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12.09.19

A Guide to Cannabis Compounds: What Makes Whole-Plant Cannabis Extract so Powerful

by Andrea Nestoroska
1707 Words
Understanding the therapeutic effects of the cannabis plant—a comprehensive look at its compounds.

The cannabis plant is a complex plant with a remarkably rich chemical profile. The plant contains more than 550 natural components, out of which over 140 have been classified as “cannabinoids.”

But cannabis is so much more than cannabinoids like CBD and THC—we can’t overlook the role of terpenes and flavonoids in the overall therapeutic effects of cannabis. Wondering why? Because of “the entourage effect.” 

Simply put, the entourage effect explains the outcome of the “teamwork” between all of these compounds. Science found that if cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids work together—as found naturally in cannabis—they work in synergy to enhance the therapeutic benefits of the plant.

You have probably heard about CBD being sold in its isolated form. Well, according to the entourage effect, a whole-plant cannabis extract is way more powerful than just using its isolated compounds. 

Let’s take a more detailed look at the compounds of the cannabis plant.

(Phyto) Cannabinoids: Compounds Unique to Cannabis 

Cannabis Plant

Wondering where the cannabis plant gets all of its amazing effects? For the most part, it’s from its cannabinoids. 

Cannabinoids are compounds naturally found in the cannabis plant, most abundant in the plant’s flower buds. Due to their plant origin, the cannabinoids in cannabis are also known as phytocannabinoids. There is another type of cannabinoids—endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are produced by the body (“Endo” is Greek for “within”, meaning within the body), but that’s a topic we’ll discuss another time. 

You have most likely heard about delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). These are the two most popular and best-studied phytocannabinoids of the cannabis plant. 

The discovery of these cannabis compounds led to the revelation of an important neurotransmitter system in our body, known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The endocannabinoid system is in charge of establishing and maintaining the balance of several other systems—including the endocrine and immune system, a phenomenon also known as “Homeostasis” .

The mechanisms of action of cannabinoids are still being researched, but it is believed that cannabinoids interact with receptors in the body that are part of the endocannabinoid system. By binding or influencing different receptors, cannabinoids produce unique effects. 

It’s important to note that phytocannabinoids are present in their acidic forms in fresh cannabis. This means that getting high on raw cannabis is impossible because the THC-acid is not psychotropic. So, how do we get to the psychotropic THC?

First, let’s explain how THC-A (the acidic form of THC) is formed. Through phytocannabinoid biosynthesis—the combination of olivetolic acid and/or divarinic acid with geranyl pyrophosphate—the two main cannabinoid acids, cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) and cannabigerovarinic acid (CBGVA), are made.

Under chemical processes within the cannabis plant, the cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) creates the main cannabinoids including, CBG (cannabigerol), THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid), cannabigerolic (CBGA), cannabichromenic acid (CBCA), and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA). The cannabigerovarinic acid (CBGVA) creates cannabinoids such as CBCVA, CBDVA, delta-9-THCVA. 

Notice how most of these cannabinoids are still present in their acidic forms in the cannabis plant? To activate the “neutral forms” of these cannabinoids, aka THC, CBD, CBC, people use the process of decarboxylation—using heat, light or long-term storage to convert THCA to THC by causing the removal of CO2. So, when you smoke or cook cannabis, the heat turns CBDA to CBD and you can use all of its benefits.

THC—More Than Getting You “High”

THC is the cannabinoid that gets a bad reputation in therapeutic contexts, because it gives the user the “high” sensation.

THC is the principal component of cannabis, and as such, it is extremely beneficial. The compound targets mostly the CB1 and CB2 receptors of the endocannabinoid system, and is largely responsible for the pharmacological—and psychoactive—effects associated with cannabis use.

THC exhibits strong anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain-relieving), neuro-antioxidative (protects nervous tissue), and antispasmodic (relieves spasms) effects.

The compound is known to help alleviate chronic pain, insomnia, symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, ulcers, and work as a muscle relaxant.

CBD—The Non-Psychoactive Compound

CBD is the second most known cannabinoid, which rose to popularity because of its non-psychotropic effects. In other words, CBD won’t get you high. 

One of the ways CBD affects the body is by inhibiting the enzyme that blocks anandamide. Anandamide—also known as the “bliss molecule”—is an endocannabinoid that affects sleep patterns, anxiety, pain, and the immune system. By inhibiting the mechanisms of the enzyme that blocks anandamide, CBD contributes to increased levels of anandamide. This has been proven beneficial for diseases such as epilepsy, where lower levels of anandamide have been noticed.

CBD is an important compound because it also reduces the side-effects of THC. CBD shows anti-anxiety, anti-nausea, anti-arthritic, anti-inflammatory, antipsychotic, antifungal, antibacterial, and immunomodulatory properties.

