Marijuana contains several compounds, the most famous of which are cannabinoids THC and CBD. There’s actually over 400 identified chemicals in cannabis, 60 of which are cannabinoids. Terpenes, which are what make marijuana smell the way it does, are another compound in cannabis. They work in harmony with various cannabinoids. This synergy is known as the entourage effect, and has a lot to do with what makes marijuana medicine.
Medical Marijuana, Chemical Compounds, and the Entourage Effect
There are several different strains of marijuana, all responsible for producing different effects in the body. Each strain contains a different chemical composition, which can cause a person to feel different with each strain they consume. For example, one strain might make a person feel relaxed, while another can illicit extreme paranoia.
The chemicals present in cannabis work together to offer the effects they do. Aside from THC, CBD, and terpenes, cannabis can also contain fatty acids, ketones, esters, lactones, steroids, and alcohol, just to name a few. It’s the effects of all these chemicals working together and adapting to one another that offer different effects than if one chemical was working alone.
The entourage effect is what happens when these chemicals components work in harmony with one another. If the chemical composition is changed, the experience someone has with cannabis is also changed.
According to Dr. John McPartland, who started researching cannabis in 1981, “Cannabis is inherently poly-pharmaceutical, and synergy arises from interactions between its multiple components.”
Whole Plant Medicine
Most studies conducted on cannabis are done strictly with one cannabinoid (typically CBD or THC). Whole plant extractions however, contain CBD, THC, and over 400 trace compounds. When these compounds work together, the therapeutic benefits of the present compounds are magnified.
Whole plant medicine refers to making use of all the compounds cannabis contains. When people use THC or CBD-only medicine, they are not receiving the full spectrum of medical marijuana benefits. Chemical diversity is key when using marijuana as medicine. Contrary to what most people understand, THC and CBD are only the tip of the iceberg.
The Role of Terpenes in the Entourage Effect
Responsible for marijuana’s pungent aroma, terpenes play a large (and relatively unknown) role in medical cannabis. Terpenes are secreted in the same glands that produce cannabinoids THC and CBD. Over 100 terpenes have been identified, with each cannabis strain with its own unique blend of terpene composition.
Many people are aware that cannabinoids such as THC bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. This is what’s responsible for the psychoactive action of THC. Some terpenes also attach to these receptor sites, which in turn affects their chemical output. Other terpenes will change how much THC passes through the blood-brain barrier.
Because terpenes facilitate the way our body interacts with other cannabinoids, it’s believed they can offer further medical value. As more research pours into medical cannabis, terpenes are now being studied more closely. Many testing labs now test for terpene content, which can give patients a better understanding of what effects their medicine will have.
The term “entourage effect” was coined by Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist who has studied cannabis for decades. A paper published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2011 highlighted the synergistic effects of whole plant medical marijuana compounds. Cannabis compounds complement each other, creating an “entourage effect” of whole-plant synergy beneficial to mind, body, and soul.