Ever heard of the entourage effect?
Everyone has an endocannabinoid system (ECS). The body produces compounds – anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol – that interact with it to carry out numerous biological functions that vary depending on cell and organ system. Additionally, cannabinoids from cannabis plants and extracts also interact with the endocannabinoid system.
There are over 113 different cannabinoids produced by cannabis, but the endocannabinoid system has only two receptors. Because of this binary (“comprised of 2”) receptor system and the sophisticated nature of cannabinoid molecules, each cannabinoid does something slightly different to those receptors. The ECS is similar to a binary coding system in computers in that it can produce immensely complex programs from just two basic functional units. This is where the entourage effect comes in, and it’s how the ECS mediates such a vast array of different processes in the body.
Many studies have shown that there is a greater therapeutic effect when cannabis oil rich in many cannabinoids and terpenes is consumed compared to when an isolate of pure CBD is ingested. This suggests that overall, the many different compounds found in cannabis together produce an effect that is greater than the sum of the different parts. For example, CBD doesn’t have a very strong effect on cannabinoid receptors itself, but it does prevent other cannabinoids from being broken down by the cell’s garbage collector enzymes, allowing them to have more of an effect on the cell than they would by themselves.
Because cannabinoids – like all complex organic compounds – are made from only a few basic starting materials in the cell, they all exhibit similar characteristics. If a certain cannabinoid doesn’t have an effect on the receptor, then it likely has an effect on an enzyme that breaks down other cannabinoids, or on a transport protein involved in carrying cannabinoids from the bloodstream into the cell. There are hundreds of other ways they can interact as well. This is in direct contrast to the pharmaceutical industry’s assertion that isolated and concentrated compounds always work better than holistic remedies that have lower concentrations of the active compound(s).
Don’t forget about Terpenes
Terpenes are some of the most abundant compounds found in nature. Technically, any molecule that has a unit of isoprene is considered a terpene. Most of the smells we perceive from food, vegetation, and even perfumes, are just different combinations of terpenes. Cannabinoids are synthesized from a terpenoid compound, so many terpenes share the bioactive qualities of the cannabinoids. Therefore, they also play into the entourage effect.
The terpenes myrcene, B-caryophyllene, and pinene, all found in cannabis, act on receptors in the brain, including both cannabinoid receptors and others. Because some terpenes and cannabinoids act on the same receptors as one another, their respective effects will affect one another. This is true not just in the brain, but in the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the digestive system, the endocrine system and even the musculoskeletal system. Terpenes have modulatory properties that increase the potency of many different receptor types, and facilitate the flow of ions within the cell.
When compounds work together, they can have a greater combined effect than either of them could produce on their own. A good way to understand this is to imagine a paper box lined with plastic wrap. Neither on their own could contain a large quantity of water: the box is not water proof and the plastic has no structure. But when combined, their qualities work together to make a functional water container. Cannabinoids work together in a similar way to meaningfully improve the function of the systems of the body.