Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds secreted by cannabis and hemp plants that may support a vast array of conditions.
Cannabinoids work by imitating compounds our bodies naturally produce, called endocannabinoids, which activate to maintain internal homeostasis and health, which is called The Entourage Effect.
When there is a deficiency or problem with our Endocannabinoid System, unpleasant symptoms, inflammation, and physical complications can occur. When consumed, cannabinoids bind to receptor sites throughout our brain (receptors called CB1) and body (CB2). Depending on a product’s cannabinoid profile, different types of effects may be achievable.
Different cannabinoids have different effects depending on which receptors they bind to. For example, THC binds to receptors in the brain whereas CBN (cannabinol) has a strong affinity for CB2 receptors located throughout the body.
What do cannabinoids do?
Depending on a product’s cannabinoid profile, different types of effects may be achievable. In the human body, cannabinoids interact with a natural biological system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system is believed to play an important role in regulating biological functions like sleep, appetite, and mood. In service of this system, the body naturally produces its own cannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG; however, these cannabinoids don’t behave in the same way that plant cannabinoids like THC do.
Different cannabinoids do different things. For example, CBD affects cell signaling in such a way that may suppress seizure activity without inducing any sort of intoxicating effects. THC, on the other hand, readily interacts with a particular type of cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which causes us to feel high.
Cannabinoids can offer us humans (and other animals) benefits by way of our endocannabinoid systems, but what do cannabinoids do for cannabis—the plant that produces them? A number of theories have been proposed around the protective functions of THC and other cannabinoids for the plant, including UV protection and antimicrobial benefits. However, the exact purpose of plant cannabinoids has yet to be pinned down.
The difference between cannabinoids and terpenes
Cannabinoids and terpenes are two types of cannabis sativa compounds that have received increasing attention by hemp and cannabis enthusiasts and researchers. Both are produced in the plant’s resin glands, but perform different functions. If cannabinoids work by interacting with our endocannabinoid system, what is the role of terpenes?
Terpenes are aromatic compounds that lend cannabis its many different fragrant scents, from sour skunkiness to sweet citrus to earthy musk. They may also be involved in shaping the subjective and therapeutic effects of hemp, but research is yet to fully investigate this role. So far, only one hemp (cannabis sativa) terpene—caryophyllene—seems to interact with our body’s cannabinoid receptors.
What is The Entourage Effect?
When we consume hemp products, our bodies take in hundreds of botanical compounds. Each one arrives with unique effects and benefits, and their behavior may change in the presence of other compounds. This is The Entourage Effect.
It’s kind of like how your mood might change depending on your social environment. How do you behave when you’re alone, at a party with crazy strangers, or hanging out with your best friend? Your mood and the personality you project shifts depending on who’s in the room.
To illustrate The Entourage Effect, let’s talk about the two compounds you’re likely familiar with: THC and CBD.
In a 2010 study, patients with cancer pain were given either a pure THC extract or an extract containing near-equal levels of both THC and CBD—patients given the THC/CBD combo reported having less pain.
But the hemp plant is far more than just THC and CBD. It also produces other cannabinoids like CBN, CBC, CBG, and dozens more—as well as terpenes, which are aromatic compounds also readily found in the essential oils of lavender, orange, black pepper, eucalyptus, and much more. With such a diversity of useful compounds in cannabis, the possible synergies could make your head spin with excitement.
Unfortunately, there are very few studies that explore these synergies in humans—it’s still only a theory supported by a small body of research, and, of course, loads of anecdotal evidence from curious cannabis enthusiasts around the world experimenting with new varieties of the plant.
Cannabinoids and terpenes potentially work together
This theory of The Entourage Effect is thoroughly described in a review called “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects,” authored by Dr. Ethan Russo—a neurologist and pharmacologist who has long studied cannabis compounds and how they affect the body.
In this review, Dr. Russo details the studied benefits of common cannabis compounds, and based on their pharmacology, describes their potential synergistic effects. For example, the cannabinoids CBD and CBG have been found to inhibit the bacterial staph infection MRSA—how might they be even more effective when combined with the MRSA-fighting terpene pinene or when prepared with terpenes that increase skin permeability?
A ‘treasure trove’ of medicinal possibilities
Raphael Mechoulam, one of the most esteemed cannabinoid researchers in history, calls cannabinoids a “neglected pharmacological treasure trove” in a 2005 paper. Neglected by researchers? Absolutely. But to some extent, by consumers like us, too.
For decades, the cannabis sativa plant has been regarded primarily as a vessel for the almighty high-bringer that is THC. Even in legal markets (with a wide variety of hemp options that are practically THC-Free), many people still reach for the strain with the highest THC content.
In response to this decades-long demand for higher highs, the cannabis plant has been bred to contain virtually nothing but THC. Practically every other cannabinoid is a whispered afterthought, with some high-CBD cultivars posing exceptions. Getting the plant to produce a diverse “treasure trove” of therapeutic compounds will require a lot of time—and consumer demand.
Interest in terpenes and rare cannabinoids is beginning to flow in, if only at a slow trickle. We’re starting to see, for example, cannabis breeders focus on CBG production and extract producers capture novel cannabinoids like CBN, CBC, and delta-8-THC. And research on terpene entourage effects is also increasing in interest.
With the continued spread of legalization and information for both cannabis and hemp, it’s nice to think we’re not too far off from unlocking the treasure trove cannabis has to offer.