Medical Cannabis: When The Whole Is Better Than Its Parts

If you're at all familiar with cannabis, you know it's quite a complex plant. Its sticky resin is made up of hundreds of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. The two cannabinoids that are the most well-known and of the most interest to cannabis users are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). You likely recognize THC as the component of cannabis that produces a euphoric high and CBD as the compound creating such a buzz in health circles. The resin also contains hundreds of other compounds called flavonoids and terpenes, which give cannabis its range of tastes and smells. Typically, a cannabis user does so for one of two reasons: the euphoria or medicinal effects, but recent research has shown that using both THC and CBD, as well as including flavonoids and terpenes, can have a multiplier effect. In other words, the whole is better than the sum of its individual parts.

How Cannabinoids Work

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a cell-triggering system in the body. The ECS is a system of cannabinoid receptors that control various functions such as sleep, appetite, mood, pain, and the immune system. They are triggered by chemicals in the body called endocannabinoids. The interactions between endocannabinoids and the ECS keeps the body's systems in balance. Other cannabinoids (e.g., THC, CBD) also act on these receptors, enhancing the effects of the endocannabinoids. For example, THC may act on the mood receptor to produce a high, while CBD might trigger a pain receptor and help relieve lower back pain. New research hints that something called the entourage effect can influence the effect cannabis has on the body.

The Entourage Effect

As mentioned, cannabis is made up of hundreds of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. Typically, the terpenes and flavonoids are distilled out, then depending on whether you are looking for a high-producing product or a pain-relieving product, either the THC or CBD is removed. Or if you are simply inhaling the smoke from the cannabis flower, the effect will depend on whether it has a high or low ratio of THC to CBD. Often, someone who wants to use cannabis for a medical condition doesn't want the high. Likewise, someone seeking the highest high wants the highest percentage of THC. But recent research shows signs of a phenomenon known as the entourage effect.

The entourage effect is the theory that the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids work synergistically to amplify or alter the effects of the different cannabis compounds. For example, a cannabis product that contains high levels of THC may produce a reduced high when the CBD content is increased. However, anecdotal reports have shown that adding THC and certain terpenes can enhance the medicinal properties of the CBD. Some THC users experience side effects, such as hunger, drowsiness, or anxiety, and CBD may lessen those side effects.

Because of the varying effects and synergies in cannabis, many users prefer to inhale the natural cannabis flower to get the full benefits. However, those who prefer to experience the medicinal effects of CBD without the full high may want a reduced THC product. A full-spectrum cannabis product (oil, tincture, edible, etc.) will contain some THC, CBD, and various levels of other compounds. A broad-spectrum product will have very little THC, while a CBD or THC isolate contain a pure form of those compounds. You'll want to talk with a dispensary professional to determine a good mix of cannabis products for your needs. 

For more information about medical cannabis, contact a dispensary near you.   

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