Terpenes and the entourage effect

It's becoming more and more common to hear people talking about marijuana's entourage effect, but what does the entourage effect mean and why is it important? The entourage effect has a lot to do with the therapeutic qualities of the cannabis plant, and interestingly, it also has a lot to do with the unique chemical compounds responsible for the smells and flavors of marijuana. 

What are terpenes?

Some of the cannabis plant's most appealing qualities are the aromas and flavors experienced during consumption, and for that, you can thank terpenes. Whether you smoke cannabis flower, dab concentrates, or vape your favorite strain, terpenes are hard at work delivering tasty citrus, diesel, woody, pine, skunky, coffee, spicy, herbal, or tropical flavors to your palate. Many of the most popular cultivars, or strains, are named after their scents and tastes. Blueberry is named for its sweet, citrusy blueberry flavor, Sour Diesel for its pungent and intoxicating fuel-like aroma, and Cheese for, well, its cheesy taste and smell.

But terpenes do more than provide flavor and aroma. They also support other cannabis compounds in producing physiological and cerebral effects. There is synergy between cannabinoids and terpenes, not to mention other secondary metabolites and phytochemicals. This is the essence of the entourage effect, and it's the reason terpenes have revealed themselves to be such a critical piece of the cannabis puzzle.

Cannabis contains hundreds of molecules that have the ability to directly interact with our bodies and minds. Phytocannabinoid molecules, like THC and CBD, are relatively unique to the cannabis plant, but other plant-derived molecules such as flavonoids and terpenes also bind to our cells and receptors, influencing our experiences.

Terpenes are a large class of molecules that are produced by many species of plants, including conifers and citrus fruit trees.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Terpenes are a large class of molecules produced by many species of plants, including conifers and citrus trees. They are the main ingredient in essential oils and are the fragrant compounds responsible for plants' distinctive aromas. Essential oils provide the scents for many cosmetics, perfumes, soaps, and food.

The cannabis plant produces upwards of 200 terpenes, in varying concentrations and combinations, though the amount it could potentially produce is unknown. This makes terpenes the largest group of known phytochemicals in marijuana. The distinct scent of each cannabis cultivar is a result of the unique balance of terpenes produced by that particular plant's breeding.

Since terpenes dissipate into the air very easily, they are the first molecules to vaporize when heat is applied to flower. The flavors of these compounds are maximized by whole-flower vaporization because most terpenes vaporize at a lower temperature than combustion. Combustion, which occurs when cannabis is smoked, obliterates many delicate terpenes. 

It's also important to note that, while the terms terpenes and terpenoids are sometimes used interchangeably, there's a slight difference between them. Terpenes are still in the hydrocarbon form, but terpenoids have been denatured by oxidation, which takes place during the drying and curing process.

Do terpenes get you high?

There is some speculation that a plant's terpene profile has much to do with the nuances of the effects produced by a strain, far beyond the more common sativa or indica indicators. Getting to know the unique combination of marijuana terpenes produced by your favorite cultivars will help you recognize the specific cannabis flowers and concentrates that will be most beneficial to your needs. 

In addition to their aromas, terpenes have direct interactions with the human body. For instance, when alpha- and beta-pinene are consumed together, they display synergistic anti-tumor properties on cancer cells in a laboratory. Dr. Ethan Russo has conducted research which suggests that, due to the entourage effect, whole-plant cannabis is superior to isolated compounds extracted from the plant. 

This isn't surprising. Many beneficial plants, fruits, and vegetables contain a variety of phytochemicals that combine differently. These combinations make up the nutritional and therapeutic properties we enjoy, and though isolated compounds and molecules have benefits that are quantifiable by lab testing and research, the entourage effect comes from consuming multiple interacting components together at the same time. Many feel this justifies seeking out whole-plant forms of cannabis whenever possible.

While these aromatic cannabis compounds clearly play an important role in producing and enhancing many of the beneficial effects you get from consuming cannabis, they do not produce a stoned effect on their own. If you were to isolate or extract terpenes from a cannabis plant, you would still be able to experience the smells and flavors associated with those terpenes. But consumed alone, they would not give you any noticeable psychoactive effects.

How terpenes interact with our bodies

So how is this all happening? What bodily processes or mechanisms could explain why combined terpenes and cannabinoids are superior to isolated ones? One way is that they may increase the blood-brain barrier permeability and even affect the way that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) binds to CB1 receptors in our endocannabinoid system (ECS). In another example, alpha-pinene, commonly found in pine trees and other coniferous trees, may counter some of the short-term memory loss associated with high levels of THC.

More research is being conducted into the potential benefits of cannabis-derived terpenes. For instance, a 2013 study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine examined limonene, a terpene known for its zesty citrus flavor. The researchers found that limonene demonstrated anti-depressant and anti-anxiety properties in rodent models.

An additional factor contributing to the entourage effect could also be that cannabinoids and terpenes hit different targets in the ECS, and the combined activity at those targets (receptors or other cellular pathways) results in a better outcome. For example, multiple cannabis compounds attack inflammation at multiple sources of said inflammation. It's also plausible that terpenes could enhance our bodies' ability to absorb or process cannabinoids.

woman smoking joint
Cannabinoids and terpenes hit different targets, and the combined activity at those targets results in a better outcome.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

On the other hand, we have decent evidence that the undesirable effects of cannabis are minimized when there is a diverse set of molecules consumed at once. For instance, when cannabidiol (CBD) is consumed alongside THC, people experience less paranoia and anxiety. And when certain terpenes are present in a cultivar, the experience of reduced anxiety or a cerebral high, is catalyzed and enhanced.

Entourage effect: every player is important

The term entourage effect gives the connotation that all the work is being done by a prevalent cannabinoid (like THC or CBD), while the other minor cannabinoids and terpenes are there as a sea of relatively insignificant minions. In some cases, this may be true, like when an individual uses a THC isolate that doesn't have much else going for it.

However, there are a staggering variety of chemical phenotypes (chemotypes of cannabis) in the world. Plants that have a rich diversity of cannabinoids and terpenes may fall more into an ensemble effect, rather than an entourage effect. Just like an orchestra, each individual instrument contributes to the overall experience of the musical piece. THC and CBD may be the conductors, but other minor cannabinoids and terpenes contribute to the overall piece.

To continue the orchestra metaphor, the entourage or ensemble effect happens when the full-spectrum of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids are present, all playing in harmony. And while many people think of full-spectrum as THC-centric, full-spectrum CBD, and the accompanying CBD entourage effect, is just as important. Cannabis just works better when all the players are present.

Major contributions from Dr. Adie Rae.

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The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical or legal advice. This page was last updated on June 20, 2022.