Published on November 21, 2021 by Kristina Willis
Everywhere you look, you can find cannabis products advertised as full spectrum. However, many consumers do not entirely understand what that label means. Thanks to marketing efforts, people have come to the assumption that full spectrum simply means better.
Full spectrum cannabis contains a multitude of phytochemicals found in the cannabis sativa plant, including cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. The term is most often used to distinguish botanical CBD extracts and oils from pure substances. Also of note, full-spectrum products are not entirely THC-free and will often contain trace amounts.
In some instances—possibly most cases—full spectrum cannabis offers therapeutical advantages over pure substances. In this article, we go over what full spectrum really means and its comprehensive implications.
The term full spectrum describes cannabis with a complex chemical makeup that includes multiple phytochemical constituents. For example, full-spectrum cannabidiol (CBD) extract does not just contain CBD; it also likely has tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), acid precursors like CBDA, THCA, and CBGA, and any number of the 400 plus chemical compounds found in cannabis. Unlike pure substances, full spectrum products must account for the interactions of numerous variables and a range of potential effects.
Full spectrum products are highly coveted because of the predominant belief that a cocktail of compounds creates increased efficacy via the entourage effect. Studies suggest that cannabis components synergize in ways that increase potency and tolerability. For instance, CBD notably counteracts the psychoactive effects of THC, and studies have found that the terpenoids, flavonoids, and lignanamides present in hemp appear to have anti-inflammatory properties.
However, research regarding the entourage effect is far from definitive. Much is still unknown about how specific therapeutic properties are produced, including the underlying mechanisms of every cannabis element. While full spectrum cannabis may provide additional benefits, it is also important to keep in mind that side effects and results are also less predictable.
Full spectrum and broad spectrum CBD are similar but with one key difference: the THC has been removed. Like full spectrum, broad spectrum cannabis contains chemical compounds other than CBD, but the THC has been specifically targeted and extracted. Broad spectrum products are commonly used by people looking to avoid THC at all costs, such as college students.
Isolates are crystalline solids or powders that contain pure THC or CBD. In other words, all the phytochemicals have been extracted to create the purest substance possible. Isolates are particularly useful for controlling doses for homemade tinctures or extracts or when trying to avoid specific compounds. For instance, individuals concerned with drug testing may use a CBD isolate to ensure that they do not consume any THC. The extraction process to create isolates removes all other phytochemicals, including cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids which are otherwise associated with full spectrum and broad spectrum products.
Currently, the only FDA-approved cannabis drug is Epidiolex, which contains pure CBD. However, a full spectrum medication called Sativex is approved in numerous developed countries, including Canada, the UK, Spain, and Germany. The oromucosal spray contains 2.7 mg of THC, 2.5 mg of CBD, and a mixture of cannabinoids and terpenes. It has been proven to reduce neuropathic pain and is primarily used to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms.
There are still too many unanswered questions about cannabis constituents to say that full spectrum is strictly better. It is more likely that the most optimal cannabis product depends on the specific situation in question. For instance, an isolate or pure drug may still perform better for medical conditions that respond primarily to a particular cannabinoid like THC or CBD. On the other hand, it is almost certain that complex cannabis concoctions provide therapeutical advantages.
Increased PotencyResearch suggests that full-spectrum cannabis may produce more pronounced therapeutical effects. For example, a rat study on inflammatory pain found that botanical extracts had greater analgesic effects and swelling reduction compared to pure CBD.
Higher TolerabilityThough generally safe, many patients who use cannabis still experience adverse side effects. Studies show that cannabinoids and terpenes may help minimize the undesirable effects of THC and increase tolerance to symptoms that cause patients to quit cannabis treatment programs.
Less ProcessingSince full spectrum embraces all cannabis constituents, products typically undergo less processing which some people find desirable. Moreover, if you are looking to specifically take advantage of the cocktail of cannabis compounds, you do not have to worry about decarboxylation.
More VariabilityMore constituents mean more variability. In turn, it may be more challenging to maintain a specific regimen or obtain products with the same or similar ratios. Without extreme diligence, you may find yourself consuming different amounts of compounds and experiencing varied side effects.
Less ControlWhen making homemade cannabis products, it is easier to keep track of dosing and cannabinoid ratios when using isolated substances since they contain fewer components. In addition, isolates give you more precise control over your cannabinoid intake.
More ExpensiveCompared to broad spectrum and isolates, full spectrum products tend to run a little more expensive. Some of this is simply due to marketing mark-up, but the nature of full spectrum also makes it more difficult for manufacturers to maintain consistent ratios.
Full spectrum products, including CBD oils and extracts, contain THC. Even in trace amounts, THC can build up and result in a positive drug test. To maintain negative drug test results, you should avoid THC by using broad spectrum or isolate products, not full spectrum.
Though full spectrum products show a lot of promise in theory, it is crucial to recognize that there is still a lot we don’t entirely understand. For example, cannabis cocktails demonstrate a variety of synergistic effects, but many of the underlying mechanisms are understudied and unsubstantiated.
Moreover, while studies have demonstrated the efficacy of full spectrum cannabis, there are limited studies comparing full spectrum to pure substances. So, while both may be beneficial and effective, it is hard to say which is better overall and, more importantly, in what situations one edges out the other. According to all available research, full spectrum is most promising and relevant for treating symptoms associated with pain and inflammation, such as those present in MS.
In recent years, the cannabis industry has experienced immense growth, and future research will likely shed light on how specific cannabinoids and other cannabis compounds enact physiological effects. However, until proper studies are conducted and results made available to the public, consumers must research their particular condition and symptoms to make an educated guess on whether full spectrum is indeed suitable.