When discussing potential health benefits, it is important to make the distinction between hemp and cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is just one cannabinoid of the dozens produced by the cannabis plant and those are just one molecule type amidst the hundreds of other compounds in a typical plant. We are learning that the combination of CBD with those other natural compounds can be more powerful than the molecule alone.
The entourage effect
The entourage effect is not a strictly defined or scientifically agreed upon term. To paraphrase Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, the entourage effect is a bunch of scientific hand-waving to say that what we think we know about hemp is much more complicated than we can currently fathom. The entourage effect is a term trying to explain why some studies show that isolated cannabinoids may not be as beneficial as those same cannabinoids in the context of a full spectrum extract that also includes the minor cannabinoids, terpenes, and other naturally occurring plant compounds.
It’s a complex brew for scientists to analyze the mechanisms causing the changes. CBD alone interacts with more than just our endocannabinoid system (ECS). It binds to serotonin and dopamine receptors. It affects opioid receptors and acetylcholine. It causes genetic transcription in the cell’s nucleus, alters enzyme activity levels, and has over 65 identified binding sites. We know CBD works, but we often don’t know how. On top of that, each of the cannabinoids changes what the others do and so even minor amounts of THC, CBG, or CBN will change the effect of them all.
Then there’s the dozens of terpenes that make up the unique smell palette of cannabis. Very minute amounts of terpenes can change how the cannabinoids bind to receptors. In addition, it’s well known how terpenes by themselves can cause profound effects on human behavior; just the smell of a little lavender calms you down. Finally, when a company uses true agricultural hemp (as opposed to hybridized marijuana high in resin), the extract will be very rich in fatty acids. These fatty acids form the building blocks of your ECS and your body uses them to synthesize molecules like anandamide, the first discovered cannabinoid neurotransmitter.
All of these effects, long-term and short-term, form a dynamic web of biochemical interactions. You can see why scientists prefer the simplicity of single-molecule research. But the plant we’ve been co-evolving with contains 500 different compounds and while we can see that it works, it’s hard to explain how.
Finding your sweet spot
The impact of the entourage effect is why we often hear the ECS referred to as our system of balance. Even though we only discovered the human ECS in the early ’90s, it’s been known to be present in any animal with a spinal column. It has been speculated that the ECS has been maintained through evolution because of its critical role in maintaining homeostasis.
The best-studied actions of the cannabinoids are how they interact with our two known cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. CB1 is found across most of the higher areas of our brain. CB2 is found on all the organs of the body and is closely tied to the immune system. Then there’s the six endocannabinoid neurotransmitters discovered so far, each possessing their own range of actions. The entourage effect’s impact is using this complex system to make minor tweaks all over the body and brain. Instead of an on/off switch, the effect of a full plant extract of hemp is a nuanced result of the body being moved closer to balance.
The impact of taking hemp-derived CBD is slightly different for each user. Everyone’s endocannabinoid system is a little bit different. Some individuals produce healthy levels of endogenous cannabinoids like anandamide and 2 AG while others do not produce enough. For many people, they only need a small amount of CBD per day, even only a few milligrams in a full plant extract, to find the healthy balance they seek. That’s why we recommend everyone starts by taking just the minimum amount for a week or two to see how your system reacts. If you don’t see the results that you’re looking for, consider taking more. The motto is “Start low and go slow.” Keep increasing the amounts until you find the sweet spot that works for your health. Also, feel free to eventually experiment with high levels. The cannabinoids are amazingly non-toxic and some people have found that it takes a good amount of them to find a healthy balance.
Note: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher and editors of WholeFoods Magazine.