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Hemp plants contain around 400 different compounds -- many of which contain therapeutic properties on their own and have different interactions in the body. One of the most abundant and well-researched compounds next to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is cannabidiol (CBD). Due to its many therapeutic effects, this extraordinary cannabinoid has been gaining quite the traction in recent years, available in everything from gummies and coffee to shampoo and bath bombs. There’s no doubt that CBD is very effective in its own right. Though, when shopping around for your next re-up of the cannabinoid, you will usually run into broadly three categories: ‘CBD isolate’ ‘CBD oil with terpenes, and ‘full-spectrum CBD’.
We understand that all these terms to describe CBD can be really confusing, especially if you’re new to CBD. If you've been left in the dark, this article will help you understand these different forms of CBD and which one poses the greatest benefit in producing what is known as the “entourage effect.”
Before we dive into things, we must first understand one of the most important mechanisms at work in nature. In essence, the entourage effect is a proposed mechanism by which cannabis compounds act synergistically to modulate the overall effects of the plant.
There are over 100 ‘phytocannabinoids’ produced exclusively in hemp plants. Add in the 150 terpenes, flavonoids, and other compounds and you have a heady mix, that in different combinations has quite different effects on the body. In less sciencey terms, if you imagine a rock band, the lead singer might be CBD or THC but on their own, cannot produce great music. To do so, an entire rock band is needed -- a bassist, drummer, and lead guitarist. We can liken this “rock band” concept to the ‘entourage effect’ — a synergistic effect in which all properties contained the hemp plant work together in unison to produce an even more powerful effect than what they’d produce on their own. That’s to say, add in other plant compounds and CBD works better. This extraordinary effect has even gained recognition from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Back in 2018, a medicine made from cannabis called Epidiolex was created for the purpose of tackling rare forms of epilepsy such as Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome and Dravet Syndrome. Though there are other drugs containing synthetic versions of cannabis, this is the first FDA-approved, the non-synthetic drug actually made from hemp plants and legally sold in the U.S. You may wonder if Epidiolex will act like marijuana’s THC in your body. However, it contains one main non-psychoactive ingredient at a concentration of 100 mg/mL: hemp-derived CBD.
Considered a highly-purified, whole-plant CBD extract (containing somewhere around 98% cannabidiol), Epidiolex is not only able to provide medical patients much-needed relief from epileptic seizures and their related symptoms, but also won’t cause mind-altering effects normally associated with its psychoactive botanical sibling, THC.
During the CBD isolate process, everything contained in the hemp plant gets removed through extraction leaving behind a CBD extract as a result. Once this process is finished, the concentrated CBD extracted must purify for a period of time before finally going through one last step: winterization. This will remove any waxes or other unneeded components (like fats, terpenes, chlorophyll and/or flavonoids) remaining in the CBD. Although this is known as one of the purest forms of CBD, this process leaves an individual CBD molecule that may nullify a range of benefits the CBD cannabinoid is most well-known for.
Terpenes, on the other hand, are organic compounds found in cannabis responsible for cannabis’ distinct flavor and aroma. They work to improve the way that CBD and other cannabinoids are absorbed in the body. It has even been suggested that the bell-shaped dose-response falls away when terpenes are introduced, increasing the effects of CBD at higher doses. However, similar to CBD isolates, this formulation doesn’t include all of the phytonutrients that full-spectrum CBD oil offers.
Compared to other CBD formulations, perhaps one of the greatest aspects of full-spectrum CBD extracts (oil) is that it preserves the nature of extracted compounds such as acidic forms of cannabinoids including CBGa, CBCa, and CBDa, unlike isolating CBD through decarboxylation. When CBD gets extracted from the hemp plant, it is considered “full-spectrum” and will produce an end product with a full range of compounds such as cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other phytonutrients still intact, each with their own unique effects -- offering far more than the two discussed former CBD formulations.
One of the reasons some people eat food and not dose-controlled supplements is that certain foods (especially the nutritious kind) contain a range of ingredients that aren’t fully understood, yet work together to make the body work well -- the same applies for cannabis’ constituents. Stay with us.
Whether it’s food or supplements, there are multiple ways to receive adequate nutrients in your diet, however, the difference is that whole foods provide many different types of phytonutrients that are preserved, natural, and unadulterated. Knowing this, we can conclude that there’s far more overall nutritional value and health benefit when comparing say an orange, to a Vitamin C tablet. Like whole foods, full-spectrum CBD oil also contains a plethora of phytonutrients that work together to increase the effectiveness and therapeutic potential of cannabinoids found in the hemp plant.
Our body’s natural endocannabinoid system (ECS) -- a biological system that exists in all living vertebrates that regulates mood, appetite, pain, and more -- contains loads of CB (cannabinoid) receptors. The two most studied are CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors, which are mainly found in the nervous system and immune system. Where they’re active, when cannabinoids such as CBD bind to these CB receptors, they affect our neurochemistry in such a way that can work wonders in the body, even more, when combined with terpenes, lesser-known cannabinoids, and other bioactive chemicals found in products containing full-spectrum CBD. In 2015, a ground-breaking study conducted by researchers at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology (notably, the epicenter of CBD research since the ’60s) discovered that together with the therapeutic properties of all of these phytonutrients, full-spectrum CBD oil proved more effective compared to CBD isolates. So, what are the benefits of full-spectrum CBD oil?
But wait, --- how does this all tie in with Epidiolex?
Though the Agency’s approval of Epidiolex is a step in the right direction toward cannabis legalization, we should not confuse the work of the drug with full-spectrum CBD oil, as they cause two different effects that interact with our body’s natural endocannabinoid system -- a biological system which helps regulate important functions such as mood, appetite, pain, and more -- in dissimilar ways. It’s much like the case of the orange, in which many of the corresponding benefits are lost. That’s not to say that the drug is ineffective, as it does offer many benefits. However, it has only been researched and approved for Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome and Dravet Syndrome, as mentioned earlier.
Nature has developed a plant with a whole range of different all-natural chemicals (left the way nature intended) together work in concert to produce the “entourage effect” for helping our bodies perform at optimum levels. While we are still in the infancy stages of research on cannabis, from what we’ve learned today, dosing with full-spectrum CBD oil may well do a far better job of addressing health issues and related symptoms than just a few compounds in the isolate/terpene formulations.
There are many CBD products available on the market today, so if you're looking to achieve optimal health and experience the powerful benefits of cannabinoids, we recommend that you first speak with your primary healthcare provider to see what best suits your needs.
Reviewed by Minchul An
Minchul An is a Clinical Cannabis Pharmacist and MTM Specialist.