Have you ever wondered what makes one strain of cannabis different to the next? Somehow, different strains of cannabis have a different “character” — just like the budtender will tell you, this one will make you bounce off the walls but that one will put you straight on the couch with a bag of snacks in hand. 

The proposed hypothesis for this phenomenon is the entourage effect.

If you’re imagining Turtle, Chase, Ari Gold, and Johnny Drama, you’re not far off the entire concept of the entourage effect, although we’re definitely not talking about the television sitcom.  But it wouldn’t be Entourage if there was only Johnny Drama, would it? That’s the crux of the entourage effect.

The concept that the effects of cannabis aren’t caused by THC, but rather by the synergistic activity of all the cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other compounds in cannabis, was coined by Dr. Ben-Shabat in 1998. Although he wasn’t specifically talking about cannabis, he was pointing out something like an entourage effect that happens in the body’s own endocannabinoid system.

Since then, the entourage effect has received a notable amount of commentary and research, with Dr. Ethan Russo leading the research and enquiry. It’s become fundamental to our understanding of cannabis and the best ways to use it for therapeutic purposes.

What is the entourage effect?

Male and female ballet dancers creating synergy

The entourage effect is essentially the concept that cannabis’ effects are not caused by a single compound (such as THC), but are instead the result of a team effort by all of the compounds present in a single specimen of cannabis. This explains why different strains can make you feel completely different things, even though they are the exact same plant.

In practical terms, it means that the terpenes, flavonoids, and minor cannabinoids contribute to the effects just as much as THC or CBD do. If you’ve ever tried a cannabinoid isolate such as THC isolate, you might notice intoxicating effects, but those intoxicating effects might have no “character”. 

Every single cannabis specimen has a unique composition of botanical compounds including cannabinoids, terpenoids, and flavonoids. This is the nature of botanical medicines, and as Dr. Ben-Shabat and Dr. Raphael Mechoulam pointed out in a 1999 study, this is why botanical medicines are superior to their isolated components

Examples of the entourage effect.

One of the most obvious examples of the entourage effect is the activity between THC and CBD. It’s well documented that CBD reduces the psychoactive effects of THC, and overall the inclusion of CBD in THC products creates a more balanced cannabis experience. For example, strains with high CBD content are less likely to cause paranoia or other negative effects of THC.

This of course becomes tremendously more complex when we consider that a specimen of cannabis contains more than just two cannabinoids. There are over 400 chemical constituents in cannabis, all of which interact to create the cannabis experience users finally get.

Why is it so difficult to research and pinpoint the entourage effect?

man looking through binoculars 1 | My Supply Co.

You could say that, on a scientific level, we only really started to understand cannabis once we took it apart and understood what it was made of. Without knowing that cannabis contains cannabinoids, we would have never known how those cannabinoids interact with the human body.

Logically, the next step after that was to study individual cannabinoids and their different effects in the human body. And that’s pretty much what scientists have been doing for the better part of the last 20 years. 

A lot of cannabis research is controversial because:

  1. When we study cannabis in its whole form (flower or full-spectrum extract), we get a certain subset of study results
  2. When we study isolated cannabinoids, we get a different subset of study results
  3. Those results are sometimes contradictory (think about the entourage effect and how that might change the results between whole cannabis product and single cannabinoid therapeutics)

Now, we want you to think about what happens when we put all of the parts of cannabis back together and try to understand it. We know that THC has x actions, and CBD has x actions, but when we put it all back together, we actually observe x, y, and z. But we have no idea which component is causing which result.

That is why studying the entourage effect is so difficult.

But why is that important?

Well, the medical world talks a specific language. In terms of medical science, it really isn’t enough just to know that a certain plant has an effect. It is increasingly important to understand how and why it does certain things in the body. Without that data, the pharmaceutical industry has a very hard time manufacturing medicines.

Holism versus reductionism.

A child peeks through a hole in the wall

Everybody who studies medicine, especially those who study natural medicine, is confronted with the concepts of holism and reductionism. Holism is a philosophical school of thought that accepts all parts of a whole are in an intimate relationship with each other, and therefore shouldn’t be separated. Reductionism is a way of studying things by breaking it down into its constituent parts to understand its nature.

Holism is what’s often practised in herbal medicine whereas reductionism is the primary medical model, and definitely the one used by pharmaceutical industries. One of the reasons that the pharmaceutical industry is having a really hard time harnessing the potential of cannabis is because the best way to consume it is in its whole form, straight out of the ground. 

The entourage effect is at the essence of holism. And when you really think about, nature has spent millions of years evolving into the complex picture we see in front of ourselves in the forest. Cannabis is no different. There’s absolutely no way for humans to replicate that kind of complexity in therapeutics or in any other circumstance. 

Is one better than the other?

It’s hard to answer that question. When you have an infection and you just need something that kills the infection, then a reductionist philosophy could be helpful. But when you’ve got a chronic health condition with a lot of “seemingly” unrelated symptoms, holism has a role to play. 

Holism also helps us understand herbal medicines in ways that reductionism simply cannot. At the same time, reductionism also helps us understand herbal medicines in a way holism cannot. The cannabis industry has embraced both sides of the coin, understanding that some people prefer a full-spectrum product that encourages the entourage effect. But the industry also offers isolated cannabinoids and single-cannabinoid medicines for those who don’t feel the need to consume a whole range of compounds. 

Let us know in the comments the experiences you’ve had with whole cannabis products versus single cannabinoid therapeutics. We’d love to hear from you!

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