Written by: Genevieve R. Moore PhD
When it comes to herbal medicine, sometimes the strength of a plant is in its many little variations. The natural enzymes plants use to create therapeutic molecules aren’t cookie-cutter factories — they produce a wide range of molecules, all with slightly different structures. And in the case of cannabis and other complex botanicals, the collective activity of all these varied molecules contributes to the plant’s unique effects in people’s unique bodies.
Modern medicine’s quest to isolate singular chemical agents has led to blockbuster drugs like aspirin, taxol and morphine (all originally extracted from medicinal plants and then synthesized in vast quantities in the lab). But this approach also fails to capture the benefits of complex, whole-plant botanicals — which are often more effective than isolated chemicals.
There are hundreds of active compounds in full-spectrum and broad-spectrum cannabis extracts. When the active molecules in cannabis are used individually (like THC, CBD, CBG, or CBN), they can be less effective than well-rounded, whole-plant extracts...or they may have surprising side effects.
Here’s an introduction to cannabis’ full spectrum of bioactive molecules, including the cannabinoids, terpenes and phenolics:
Both plants and human bodies produce cannabinoids (chemicals which are named after the cannabis plant, but which can be found throughout nature). Plant cannabinoids all share a similar architecture, and each variation has a slightly different effect on our neurochemistry and other systems within our bodies. The most common cannabinoids are THC and CBD, but cannabis plants produce more than 100 varieties of cannabinoids, including THC-A, THC-V, CBD-A, CBC, CBN and CBG.
Terps (Terpenes & terpenoids)
Terps are the largest group of phytochemicals made in cannabis, with over 140 identified and still counting. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The smallest ones are the most fragrant – they easily evaporate into the air where they reach our noses. Larger terps might be less fragrant, but instead contribute to color or the stickiness of the resin. (Although terpenes and terpenoids are technically different, the difference is so small that most people use the terms interchangeably.)
Phenolics (including flavonoids)
Phenolics (aka phenols) are in all plants, and they help us instinctually judge the nutritional quality of the foods we eat. Phenolics are generally antioxidants (they defend plants from harm), and help give foods like berries, dark green veggies and tea their super-food status. When food turns brown and loses flavor, it’s also a sign that the phenolics have spent their antioxidant activity and the food has lost nutritional quality.
The most bioactive cannabis phenolics are flavonoids that can be found in other edible plants, including apigenin, luteolin, kaempferol and quercetin — look them up, they’re all great for your health! Cannabis also contains unique flavonoids called cannflavins (also spelled cannaflavins), which have phenomenal anti-inflammatory properties.
If the health effects of terps and phenolics seem to have a lot in common with the effects of CBD and the other cannabinoids, it’s not by chance; cannabinoids are actually hybrid compounds (called terpenophenolics) — meaning they are literally a combination of a terpene and a phenolic. A wide variety of these natural compounds can help strengthen the activity of cannabinoids.
As you may be able to imagine, removing one single molecule from the full spectrum of a plant’s bioactive molecules can significantly limit the effects. When choosing CBD products, if you want the combined powers of all the cannabinoids, terpenes and phenolics, make sure to choose a full-spectrum or broad-spectrum CBD.
More articles by: Genevieve R. Moore PhD