Sidarta Ribeiro, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist with a particular interest in psychedelic medicines. He describes the tug of war between advocates for whole plants and the entourage effect versus isolated chemical compounds and pharma. Chacruna.net published his insights.
Since ancient times, medicinal plants or fungi have been used in a sacred manner. Then, we began taking things apart, emulating plant compounds and extracting single compounds. Today, a handful of doctors are saying that whole plants may have a better effect than these single compound extracts and synthetics.
Some of these thinkers are world-leading experts. We only have to think of the term 'entourage effect' coined by the well-known father of cannabis research Professor Raphael Mechoulam and his colleague Simon Ben-Shaba, back in 1998.
You can’t patent a plant
There are several reasons why herbal medicines are so controversial in the scientific community. A natural plant contains hundreds of compounds, and science doesn’t like the unexplained. Trying to prove how each of these compounds works on its own and how they would work together would take centuries of scientific research.
But there is also a profit motive. Pharmaceutical companies sponsor a lot of research. They don’t just want to make their money back. They want to make profits too. If you patent a new medicine, you have sole rights to manufacture it. But to patent it, it must be something “new.”
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The entourage effect: when compounds work together
Thinkers like Professor Mechoulam believe that the way compounds work together is stronger than using any one of them in isolation. A well-known example would be the effect of 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabidiol (CBD), the two major cannabinoids in cannabis, used to enhance radiotherapy in glioma. In its purest form, the entourage effect may produce inexplicable benefits as hundred of compounds interact.
The terpenoids, or perfumed organic compounds, in cannabis and similar to cannabinoids in chemical structure. They may be responsible for the passage of chemicals through the blood-brain barrier, helping the body to use the other compounds in cannabis. These terpenoids may also counteract the memory loss induced by THC.
Compounds complement each other
The effects of CBD are very different to THC, and each compound complements each other. CBD has a sedating, or relaxing effect, while THC produces excitation. CBD is antipsychotic and anxiolytic, while THC is anxiogenic and pro-psychotic. In isolation and high dosages, these compounds could have negative effects on the health of people at risk.
In the whole plant, on the other hand, these compounds have a buffered effect that is safe from a medicinal perspective. Mainstream pharmacology would not agree and is only interested in specific, purified substances for medical treatments. They argue that if we don’t know what each compound does, the resulting medicine is unscientific and possibly even unsafe.
The truth is that many traditional medicines that have been used for millennia can stand up to scientific testing. People used them because they work. Hypericum for depression, Pelargonium sidoides for coughs and colds, and Echinacea to build the immune system are only a few examples of these.
Will science ever catch up?
We can only hope that science will catch up with the wisdom of traditional healers in the near future. With cannabis becoming popular across continents, it is the perfect time to look at the advantages of therapeutics based on the whole organism versus the benefits of purified compounds. Not only are there huge economic, social and philosophical implications, but humanity's health is also at stake.