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It may sound like an HBO sequel or a Michael Crichton techno-thriller, but the entourage effect is serious business and can make the difference between CBD providing immense health benefits and doing nothing at all.

In whole plant (non-conventional) medicine, the entourage effect refers to hundreds of natural components within a plant interacting together and with the human body to produce a stronger impact than with any one of those components used alone. The combination of these multiple compounds in their natural state is what produces a synergy.

Consider this compared to conventional medicines that focus on extracting single compounds from a plant and isolating or producing the active ingredient in a laboratory then selling it to you as in the form of pills and powders.

The dichotomy also exists when it comes to the manufacturing and marketing of CBD.

CBD is the abbreviation for cannabidiol, one of 100 cannabinoids (naturally occurring compounds) found in the cannabis or hemp plant. But CBD also refers to the product itself.

Two common forms of the product marketed as CBD extract are whole plant hemp and CBD isolate.

Isolate as the name implies, isolates cannabidiol (CBD the cannabinoid). This is done through a refining process that strips out any additional cannabinoids, terpenes (unsaturated hydrocarbons that exist in the essential oils of plants), and plant components found in the hemp plant. The final product is a fine white powder that contains 99 percent cannabidiol. This is CBD in its purest form.

Whole plant hemp extract CBD, on the other hand, keeps the full properties of the hemp plant intact. In addition to CBD the cannabinoid, this extract includes terpenes, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, phytonutrients and any other materials that are extracted from the hemp plant, including 99 other cannabinoids that provide their own unique benefits.

A growing body of evidence shows a greater efficacy of whole plant medicines over isolates thanks to the entourage effect – something herbalists and holistic practitioners have known for a long time.

For example, a 2015 groundbreaking study from Israel documented the superior therapeutic properties of whole plant CBD-rich cannabis extract as compared to single-molecule cannabidiol (isolate).

Published in the journal Pharmacology & Pharmacy, the article directly challenged one of the golden tenants of Big Pharma and the medical-industrial complex —  that “crude” botanical preparations are inherently low grade and less effective than pure, single-molecule compounds.

A Balancing Act: Whole Plant Zapateado

What a lot of people don’t realize is that plants aren’t the only living things with cannabinoids. Humans have an endocannabinoid system (ECS)  that consists of endogenous cannabinoid receptors located in the brain, bones, liver, nervous system, immune system, muscles, pancreas, and adipose tissue (fat). The receptors regulate these tissues by producing the chemical compounds known as cannabinoids.

With too few cannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system works less efficiently, which can lead to a whole slew of health problems such as arthritis, obesity, anxiety, auto-immune disorders, depression, autism, hyperactivity, stuttering, ADHD, OCD, and eating disorders.

Once consumed, whole plant CBD acts on the body’s endocannabinoid system to promote homeostasis and is a vital “cellular-signaling system” that is involved in modulating pain, appetite, mood, memory, and cellular life and death cycles.

Looking deeper, cannabinoid receptors, located throughout the body, are part of the ECS. There are currently two known subtypes of cannabinoid receptors, termed CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptor is expressed mainly in the brain, but also in the lungs, liver, and kidneys. The CB2 receptor is expressed primarily in the immune system and in hematopoietic cells. Receptor pathways can eventually slow down or even stop altogether, therefore, compromising the holistic function of receptors in your own body. CBD can slowly help heal those receptors.

Still, there are relatively few studies taking a hard look at whole plant medicines.

“The research community is notorious for focusing on isolates,” says Elizabeth Moriarty, Clinical Herbalist and owner of Luminary Medicine Company. She is also the formulator behind two of our best sellers Superior hemp oil and Curious lubricant.  “It’s easier, and drug-development is entirely focused on isolated compounds. The money thus supports research into isolated compounds and feeds the misperception that science supports isolate use.  When we focus exclusively on isolate, we have pharmaceuticalized the plant.”

Adds certified integrative nutrition coach Connie Rogers:

“Big Pharma’s method of operation is to synthesize, patent, and control.”

Rogers points out gas chromatography analysis of organic plants, which show a rich complex of harmonic frequencies that make up the extract from the organic plant.

“When we analyze the pharmaceutical isolate created by lab scientists trying to imitate those critical and key elements of the plant, we see the fundamental frequency,” says Rogers. “However, most of the complex rich frequencies that we saw from the organic plant extract, are missing. The results (from whole plant medicines versus isolates) can’t be the same.”

Emphasis on synthetic over real has also been the reason Big Pharma’s earlier foray into the CBD market fell short with the introduction of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs Marinol and Syndros. These are synthesized reproductions of natural THC  — the cannabinoid in cannabis that gets you high. They are expensive drugs used to help chemotherapy patients cope with nausea. Unlike natural THC in the whole marijuana plant, these Big Pharma fake marijuana drugs, which are legal everywhere, were expected to work just as well as using the real thing.

However, scientists quickly learned that patients preferred natural cannabis to Marinol because of the synergy that comes by including other therapeutically active cannabinoids.

Additionally, according to Physician’s Desk Reference (43rd edition) about one-third of patients report that Marinol’s psychoactive effects are far greater than those of natural cannabis. Marinol’s adverse effects include: feeling “high,” drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, anxiety, changes in mood, muddled thinking, perceptual difficulties, coordination impairment, irritability, and depression.

How Big Pharma’s new FDA-pproved Epidiolex will rate is hard to figure. Used for treating severe forms of epilepsy, its creator GW Pharmaceuticals, claims on their website that it’s “the first plant-derived cannabinoid prescription medicine.” Their press releases state that Epidiolex is a “highly-purified” CBD plant extract, which would put it on the same page as CBD isolate.

