Secondary Compounds in Cannabis

When we talk about plants, we talk about two categories of compounds: Primary compounds and Secondary compounds.

Primary compounds are the compounds essential for the survival of the plant. Primary compounds include by-products of metabolic functions, such as the nutrients produced from photosynthesis. They also include compounds that make up the vascular tissues - xylem and phloem - needed to transport minerals and nutrients throughout the plant. They even include things like plant fibers and proteins. Cellulose is a good example of a primary compound as it is the compound that gives plant cell walls their rigid structure. Without primary compounds, plants would not be able to survive.

Secondary compounds, on the other hand, are not necessarily essential for the survival of the plant. However, they do help to increase the likelihood of the plant’s survival. Secondary compounds make up the plant’s defense system. They exist to deter predators, pests, and pathogens from destroying the plant. Most of these compounds have strong aromas, tastes and in some cases undesirable effects (ie: they can be poisonous) that will make animals steer clear from eating them. These secondary compounds oftentimes also have anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-mold properties associated with them that help to further protect the plant from microscopic pests and pathogens. While secondary compounds exist to ward off dangers, they also can be very enticing for some species. Secondary compounds can have extraordinary medicinal value, especially for humans, when appropriately dosed. In fact, a lot of our pharmaceuticals are derived from plants. 

Let’s take aspirin as an example. Aspirin is a common over the counter drug that acts as a fever reducer and pain reliever. However, if taken too much or too often, aspirin can cause problems, specifically stomach ulcers. Believe it or not, aspirin was developed from a tree. The bark of the white willow tree contains a secondary compound -  salicin - that converts to salicylic acid. when ingested. Scientists noticed that Native Americans would chew on white willow bark to help alleviate fever and pain.

After studying how the Native Americans used white willow, scientists quickly took it back to the lab, extracted and synthesized the salicin, and packaged it up in a little white pill for the masses. Because aspirin is an isolated compound from that bark, it is very potent and therefore very good at reducing fever. However, it can cause ulcers whereas chewing on white willow bark rarely causes stomach troubles. Why is this? It’s most likely due to the fact that there is another secondary compound within the willow bark that helps to protect the lining of the stomach. 

Secondary compounds within a plant’s matrix work together to produce an effect. Once a compound is isolated from the matrix the likelihood of negative side effects from consumption increases because the compounds that help to offset these side effects are not present.This may be why many of our pharmaceuticals have such negative side effects. This concept introduces the theory of the Entourage Effect. The Ensemble & Entourage Effect theory suggests that all secondary compounds inside of the plant matrix work together to produce an experience. We will keep coming back to the Entourage Effect and explore it further throughout this series.