Terpenes: Unsung Heroes of Cannabis and Beyond

This post is contributed by Steep Hill Maryland.

What are Terpenes?

Imagine inhaling the fragrance of a patch of pine trees. Think of the smell that quickly hits your nose after you’ve sliced a lemon in half. Picture lifting a bunch of lavender to your nose before adding it to a flower arrangement. Almost everyone can immediately identify with the wonderful smells in these experiences, however many people don’t realize that what creates these experiences are substances called terpenes.

Terpenes exist throughout nature, as well as in cannabis, and they are what you smell when you smell cannabis. They are found in a plant’s resin gland, or trichomes, and are the compounds responsible for a plant’s fragrance. Terpenes have many functions in plants. Certain fragrant terpenes, for example, attract bees and other animals that carry the plant’s pollen to other plants, although this is not the case for cannabis, since the cannabis plant depends on the wind, not other carriers, for pollination. In many plants, terpenes are used as a biological defense mechanism, either as a deterrent to drive away herbivores that would otherwise eat the plant, or to attract predators of the herbivore to deter the plant’s consumption.

At present, there are over 50,000 unique terpenes that have been discovered in plants globally, with over 250 non-cannabinoid terpenes and 145 to 150 cannabinoid terpenes naturally occurring in cannabis. The most common terpenes occurring in cannabis include:

  • Pinene
  • Limonene
  • Myrcene
  • Ocimene
  • Terpinolene
  • Linalool
  • Beta-caryophyllene

The smoke or vapor of heated cannabis contains up to 50% terpenes, with cannabinoids normally accounting for 10 to 20%, and the other less potent terpenes accounting for another 10 to 30%. Outside of their unique relationship to cannabis, we enjoy the characteristic aromas and flavors of products containing terpenes daily in beer, candy, perfumes, fruits, incense, and more.

In addition to the smells and tastes of terpenes, we have also continuously benefited from the diversity of medicinal and nutritional aspects of terpenes. Globally speaking, terpenes likely comprise the single largest family of chemical compounds available for use in compounding remedies and medicine, though for many years these benefits have had limited use outside of traditional herbalism, ethnobotany, and pharmacognosy.

Documented Therapeutic Properties of Terpenes

Terpenes possess a wide array of medicinal properties. In a paper published in 2011, it was observed that “[terpenes] are quite potent and affect animal and even human behavior when inhaled from ambient air at serum levels in the single digits ng·mL−1. They display unique therapeutic effects that may contribute meaningfully to the entourage effects of cannabis-based medicinal extracts.1”  (The phrase entourage effect was introduced by S. Ben-Shabat and by Raphael Mechoulam to indicate the role that terpenes and other non-psychoactive compounds in cannabis can play to modify the psychoactive experience in combination with THC.2 )  In other words, terpenes are believed to have a synergistic effect with THC in creating the different elevating and medicating effects among various strains of cannabis flower and combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes in processed products.

ß-myrcene is the most commonly found terpene in cannabis, often in high concentrations.

Its medicinal properties are well-known, most significantly for use in treating pain and inflammation. Because of its calming effect both mentally and physically, ß-myrcene is also used to treat psychosis and muscle spasms. Its properties are used synergistically with other terpenes and cannabinoids:

  • THC for pain
  • THC-a for inflammation
  • CBD and linalool as an antipsychotic
  • THC, THC-a and CBD in the treatment of muscle spasms

The limonene family of terpenes are also abundant in cannabis, second only to myrcene. Limonenes have antidepressant, anxiety-relief, immuno-stimulant (like garlic), anti-tumor, and anti-fungal/bacterial properties. They also aid in treatment of gastric reflux, including esophageal ulcers. Limonenes can also be used topically as an antiseptic agent, and limonenes, much like ß-myrcene, have synergies with THC-a, CBD-a, CBC-a, CBC, CBG, caryophyllene oxide, and linalool.

There are many more synergistic effects of combinations of terpenes, either alone or with cannabinoids that are being discovered daily. The next time you’re seeking a medicated experience, make sure to look well beyond the cannabinoid profile to see how the terpenes can enhance your experience.

References:

  1. Russo E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British Journal of Pharmacology, 163(7), 1344-64.2.
  2. Ben-Shabat, S., Fride, E., Sheskin, T., Tamiri, T., Rhee, M. H., Vogel, Z., Bisgno T., De Petrocellis L., Di Marzo V., Mechoulam, R. (1998, July 17). An entourage effect: inactive endogenous fatty acid glycerol esters enhance 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol cannabinoid activity. European Journal of Pharmacology, 353(1), 23-31.