Cannabis buyers often choose a strain based on the amount of THC it contains. While indicas are known to be relaxing and sativas to be energizing, that’s only part of the story. Cannabinoids such as THC and CBD combine with a plant’s terpenes, the essential oils that give it its unique flavor and smell, to create a phenomenon known as the cannabis entourage effect.
Our bodies contain receptors, with which the naturally occurring cannabinoids from the cannabis plant bind. THC bonds with CB1 receptors, primarily located in the brain and spinal cord, while CBD binds with CB2 receptors, primarily in the blood, tonsils, and spleen. The combination of cannabinoids provides the psychoactive and pain-relieving effects of cannabis, but terpenes play a large role as well.
The term “entourage effect” refers to the way terpenes help cannabinoids bind with receptors. Marinol, the first synthetic cannabinoid developed to help treat AIDS in the early 1980s, contained only THC, and patients quickly discovered that it didn’t work as well as whole-plant medicine. Without the CBD and terpenes, patients didn’t receive the full benefit of THC – many found that it didn’t work, or that the effects were too intense. Cannabis is more effective when the compounds in its flowers work together, and those who consume it are better able to adjust their dose.
Activation of CB1 receptors requires THC, but without CBD to activate CB2 receptors, its effects are limited. Terpenes – or, more specifically, monoterpenes, diterpenes, and sesquiterpenes – not only keep pests away from the growing cannabis plant, but also mitigate the effects of THC. This is the cannabinoid that causes some people to feel anxious when they consume cannabis. By modulating the degree to which cannabinoids bind to receptors, and to which receptors they bind, terpenes help regulate the psychoactive effects of THC. This is one reason whole-plant medicine is more effective than synthetic, isolated cannabinoids.
Terpene profiles vary significantly by strain, which is why some strains work better for certain ailments (and consumers) than others. This is why going for the plant with the highest THC isn’t the best way to maximize the psychoactive effects of cannabis. Knowing the terpenes best suited to treat your condition will help you purchase the right medicine, or give you the desired high.
The most common terpene in cannabis myrcene, also found in mango, eucalyptus, and lemongrass; it’s particularly effective for treating inflammation. The second most common terpene is limonene, also found in the rinds of citrus fruit, which can help alleviate anxiety and depression. In total, the cannabis plant contains over 200 terpenes, which range from floral to smoky in taste and smell.
For those looking to maximize their high and make the most of the entourage effect of cannabis, eating certain plant-based foods before smoking cannabis can help. Mangoes contain the terpene myrcene, which can help cannabinoids penetrate the blood-brain barrier more efficiently. Nuts and seeds containing Omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts and chia seeds, have a similar effect. The catechins in black and green teas, which also bind with CB1 receptors, can help boost the euphoria you get from smoking cannabis. And broccoli is not only a healthful way to satisfy the munchies; its terpenes can help ingested cannabis reduce pain and alleviate the blues. When thinking of whole-plant medicine, think beyond the cannabis plant, and enjoy one of these snacks up to an hour before you smoke or vape.
Extraction methods such as steam distillation and vacuum extraction allow manufacturers to isolate terpenes from multiple plants. Adding these terpenes to concentrates and edibles allows the creation of boutique products. Beware of industrially manufactured terpenes, and instead look for those extracted from actual plants, especially and preferably those extracted from cannabis plants. Vape oils are one way to experience the purest taste of terpenes.
Whether you ingest cannabis by smoking, vaping, or eating, knowledge of how the entourage effect works will help you orchestrate your ideal experience. All strains are not created equal, so educate yourself before you buy to achieve the best results.