Explaining the Entourage Effect: CBD, THC, and Terpenes

If you’ve been researching CBD products, you’ve probably heard about the entourage effect. The entourage effect occurs when cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) work together with terpenes to create a combined effect that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

How Cannabis Works on the Body: The Endocannabinoid System

Ancient Indian ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medical texts recommended cannabis for the treatment of a variety of ailments. However, the scientific explanation for the effects of cannabis didn’t come until relatively recently.

Scientists began to understand the structure of THC beginning in 1964. It wasn’t until over 20 years later that researchers would begin to discover how the compound works on the body.

In a 1988 study, researchers at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine found neuroreceptor sites in the brain that respond to cannabis compounds. The scientists named these sites “cannabinoid receptors.” Later the researchers found out that cannabinoid receptors are the most abundant types of neuroreceptors in the brain.

Two years later, scientists were coding the DNA sequences for cannabinoid receptors when they discovered a second type of cannabinoid receptor, CB2. These CB2 receptors exist throughout the immune and peripheral nervous systems. Organs such as the spleen and tonsils contain abundant CB2 receptors.

The original cannabinoid receptors are now called CB1 receptors. Human skin contains both CB1 and CB2 receptors, which makes topical cannabis preparations effective for localized pain and skin conditions.

Scientists encountered the endocannabinoid system in 1992. Dr. Allyn Howlett and Dr. William Devane discovered the first endocannabinoid, N-arachidonoyl ethanolamine. The doctors nicknamed the compound “anandamide” after the Sanskrit word, “ananda,” which means “bliss.”

After finding several other cannabinoids, the researchers began to suspect the existence of a specialized system that helps regulate an extensive range of body functions, including:

  • Sleep cycles
  • Immune function
  • Metabolism and appetite
  • Reproductive function
  • Mood regulation
  • Pain response
  • Memory processing

The doctors named this network of receptors the “endocannabinoid system.”

Endocannabinoids vs. Phytocannabinoids

The human body naturally produces endocannabinoids. Anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) seem to be the most important to the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). Cannabis contains over 100 cannabinoids called “phytocannabinoids” because they come from plants. Other phytocannabinoids, usually referred to as “dietary cannabinoids,” are found in spices like black pepper and clove.

Cannabinoids like THC and cannabinol (CBN) fit into the cannabinoid receptors like a key. THC is the key for CB1 receptors in the brain and central nervous system. The THC molecule is the exact shape and size to fit into a complementary opening in the CB1 receptor.

Cannabinol (CBN) works the same way on the CB2 receptors in the peripheral organs and the immune system. After exposure to light and heat, THC-A oxidizes and creates CBN. Medical marijuana professionals often recommend CBN for insomnia and anxiety. CBN also helps boost immune response and reduce the inflammation and pain associated with conditions like arthritis and Crohn’s disease.

CBD doesn’t fit either the CB1 or CB2 receptors like a key in a lock. Instead, CBD indirectly affects the endocannabinoid system. CBD helps the body produce and maintain natural endocannabinoids.

Discovery of the Entourage Effect

Israeli scientists Raphael Mechoulam and Ben-Shabat first discovered the entourage effect of cannabinoids. They published their findings in a 1999 article featured in the peer-reviewed journal, Life Science. The researchers found that whole-plant extracts worked more efficiently than isolates of THC and other cannabinoids.

How THC and CBD Interact

The Chinese philosophy of Yin/Yang provides an excellent analogy for the relationship of THC to CBD. At first glance, the two compounds may seem to work in opposite ways. Instead, they work together to help the body maintain internal balance.

CBD products that contain a small amount of THC work better for many conditions. If you stick to a low THC content, you’ll have minimal psychoactive effects.

Explaining the Entourage Effect: CBD - THC and Terpenes

CBD lessens some of the effects of THC, such as:

  • Psychoactivity
  • Anxiety
  • Increased heart rate


Terpenes are aromatic oils that give plants their taste and odor. All plants, including cannabis, produce terpenes to repel harmful insects and attract helpful pollinators. Terpenes were named after “turpentine,” the odorous solvent that artists use with oil paints. The different properties of essential oils come from their terpene profiles.

There are over 200 different terpenes in cannabis which modulate the effects of cannabinoids. Like CBD, terpenes work indirectly on cannabinoid receptors instead of in a lock-and-key manner. Scientists suspect that terpenes may be responsible for the different effects of sativa and indica strains.

Some of the most common terpenes in cannabis include:

  • Myrcene: Fruits like mangoes contain myrcene, which strengthens the effects of THC. Many scientists suspect that myrcene is responsible for the “couch-lock” effect.
  • Linalool: Lavender and other flowers contain linalool, which has calming effects.
  • Beta-Caryophyllene: This terpene can be found in spices, such as black pepper and cloves. Beta-Caryophyllene reduces inflammation.
  • Limonene: Citrus fruits contain limonene, which has an uplifting effect.
  • Terpinolene: Spices like nutmeg and cumin contain terpinolene. This terpene may have antibacterial and antifungal properties.
  • Alpha-Pinene: As the name suggests, alpha-Pinene is found in evergreen trees, rosemary, and sage. Pinene is suspected to enhance mental function and diminish the undesirable effects of THC, such as paranoia.
  • Eucalyptol: Plants like tea tree and eucalyptus contain eucalyptol, which acts as a natural antimicrobial agent.

How to Take Advantage of the Entourage Effect

Cannabinoids and terpenes work together in an adaptogenic manner, which produces the entourage effect. Adaptogens work differently on each individual’s body to achieve homeostasis. The entourage effect will help your body maintain balance and reduce the uncomfortable symptoms of disease.

There are several ways you can take advantage of the entourage effect, including:

  • Investing in a full-spectrum CBD product, that contains the whole range of cannabinoids and terpenes. Cheaper CBD isolates only contain cannabidiol.
  • Taking CBD products that also contain THC. Start with a lower THC content until you get used to the effects.
  • Using a dry-herb vaporizer with several temperature settings. Smoking cannabis destroys terpenes and reduces the entourage effect. Each terpene has a different tolerance for heat. Start at the lowest heat setting on your vaporizer for optimum results.
  • Consulting with your doctor. A trained medical marijuana physician can help pinpoint your specific needs.
  • Asking for advice at your local dispensary. Expert budtenders will be glad to help you understand cannabinoid content and terpene profiles so that you can choose the best products for your condition.