What is the Entourage Effect? (and Why Should You Care)

Back in the early 1960s, a young Israeli medical student clandestinely procured a small amount of marijuana from a friend inside the police department. That one boldly illegal act turned out to be one of the greatest single cannabis transactions in modern history.

“Yes, I broke the law,” said Rafael Mechoulam, the young student who is now a world-famous 87-year-old scientist who has transformed cannabis research. “But I apologized and explained what I was trying to do.”

What Mechoulam was trying to do was figure out what exactly made cannabis psychoactive. His research led him to the discovery in 1963 of cannabidiol (CBD), a major component in the cannabis plant. It was a breakthrough finding, but it was not responsible for the psychoactivity. About a year later, he identified delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the now famous marijuana ingredient that provides the euphoric high. Before 1964, everybody who got high on marijuana had no idea why.

His work in the lab also led to the eventual unearthing of the “entourage effect,” a term coined by Mechoulam in 1988 to describe how all the compounds found in cannabis interact synergistically. Essentially, what Mechoulam and his team of researchers proved is that the whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts.

CBD THC ratio

The entourage effect is key to understanding how cannabis works inside your body and brain.

 According to experts, there are nearly 500 components found in the cannabis plant and less than 15 percent of those components are classified as “cannabinoids” such as CBD and THC. The ratio of CBD to THC varies depending on the strain, with Sativa plants generally having more THC and less CBD while Indica plants have less THC and more CBD. As each of these cannabinoids possess different healing effects, the ratio of CBD to THC entourage effect determines how the plant affects the human body. The other ingredients include amino acids, hydrocarbons, flavonoids, terpenes and a host of other constituents. All of these work in concert to provide therapeutic value.

Here is one simple way to think about it. Taking a vitamin C tablet is good. But eating an entire orange or half a grapefruit is so much better for you. Why? Because of the entourage effect of all the nutrients, fiber, minerals and other compounds found in the fruit.

Terpenes Could Hold the Key to the Future

Aside from cannabinoids, terpenes show the most promise in the advancement of cannabis medicine. “Terpenes are volatile aromatic molecules that evaporate easily and readily announce themselves to the nose,” according to Martin A. Lee, director of Project CBD. “Various researchers have emphasized the pharmacological importance of terpenes, or terpenoids, which form the basis of aromatherapy, a popular holistic healing modality. Marijuana’s compelling fragrance and particular psychoactive flavor are determined by the predominate terpenes.”

Cannabinoids and Terpenes

Terpenes and cannabinoids both increase blood flow, enhance brain activity, and kill respiratory pathogens, among other benefits. According to Dr. Ethan Russo, the synergy between the compounds “could produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections.”

Unfortunately, many marijuana consumers exclusively search for high THC products because of the belief that they have the most band for the buck. True, THC-dense marijuana typically will produce a more potent psychoactive experience. But these folks are missing the bigger picture. Dr. Russo, a Washington psychopharmacologist and cannabis expert, provides this example:

Alpha pinene — a terpene that gives some types of marijuana a distinctive pine aroma —helps preserve a molecule called acetylcholine, which activates memory formation. “So, one main side effect of THC is short-term memory impairment,” Russo says. “People go, ‘Uh … what were you saying?’ That can be prevented if there’s pinene in the cannabis.”

Western medicine practitioners prefer a one-to-one relationship with illness and medication. Isolated treatment works well in synthetic medications. But whole-plant therapies work better using all the ingredients in the herb. A single compound can treat a specific ailment, but cannabis therapy takes advantage of the whole plant to create the entourage effect.

Some cannabis researchers argue that doctors should reject the idea of creating a single potent drug to treat an isolated problem. Instead, they believe that Western medicine should return to a philosophy of treating multiple possible problems with a low dosage of a single, wide-range medication.

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