After THC and CBD, the most abundant cannabinoids in the cannabis plant are:

  • Cannabigerol (CBG)this non-psychoactive cannabinoid is found in high concentrations in cannabis. Cannabigerol is a muscle relaxant and shows antidepressant properties. 
  • Cannabichromene (CBC)this cannabinoid shows anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antibiotic, and antifungal effects. In one study, CBC was able to reduce THC intoxication in mice. 
  • Cannabinol (CBN)Cannabinol (CBN) is a mildly psychoactive breakthrough product of THC mostly found in aged cannabis. The cannabinoid is produced when THC is exposed to heat or oxygen. 
  • Delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-8-THC)this compound can also get you high, and might present a similar therapeutic profile as delta-9 THC.
  • Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV)THCV produced weight loss, decreased body fat, and increased energy in obese mice. 
  • Cannabivarin (CBV)this cannabinoid is found in the plant in low concentrations, and its pharmacology has yet to be explored. 
  • Cannabidivarin (CBDV)this cannabinoid has produced some anticonvulsant properties. 

Cannabinoids that are not as abundant in the cannabis plant, but have been a subject to study:

  • Cannabinodiol (CBND)—CBND is present in quite low concentrations in the cannabis plant, and it shows psychoactive properties. The pharmacological effects of CBND are unknown for now. 
  • Cannabielsion (CBE)—CBE can be produced by photo-oxidation (oxidation caused by the action of light) from CBD and CBDA. This cannabinoid has not shown any ability to modulate CB1 and CB2 receptors. 
  • Cannabicyclol (CBL)—CBL is created when the phytocannabinoid cannabichromene gets heated. 

What Are Terpenes And How Are They Different From Cannabinoids?

Have you ever noticed the sticky crystal resin covering cannabis flower buds? It’s where most of the cannabinoids and terpenes are located, and also the source of the signature cannabis smell. That earthy, musky smell mostly comes from the terpene myrcene. 

What are terpenes? Terpenes are aromatic compounds that give the cannabis plant its unique taste and smell. Terpenes are found in almost all plant life. 

There are over 140 terpenes in cannabis, out of which some are exclusive to the plant. The most prevalent terpene in cannabis is b-myrcene, followed by trans-caryophyllene, and a-pinene.

But, terpenes are more than compounds that deliver the scent and taste of cannabis. Terpenes offer significant therapeutic effects. Some terpenes yield enhanced sedating effects that help with insomnia and anxiety while others interact with certain cannabinoids and show promise in the treatment of skin and mental health conditions. 

The Most Common Terpenes in Cannabis And Their Effects 

The wide array of therapeutic properties of terpenes have been reviewed by several scientific publications, but there is still room for research.

Myrcene 

Commonly found in hops, thyme, and lemongrass, myrcene is one of the most dominant terpenes that give cannabis its earthy herbal aroma. Myrcene is known as a potent anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) component.  

Limonene 

Limonene is abundant in the rind of citrus fruits, as well as in rosemary and peppermint, and offers a signature citrus-like smell. Limonene is known for its potent anxiolytic and immunosuppressive properties.

A-Pinene 

The refreshing pine smell of cannabis comes from a-pinene. This terpene is found in pine needles, basil, and rosemary. Pinene creates alertness, helps with memory retention, and counteracts the memory deficit induced by THC. 

Linalool 

The floral aroma of linalool is also found in lavender. This terpene is a great mood enhancer and shows sedative, analgesic, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, and anticonvulsant effects. Linalool is helpful for anxiety, depression, insomnia, and pain. 

Beta-caryophyllene 

This terpene has a spicy aroma and is found in black pepper and cinnamon. The potent anti-inflammatory effects of this terpene are great for relieving pain.

What Are Flavonoids And Why Do They Matter? 

Flavonoids are a group of natural substances found in fruits, vegetables, roots, flowers, tea, and wine, usually providing color pigmentation. These compounds are often passed by, but they produce beneficial therapeutic effects for which they are being isolated and included in both medicinal and pharmaceutical applications. Flavonoids have anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic, and anti-carcinogenic effects.

Cannabis has more than 20 occurring flavonoids including the most common:

  • Apigenin
  • Luteolin
  • Kaempferol
  • Quercetin
  • Cannaflavin A 
  • Cannaflavin B

Flavonoids in cannabis exert a variety of effects, including some that are shared by terpenes and cannabinoids. Flavonoids present anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. Apigenin possesses anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and oestrogenic properties. Cannaflavin A and B are potent anti-inflammatory compounds.

Whole-Plant Cannabis

Why Is Whole-Plant Cannabis Extract So Important? 

According to a study by Dr. Ethan Russo, “Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-Terpenoid Entourage Effect,” isolating one or two compounds of cannabis—such as CBD and THC—doesn’t produce as potent therapeutic effects as is all compounds work together. Even the smallest amount of terpenes in a 1:1 THC: CBD ratio can make a difference. This phenomenon is also known in the science community as the “entourage effect.” 

For more on the entourage effect, check out the study by Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist who has dedicated a lifetime to studying compounds in cannabis and their role in the body.

Now you know that more than 140 plant cannabinoids and a rich terpene and flavonoid profile stand behind the amazing therapeutic effects of cannabis. Most importantly, you know the secret behind the plant’s potency: an abundance of nature’s best organic compounds that work together to create more powerful effects. Although the cannabis plant contains many cannabinoids without any psychoactivity, and yet to be explored, they may be more promising than THC and CBD.