While we often think about cannabis as if it were a single organism, the truth is it’s one of the most astonishingly complex entities in the natural world. Rather than containing a single “active ingredient,” cannabis contains hundreds of cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other compounds still. And while each of them acts independently from each other, many researchers believe that they often combine forces to elicit especially profound medicinal and psychotropic effects on our bodies. The common name for this synergy is the “Entourage Effect.”
For decades now, the Entourage Effect has been more or less accepted as an established facet of the cannabis plant. But while there’s strong clinical evidence that it works in some regards, some new and competing findings seem to indicate that it’s not as widespread as once believed.
What’s the straight dope on the Entourage Effect? Strap yourself in for a deep dive into the realm of cannabis compounds!
The Entourage Effect: Cannabinoids, The Cannabis Plant’s “Heavy Lifters”
In terms of their effects on the human body, cannabinoids are without doubt the most significant of the natural chemicals found in cannabis. Thus far, researchers have isolated roughly 150 of them. They include two you’ve probably heard of—THC and CBD—and they interact with the body through a network called The Endocannabinoid System, which in turn controls some of the body’s most important regulatory functions.
What are some of those effects? THC is responsible for the plant’s distinctive euphoric “high,” as well as several other medically useful effects. CBD doesn’t impart an intoxicating psychoactivity, though some users report a mild “buzzy” effect. In recent years, its come under study for a large number of potential benefits, including the ability to reduce anxiety, several types of pain, and certain types of seizures, among others.
It’s well-established that cannabinoids such as THC and CBD interact for beneficial effects. For one thing, CBD helps counteract some of the negative side effects of THC, including paranoia and foggy-headedness. And a study demonstrated that cannabis containing THC and CBD functioned much better in reducing cancer-related pain than THC alone.
And that says nothing about cannabinoids like CBN, CBG, and many others still. Many researchers believe they play a part in modulating and optimizing the effects of THC and CBD, but thus far there haven’t been a lot of clinical studies to back these assertions up. You can expect that to change soon as studies on such “minor” cannabinoids near completion.
The Entourage Effect: Terpenes, Fragrant Plant Compounds
Terpenes are another hugely important player in the world of the cannabis plant. A family of fragrant oils, they give different strains their characteristic flavors and aromas. There are believed to be over 200 terpenes in cannabis; in addition to lending their enticing odors, they can elicit anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects, anti-inflammatory responses, and many other useful physiological actions.
In recent years, many cannabis researchers have theorized that terpenes are involved in an entourage effect with cannabinoids too. While it’s known that terpenes can interact with the Endocannabinoid System, it’s unclear whether or not this actually contributes to the Entourage Effect.
One study published in 2011 suggests that the terpene alpha-pinene interacts with THC, helping to counteract the cannabinoid’s negative impact on short-term memory. But the exact mechanics of these interactions aren’t yet clear. Further clouding the picture, a recent study found the opposite. In this report, five common terpenes—including alpha-pinene—all failed to elicit an entourage effect by binding to the receptors in the Endocannabinoid System. Yet another study—this one conducted on a rodent model—showed that three other terpenes did in fact activate these receptors.
Still, a growing body of evidence supports the conclusion that—at least when it comes to interactions among cannabinoids, the entourage effect is both real and medically useful. As is so often the case in the world of cannabis, a more definitive answer as to the interactions between terpenes and cannabinoids will require more research.
What with all these lingering questions, one thing is certain: That in the years to come, a lot of attention is going to be focused on unlocking the mysteries of the Entourage Effect. We’re hopeful that once it’s fully understood, it will help clinicians formulate highly personalized cannabis-based treatments and take our knowledge of plant medicines into an exciting new realm.