Most cannabis consumers are familiar with cannabinoids, the two most widely used cannabinoids THC and CBD have been mainstream buzzwords for a while. However, there’s a lesser-known friend to these cannabinoids that is attracting attention in the cannabis industry these days: terpenes.
Simply put, terpenes are chemicals that determine how things smell. They are highly fragrant compounds that dictate the smell of many plants and herbs, from lavender and pine needles to lemon rind and cannabis. Although you may have not realised it, you will likely encounter terpenes every day! Say you squeeze a lemon into hot water, the fragrance produced is the result of a terpene called limonene. It’s terpenes we have to thank for giving plants their unique scent and flavour.
Scented perfumes and body products are created by isolating specific terpenes and using them in the manufacturing of oils and products. When terpenes undergo a chemical modification such as heating or drying, they become terpenoids, hence the history of perfumery being closely associated with the chemistry of terpenes and terpenoids.
Far from being solely aromatic, terpenes also play an important role in mediating ecological exchanges – terpenes play a crucial role in protecting plants by both luring pollinators and repelling predators.
Where are terpenes found?
Terpenes are made up of organic compounds produced mainly by plants, although a few insects do produce them too. On plants, terpenes are commonly found on the glandular hairs, thought by scientists to have evolved to protect plants by repelling pests and damaging bacterias and trapping them in their gummy resin. Furthermore, terpenes fragrance can attract pollinators, leading to the production of new plants.
One of the most abundant sources of terpenes in the plant kingdom is Cannabis sativa, the plant that includes both cannabis and its relative, hemp. Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis flower – the tiny, oil-filled crystals found on the leaves and buds – and have given the plant an evolutionary advantage through their capacity to repel predators such as fungi and insects.
What are the health benefits of terpenes?
Although you may associate the practice of aromatherapy, like mindfulness, as a new craze, the use of terpenes in medical and spiritual aromatherapy, in fact, dates back centuries. The use of aromatic plants in medicine can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt!
It’s thought that aromatic plants and herbs are thought to have an impact on one’s mind and mood. It’s the reason you might light a lavender candle to feel relaxed – the terpene found in lavender is linalool and is said to have sedative properties. This belief is actually founded in science, not just invented by long-haired, patchouli-scented hippies as one may assume! Our olfactory receptors – part of the system that detects and distinguishes odorants – are connected to emotional centres in the brain. Naturally, stimulation of these receptors can have an impact on individuals’ moods.
When using cannabis as a remedy for particular ailments terpenes have been reported to have a significant effect on both quality of the treatment and the overall management of symptoms. For example, when treating seizures, research suggests that terpenes like linalool can be a deciding factor in whether the seizures can be controlled or not. The inclusion of terpenes can mean that 22% of the dose can be administered when compared to pure CBD oil. It is these secret properties that make terpenes such an interesting part of the cannabis plants biology. Some have anticonvulsant properties like linalool. Myrcene can aid in the alleviation of mental health issues and stress-related disorders and Pinene has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries to improve memory and newer studies show it may well have antitumor properties too.
How terpenes interact with important cannabinoids such as CBD
Although there is no doubt that terpenes are useful compounds on their own it is the interaction of terpenes with other compounds existing within the plants make up, like THC and CBD, known as the entourage effect, which really highlights their powers. Each compound works in synergy to intensify the powerful healing properties. This is because cannabinoids and terpenes share a chemical precursor, they are related and different in each strain of plant. They have significant control over how much THC crosses the blood-brain barrier and therefore the overall effect on the user. In short, terpenes do their best work in conjunction with the other compounds that they formed with to create the plant. They are meant to work together and work better when they are. The interaction with cannabinoids is why many believe whole plant therapy to be the most effective and efficient of all.
The chemovar – or chemical variety – of each strain of cannabis plant is different and this is down to the particular blend of cannabinoids and terpenes present. The relationship between the two is so strong that changing one element of either compound just a little and the effect ripples through the plant allowing for all the varieties as we have today. If you want strong effects of THC, myrcene, found at high levels in mangoes, can elevate the amount passing the blood-brain barrier. For a less intense THC effect Caryophyllene, also found in black pepper is known to reduce the transmission.
Studies into the entourage effect and the ability to manipulate it present a new and exciting frontier for our pharmacological future where the properties can be tailored to, and increased, to make more potent and effective medicine.