Full-spectrum is a cannabis extract that includes all the compounds in cannabis plants — cannabinoids, terpenes, esters, flavonoids, and other naturally occurring elements.

You might have heard this term used alongside or in contrast to others like “broad-spectrum” or “isolate” and together these labels signal the level of phytochemical diversity that a product contains. Full-spectrum might also mean slightly different things depending on whether it's a marijuana or a hemp-derived product.

Full-spectrum versus broad-spectrum versus isolate

The differences between full-spectrum, broad-spectrum, and isolate come down to the level of refinement of an extract. 

In order to make cannabis products like concentrates, edibles, and topicals, harvested cannabis plants must undergo an extraction process to remove the desired compounds (cannabinoids, terpenes, etc) from the actual plant material (flowers, leaves, stalks, etc).

Full-spectrum extracts aim to preserve as much of the beneficial ingredients native to the plant as possible. While plant waxes and other solids might be left out of the final products, these extracts strive to offer the full chemical profile present in the plant from which it was taken. This is why you might also see full-spectrum products referred to as “whole-plant.” 

Like full-spectrum extracts, true broad-spectrum extracts also aim to preserve a wide representation of the plant's chemical profile, however broad-spectrum products have been further refined to remove all traces of THC. That said, sometimes terpenes, cannabinoids or other compounds are added back to isolate products that are labeled as broad-spectrum, which underscores the importance of knowing where and how products were made before you purchase them.

Isolates are cannabis extracts that have been refined to almost complete purity. A CBD isolate, for example, is an extract that has been stripped of everything except CBD, leaving a concentrate that can be up to 99% pure CBD.

Full-spectrum products from hemp versus marijuana

While the general definition of full-spectrum is the same whether applied to products derived from hemp or marijuana, you can expect some differences between them because of the inherent differences in the plants.

Because of the historic genetic differences between hemp and marijuana plants, hemp tended to naturally have low levels of THC and comparatively high levels of CBD. The opposite became true of cultivated varieties of marijuana, because decades of intentional breeding efforts brought THC levels to all-time highs and CBD levels remained relatively low. 

Historically, aside from varying THC and CBD levels, the chemical profiles of cannabis and hemp plants were quite different. Hemp tended to present with different, and broader, terpene profiles than marijuana, though marijuana tended to produce greater quantities of terpenes. Therefore, it took a lot more hemp plant material to get an equivalent amount of terpenes.

Today, due largely to the increase in popularity of CBD following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, marijuana and hemp genetics are being mixed more than ever before. Legally, hemp is defined as a plant that has no more than 0.3% THC content. In contrast, marijuana can contain upwards of 30% THC content. 

So a hemp-derived full-spectrum product will contain high levels of CBD, along with the other compounds in the plant but no more than 0.3% THC. Depending on the strain used, marijuana-derived full-spectrum products might contain high levels of THC with low levels of CBD, a more balanced ratio of THC and CBD, or high levels of CBD and low levels of THC.

Potential health benefits of full-spectrum products

Many consumers specifically seek out full- and broad-spectrum over isolates. Aside from varying concentrations of major cannabinoids like THC and CBD, these products also contain other minor cannabinoids like CBG, CBC, and CBN. There are more than 100 other cannabinoids naturally present in cannabis, and we are just beginning to uncover their medicinal and therapeutic benefits. 

In addition, terpenes may offer their own benefits. As the aroma and flavor compounds of cannabis, they are responsible for the distinct profiles we associate with different hemp and marijuana strains but they also offer a number of potential health benefits, too.

As legalization at the state level spreads, research efforts into other plant compounds, like esters and flavonoids, will only continue to grow.

The benefits of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other plant compounds might offer enough incentive on their own to sway folks to seek out full-spectrum products. But there is mounting evidence to suggest that these compounds might actually work better together than any of them could on their own.

This theory is referred to as the entourage effect, and it's an idea that was first put forth by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his Hebrew University colleagues in 1988. Decades later, Dr. Ethan Russo detailed how the entourage effect might work in a 2011 paper published in the British Journal of Pharmacology. In essence, the entourage effect proposes that there may be a compounding and synergistic effect that makes full-spectrum and broad-spectrum extracts efficacious in a different way than isolated compounds. 

As we continue to study the biology of cannabis plants themselves along with the medicinal application of their compounds, we are putting together a better understanding of how the entourage effect works. Because of the sheer number of chemicals in the plant (hundreds) and the possible synergies that might exist between them, it will take decades of research to reach a comprehensive understanding of the entourage effect.

For now, we are seeing support for the entourage effect play out in medical research where full- and broad-spectrum extracts are used alongside isolates. Often, the efficacious doses tend to be lower with full- and broad-spectrum than with isolates.

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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 July 20, 2021.