it most.
Complementary paths to the same outcome: When looking for relief from a complex issue like anxiety, there are often multiple paths that lead to the same outcome. While CBD is busy acting on serotonin receptors, other entourage compounds might focus on other neurotransmitters. Complementary pathways are why purified CBD and the SSRI fluoxetine are effective against depression at lower doses when taken together in rodent experiments.
Counteracting downsides: Scientists think purified CBD has a bell-shaped dose response curve because it activates different targets at different concentrations. For instance, CBD relieves anxiety at moderate doses (through 5-HT1A receptors) but might trigger anxiety-inducing neurotransmitters at high doses (through TRPV1 receptors). In this way, the higher dose doesn’t turn off the positive effects — it just turns on negative effects that obscure the benefits. However, the bell-shaped curve disappears when purified CBD is combined with molecules that block TRPV1 (which some natural flavonoids do).
Bioavailability: CBD alone might not absorb or travel as far through the body without its entourage. A few of the terpenoids found in cannabis extracts are so good at moving drugs across skin barriersthat they are added to products designed for transdermal delivery.
Metabolism: Many members of the entourage are metabolised by the same enzymes as CBD (cytochrome p450). This means that the entourage could delay CBD from being broken down by the body — keeping CBD in circulation and effective longer.
We’re all concerned about what we put in our bodies, but many CBD brands aren’t so cautious — motivated more by their bottom line.
In addition to choosing cheaper CBD isolate (which is less effective than broad and full-spectrum CBD) some brands use CBD from overseas sources with lower purity standards.
That’s why it’s vitally important that your extracts come from a trustworthy source that follows sustainable & organic farming best-practices — otherwise, synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and even heavy metals could be surprise guests in your daily dose of CBD.
Another reason to choose sun-grown CBD from sustainable US farms?
Happy plants are better for your body. Farm-fresh vegetables smell & taste better than their supermarket counterparts because they're brimming with healthy terps and phenolics.
Make sure your extracts come from fresh, pampered, sun-grown cannabis and hemp plants!
Written by: Genevieve R. Moore PHD for Foria Wellness