The universe of cannabis derivatives and concentrates keeps expanding, and cannabis science is expanding its knowledge as well. Over the last decades, research has consistently displayed the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids. Along the way, researchers stumbled upon an intriguing realisation that a complex extract of cannabis compounds appears more medicinally effective than a single cannabinoid in isolation. This is where the “whole plant” concept begins.

Fruits and veggies contain a multitude of biochemical compounds in addition to the vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy. Simply said, the reason it is much better to consume these vitamins via fruit, as opposed to a capsule, for example, is because all these natural elements work together to enhance their individual effects—after all, Mother Nature prepared this nutrient-rich package for a reason! When we need some extra vitamins, there’s nothing wrong with taking supplements, just like there’s nothing wrong with pure THC or CBD. However, it appears that whole plant extracts, whether in the form of fruit juice or CBD oil, are generally more effective.

THE COMPLEXITY OF CANNABIS COMPOUNDS

The cannabis plant contains over 400 chemical compounds including THC, CBD, CBN, and other cannabinoids. Moreover, terpenes, not cannabinoids, are the volatile substances that give flavour to the flower and provide us with some beneficial properties that enhance the medicinal effect of cannabinoids. Plus, flavonoids, fatty acids, proteins, enzymes, and sugars are all present in whole plant matter, eventually playing a role in further enhancing the plant’s medical efficacy.

The research mentioned below, together with other studies and anecdotal accounts, is today challenging the misconception that botanical extracts are less effective and harder to dose than single-molecule cannabinoids, usually produced by Big Pharma. It’s all because of the “entourage effect” and the “bell-shaped curve” effect.

THE ENTOURAGE EFFECT

Entourage effect” is a term frequently used to describe the medicinal result of a combination of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other minor cannabis compounds inside the body. A famous study by Ethan Russo on the medical synergies among various cannabis components ushered in a new era of research on cannabis as a beneficial yet intricate phytocomplex. This and other studies also found that CBD contained in a full spectrum extract is able to antagonise THC, limiting its binding affinity to CB1 receptors in the brain, thus lessening its intoxicating effects while still providing relief from pain and inflammation.

THE ENTOURAGE EFFECT

As a result of these findings, researchers started experimenting with different THC:CBD ratios, and with combinations of other cannabinoids. Furthermore, scientists began to realise the pharmacological properties of terpenes and the significant role they play in the entourage effect. In fact, researchers are now striving to address the specific role of terpenes in cannabis preparations. Different cannabis chemotypes have distinct terpene profiles that generate a diverse range of whole plant extracts, resulting in slightly different effects on the body and mind.  

CBD-rich extracts containing a variety of plant compounds also seem to present a better therapeutic profile than single-molecule CBD in patients with refractory epilepsy. A significant instance of the potential superiority of whole plant extracts comes from a meta-analysis of studies from 2013 to 2017. The review sought to explore the therapeutic benefits of CBD for epilepsy patients. More than 70% of patients treated with full spectrum CBD extracts reported improvements, compared to just 36% of patients who received pure, single-molecule CBD.

The cannabis community was immediately excited by these results, and breeders were among the most receptive, quickly developing new strains with unique cannabinoid and terpene profiles. Because of this, new generations of cannabis genetics often have a richer phytocomplex than their “old-school” grandparents, and they can easily satisfy the needs of both recreational and medical users with today’s manifold forms and consumption methods.

THE BELL-SHAPED CURVE EFFECT

Like many other substances, CBD reduces its expected dosage-related efficacy when taken in higher doses, up to the point where exceptionally high doses can fail to help with any condition. Studies show that the administration of pure, single-molecule CBD results in a bell-shaped dose-response curve, meaning that when the amount of CBD exceeds a certain point, its therapeutic impact declines dramatically. The healing effect of CBD is usually observed within a limited dose range, which therefore may limit its applications in a medical setting. However, a second fundamental study on the synergies between cannabis compounds writes about overcoming the bell-shaped response of CBD by using whole plant cannabis extracts.

Further research shows that the anti-inflammatory effects of pure CBD for pathologies such as rheumatoid arthritis, IBD, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes follow the bell-shaped response curve with a narrow therapeutic window. On the other hand, an extract with CBD, THC, CBC, and CBG caused a more direct and dose-dependent effect. Moreover, a smaller amount of extract was needed for pain relief compared to pure CBD in order to achieve the same effect.

Hemp vs cannabis

WHOLE IS MORE THAN A SINGLE

Lab, clinical, and anecdotal evidence definitely suggests that a whole plant extract made from cannabis plant matter is more effective in reducing pain, spasms, inflammation, and other conditions typically addressed by cannabinoids. A full extract increases the absorption of active ingredients and is able to address a wider range of conditions by fine-tuning the cannabinoid and terpene profile to the specific individual’s preferences and needs.

The ability of whole plant extracts to overcome the bell-shaped curve, establishing a clear correlation between dosage and anti-inflammatory or painkilling responses, makes them ideal for medical use, as well as further clinical study. This is not to say single-molecule formulations are useless; in places where even trace amounts of THC are illegal, for example, pure cannabinoid isolates like CBD are the only real option for people looking to experience the cannabinoid. Still, as more research develops on the efficacy of whole plant formulations, we are bound to see the world of cannabinoid extracts continue to progress.

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