Fact: The CBD oil you buy online and a properly packed bowl are two entirely different beasts — in part due to something called the entourage effect.
The story begins with me at a party. I followed my friend’s lead and moved my thumb off the carb, drawing smoke into my lungs. I’ll be honest, I’ve used CBD to manage my aches and pains, but before that night, I’d never gotten high. CBD usually makes me feel loose and sleepy – like dipping my body into a warm bath. I figured my THC experience would be like CBD amplified. I was wrong.
What is the Entourage Effect?
Cannabis plants are composed of hundreds of different compounds called cannabinoids (CBD and THC) and terpenes, which give plants their aroma and flavor. The entourage effect occurs when these compounds work together to produce a more significant effect than they would as individual parts.
The Entourage Effect: A Symphony of Chemical Compounds
Think of the entourage effect in terms of an orchestra. You have the heroic cry of brass instruments, the soft, haunting beauty of the strings, the soothing whistles of the woodwinds, and a thunderous roar from the percussion section. Each of these instruments can play an ovation-worthy solo, but by harmonizing together, they become symphonic.
New Combinations, New Feelings
Cannabis plants contain hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes. Each of these compounds has healing properties, just like every instrument can play a stanza. The coalescence of instruments broadens the drama and emotion of the music that you can play. It turns a note into a song.
For instance, my go-to CBD oil features a high concentration of CBD and only trace amounts of THC. The moment I took a hit from the pipe at that party, I inhaled a higher concentration of THC. Soon enough, I couldn’t stop laughing, and it felt like I was on top of the entire world because I was higher than hell. Why? My body was responding to the new concentration of compounds in a big way.
But why do some strains make you giddy and uplifted while other strains make you feel sleepy and relaxed? The thing is, different combinations of CBD, THC, and terpenes can all have wildly different effects. When you understand how these ratios work, you can decide how you want to feel when you use cannabis products — if you wish to get high or not.
Is the Entourage Effect Real?
The term “entourage effect” was introduced in 1999. In the study, Professors Raphael Mechoulam and Shimon Ben-Shabat examined the interactions between compounds in the cannabis plant. They found that certain cannabinoids and terpenes work together more effectively in the plant. We’re still in the early days of cannabis research, but there’s compelling evidence that whole plant medicine has more significant therapeutic effects than isolating pure CBD or THC alone.
The Endocannabinoid System
So, what’s happening, exactly? We know that your body has a natural system called the endocannabinoid system; it actually contains the same receptors that NSAIDS like Advil bind to. The two best-studied cannabinoid receptors are called CB1 and CB2. Studies suggest that CBD may change the way THC interacts with those receptors. This is why you wouldn’t get the same effects if you were to take pure THC isolate or pure CBD isolate — you need the full spectrum of plant compounds for the entourage effect to happen. CBD may even control the effects of THC like anxiety, hunger, memory loss, and sedation. That’s a big deal if you want the therapeutic effects of CBD, like pain management and stress relief, without getting high. (That’s why I use it.)
The Science Behind the ECS
Here’s what the research shows about the entourage effect:
- A 2018 study compared the anti-tumor effects of pure THC and botanical drug preparation, which included cannabis compounds like terpenes and cannabinoids. The herbal drug was more effective.
- In a 2010 study of patients with cancer-related pain, patients who were given THC and CBD reported more significant pain relief than the group that received pure THC. This was a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study — aka the gold standard in scientific research.
- According to a 2018 scientific review, researchers found that whole-spectrum CBD was more therapeutic for patients with epilepsy than pure CBD.
While there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the entourage effect is real, we can’t say with absolute certainty — and that’s because we’re still figuring out how cannabinoids affect our bodies on the cellular level. A new study published in 2019 suggests that terpenes themselves may even activate CB1 and CB2 receptors. If that’s the case, as the authors note, “the quest for entourage does not end here; in many ways, it has only just begun.”
Whole Plant Medicine and Terpenes
“Whole plant medicine” means you’re using something that employs the full spectrum of the cannabis plant’s cannabinoids and terpenes. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get high — think of CBD products that contain minimal amounts of THC. The THC isn’t there to get you stoned: it’s there to help the CBD work better, thanks to the entourage effect.
Terpenes are a little different. These compounds make up the essential oils in tons of plants (not just cannabis). Terpenes contribute to the entourage effect, but they don’t always interact with the endocannabinoid system. In fact, terpenes are unique because they can affect CBD and THC, and you can benefit from terpenes on their own. For example, if you’ve ever used lavender essential oil to relax at the end of a long day, you’ve benefited from the effects of the terpene linalool. Learn more about terpenes here.
If the discoveries of the entourage effect can be quantified, researchers are about a kilometer into the Boston city marathon. There are more than 100 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, and most of what we know is only about two of them: CBD and THC. There’s still so much to learn — and the more we discover, the more meaningful the entourage effect will become.
I know this from personal experience. CBD oil is part of my recovery toolkit because I can use it to manage my aches and pains after particularly brutal nights of jiu-jitsu. But after my experience getting high, I actually appreciate CBD even more. Passing around a pipe at the party, melting into the deep cushions of the couch with my friends — that was a new social experience for me, and it was fun to feel that loose and giddy. But now, when I hold my bottle of CBD oil in my palm, I think about the individual components that make it work: the therapeutic CBD, the terpenes that make it smell like freshly cut grass, and the scant amounts of THC that help all the pieces fall into place. Researchers are working on figuring out what makes those components work. In the meantime, it feels a little bit like magic. Thanks, Mother Nature.