“It is CBD isolate,” says Moriarty. “I constantly explain to people that CBD isolate is simply a pharmaceutical.”

However, turns out Epidiolex is only 98 percent pure CBD. The other 2 percent remains a mystery. GW Pharmaceuticals has not revealed what’s in the other 2 percent, but it’s generally believed there are other cannabinoids in the mix (perhaps even THC).

But just like Big Pharma’s synthetic CBD attempts, Epidiolex also has a substantial number of side-effects including sleepiness, elevated liver enzymes, decreased appetite, diarrhea, fatigue, insomnia, and more.

Studies show that there is little in the way of side effects with gentle whole plant CBD, even if taken in higher than recommended doses.

“Big Pharma does not understand botanical medicine,” said Ethan Russo in a recent Undark article. Russo is a neurologist and former medical adviser at GW Pharmaceuticals who now serves as director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute. Undark focuses on the intersection of science and society. “I can tell you having worked with GW, they were sure aware of (the entourage effect).”  

But apparently chose to ignore it.

What Big Pharma does understand is profit. The GW Pharma website homepage features a mother holding a child with text that reads “committed to making a difference” in treating “certain rare and catastrophic forms of childhood-onset epilepsy that currently have few treatment options.”

Yet, in order for parents to afford Epidiolex for a year, they would have to fork over $40,000, according to Dr. Jordan Tishler, a Harvard-trained holistic care expert and president of inhaleMD.

Epidiolex aside, Tishler is critical of some of the claims CBD isolate manufacturers in general make, such as the powder can be put into anything you eat including your morning coffee.

No cannabinoid should be added to coffee, tea, or other water-based drink as cannabinoids are not water soluble,” says Tishler. 

Entourage Effect: A Lot To Process

Besides whole plant versus isolate, the processing of CBD also impacts its usefulness.

“There is a great deal of conversation about the best extraction process,” says Moriarty. “Both CO2 and distillation are defensible as optimal systems.”

Besides processing, Moriarty believes extraction skill levels and knowledge of the art also factor into the results as well as the quality of equipment used.

”There is equipment available that extracts CBD isolate with a simple press of a button,” says Moriarty. “A highly adept extractor, properly equipped, can extract a premium oil, flush with a complexity of cannabinoids and terpenes present in the plant; whereas a novice, or poor quality equipment, will extract an oil that has a profile that is barely more complex than an isolate.”

In other words, even the quality of whole plant CBD will vary from brand to brand.

How Do You Know Which CBD To Buy?

Bottom line is you want to purchase a whole plant (often referred to as full spectrum) CBD to receive the total health package due to the entourage effect. Today, whole plant CBD is recognized as a revolutionary natural compound offering nearly three dozen medicinal health benefits without the high associated with marijuana.

The problem is that so many vendors have recently jumped on the CBD “miracle cure” bandwagon that product quality is all over the board. Or in the trenchant words of Moriarty:

“The cannabis industry is young, immature, and often preposterous. Precious few of those involved have any experience as plant medicine makers. Very few are herbal or functional medicine practitioners with experience in the clinical use of plant or nutrient therapy.

“Cannabis has a rare combination of gentleness and potency, and is a beloved medicine through centuries — yet, it is one plant.  And when we focus only on cannabis, it is a bizarre failure to recognize the importance of the compendium of plants that work together therapeutically.

“Traditional languages of medicine understand this intrinsically. Understand, as much as we may disassemble and study distinct phytoconstituents in our effort to fathom the medicines that emerge in nature, we are barely grasping the surface of understanding the choreography of the relationship between people and plants.”

Here’s four things to look for when buying whole plant CBD medicine:

1. Extraction Methods —  Look for Supercritical (or subcritical) CO2 extraction. This method uses carbon dioxide under high pressure and extremely low temperatures to isolate, preserve, and maintain the purity of the medicinal oil. While this method is more expensive and involves complex equipment and expertise, it ensures quality. Not surprisingly, many companies use cheap methods that involve nasty toxic solvents such as propane, hexane, pentane, and butane, which are flammable hydrocarbon gases found in petroleum. Beware of companies that try to convince you that using a hydrocarbon method stays the truest to the plant. Butane is illegal for a reason. Inhalation of butane residue can cause cardiac and respiratory problems.

2. Sourcing — The quality of CBD oil is really based on its source, that is, where it was grown, how it was grown, and the species of cannabis. Look for brands that source their cannabinoids from organic-certified, hemp-grown farms in pristine regions of Europe. Organic hemp grown in Europe must adhere to EU’s strict organic standards, which are stricter than in the U.S. and highly audited. Look for ingredients that are certified organic and wildcrafted. Reputable CBD companies also have lab results from independent labs available on their websites. This can also be used as an indicator for consumers about what companies are providing high-quality CBD.

3. Bioavailability — Unfortunately, there have been instances where products claiming to have CBD in them tested at zero percent in a lab attempting to verify the results.  Ideally, look for CBD products such as Superior hemp oil that proportionately offer 4 or more parts CBD to 1 part THC, for maximum relief and minimal or no storage issues.

4. Greenwashing Tactics — There are companies that engage in the use of “window dressing.” For example, one popular brand brags that they use the superfood moringa. This, of course, lures people in. But keep in mind that for an added antioxidant benefit, you would need to ingest 7.5 g (7,500 mg) within the context of a meal or beverage. The entire 30 ml bottle of said brand contains 33.3 mg; so at the recommended dose of 1 ml daily, the daily dose of moringa would only be 1.11 mg.

And finally, look for products that are sold legally, with full transparency.

Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.

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