The "Full-Spectrum" Difference: Why To Look Out For This Term On A Label
As hemp extract—an extract from hemp plants that's rich in cannabinoids, including CBD—becomes more popular, it's starting to pop up in all different forms. One term you've likely noticed on hemp supplements, tinctures, and creams is "full spectrum." Here's what that means and why it's important to look out for.
What "full-spectrum" means on a hemp or CBD label.
Full-spectrum hemp oil (not to be confused with hemp seed oil) is an extract only derived from hemp. Hemp is the term for a cannabis plant with 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or less—not enough for mind-altering effects. In contrast, a CBD oil can be extracted from either hemp or marijuana. Marijuana is the term for cannabis plants with higher levels of THC.
Full-spectrum hemp oil contains all of the naturally available compounds the hemp plant has to offer, including CBD and more than 100 cannabinoids and a host of terpenes and flavonoids to boot. This is different from a CBD isolate product that will only contain a single cannabinoid: CBD.
The benefits of full-spectrum oils.
When you take a full-spectrum supplement rather than a CBD isolate product, the hemp plant's hundreds of compounds have a way of working together to boost the product's overall benefits. Researchers call this synergy the entourage effect: when cannabis compounds work together, they're more powerful than any one cannabinoid on its own. "I think about it in a sports metaphor, where you've got one star player, but you need the team," explains renowned integrative physician Robert Rountree, M.D. "It's the mix that's important."
So what are all those compounds, and what do they do? First, cannabinoids affect the body's endocannabinoid system, the body's "master regulatory system," which plays a role in maintaining the immune, digestive, and central nervous systems.
Our bodies actually make their own endocannabinoids to help keep us in balance or homeostasis. But researchers theorize that sometimes we become deficient in endocannabinoids, which can lead to chronic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or migraines. When taken as a supplement, phytocannabinoids, which come from plants, may be able to help ease some of the symptoms by helping our endocannabinoid system perform its delicate balancing act.*
One of the most talked-about and researched phytocannabinoids in hemp oil and CBD oil is, of course, CBD. But that's just the tip of the iceberg: Scientists are still studying just how many cannabinoids can be derived from hemp and what their capabilities are individually, collectively, and in various combinations.
What's more, cannabinoids are just some of the beneficial compounds present in cannabis that end up in a full-spectrum product. "We know that phytocannabinoids are more effective and better tolerated when taken together and in concert with their co-occurring terpenes, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals than when they are taken in isolation," explains Jessica Knox, M.D., MPH, co-founder of the American Cannabinoid Clinics and a preventive medicine physician.
Terpenes, responsible for the aroma of cannabis, enhance how we process the plant's many cannabinoids. And flavonoids—also abundant in tea, fruits, veggies, and more—are phytonutrients known to have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects.
"When you mix all those phytocannabinoids together and not just the phytocannabinoids—but their supportive compounds and antioxidants that are in the [hemp plant] stalk—it's a whole mix," Rountree explains. "There's this whole system at work."
The bottom line.
With full-spectrum hemp oil, the compounds derived from cannabis—including all the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids—team up to benefit your body and help keep you in harmony. In short, full-spectrum presents a whole orchestra rather than just one cannabinoid's solo performance.
Jennifer Chesak is a freelance medical journalist with bylines in several national publications, including Washington Post, Healthline, Prevention, Greatist, Runner’s World, and more. Her coverage focuses on chronic health issues, fitness, nutrition, women’s medical rights, and the scientific evidence around health and wellness trends. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School. In addition to reporting, she also serves as a freelance manuscript editor and medical fact-checker. She teaches copyediting and media studies at Belmont University and several writing courses through the Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville, and she is the managing editor for the literary magazine Shift.