What are Terpenes?
Terpenes (TUR-peen) are a large class of organic hydrocarbons produced by a wide variety of plants, and are referred to as terpenoids when denatured by oxidation (drying and curing the flowers). They are the main building block of any plant resin or “essential oils” and contribute to the scent, flavor, and colors. Some are even known to have medicinal value.
Terpenes are the main class of aromatic compounds found in cannabis and have even been proven to interact synergistically with cannabinoids to provide for a range of different effects. While many people believe that it is the sticky glands of THC (delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol) that provide cannabis with its peculiar aroma, it is in fact the more unstable monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes that are responsible. In fact, it is the smell of the specific sesquiterpene, Caryophyllene oxide that drug dogs are able to detect when probing for cannabis.
Terpenes have been found to be essential building blocks of complex plant hormones and molecules, pigments, sterols and even cannabinoids in cannabis. Terpenes also play an incredibly important role by providing the plant with natural protection from bacteria and fungus, insects, and other environmental stresses.
More noticeably, terpenes are responsible for the pleasant, or not so pleasant, aromas and flavors of cannabis. Although, over 200 terpenes have been reported in the plant, only a small minority has actually been studied for their pharmacological effects.
A study conducted in 1997 by the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agroecology and Agriculture entitled “Essential oil of Cannabis sativa L. strains” characterized 16 terpenoid compounds in the essential oil of different cannabis strains. The most abundant of which was myrcene. Other terpenes that were present in higher concentrations included alpha-pinene, limonene, trans-Caryophyllene and caryophyllene oxide.
Understanding the importance of terpenes allows for a true “cannasseur” to broaden their approach to searching for new strains based on smells and tastes, rather than purely effects.
Smells and Theraputic Effects
Here you will find some of the more common scents manifested in the cannabis plant, along with their notable theraputic effects.
α-PINENE – (Pine Needles) – Anti-bacterial, Anti-fungal, Anti-inflammatory, Bronchodilator
β-CARYOPHYLLENE – (Black Pepper, Cloves) – Anti-bacterial, Anti-cancer, Anti-fungal, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-septic
BORNEOL – (Camphor) – Analgesic, Anti-insomnia, Anti-septic, Bronchodilator
CARYOPHYLLENE OXIDE – (Eucalyptus) – Anti-fungal, Anti-ischemic
CINEOL – (Tea Tree) – Anti-bacterial, Anti-depressant, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-ischemic, Bronchodilator
CITRONELLOL – (Roses) – Anti-cancer, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-insomnia, Anti-spasmodic
HUMULENE – (Hops) – Anorectic, Anti-cancer, Anti-bacterial, Anti-inflammatory
LIMONENE – (Citrus) – Anti-anxiety, Anti-bacterial, Anti-cancer, Anti-depressant, Anti-fungal, Bronchodilator
LINALOOL – (Lavender) – Anti-anxiety, Anti-bacterial, Anti-convulsive, Anti-depressant, Anti-insomnia
MYRCENE – (Lemongrass, Mango) – Analgesic, Anti-cancer, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-insomnia, Anti-spasmodic
NEROLIDOL – (Wood, Citrus Rind) – Anti-fungal, Anti-insomnia
PHYTOL – (Green Tea) – Anti-insomnia
TERPINOLENE – (Lilac, Apples) – Anti-bacterial, Anti-fungal, Anti-insomnia, Anti-septic
Terpenes Work Synergistically With Cannabis
A 1974 study entitled, “Effects of marihuana in laboratory animals and in man” suggested that there may be potentiation of the effects of Delta(9)-THC by other substances present in marijuana. The double-blind study found that marijuana with equal or higher levels of CBD and CBN than THC, induced effects two to four times greater than expected from their THC content. The effects of smoking twice as much of a THC-only strain were no different than that of the placebo.
This suggestion was reinforced by a study done in 2003 by J Pharm Pharmacol called “Medicinal cannabis: is delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol necessary for all its effects?” The scientists compared the effects of a standardized cannabis extract with that of a pure THC (with matched concentrations of THC) and a THC-free extract. They tested the three extracts on a mouse with multiple sclerosis (MS), and a rat brain with epilepsy.
Scientists found that the standardized extract inhibited spasticity in the mouse and caused more of a rapid onset of full muscle relaxation compared to THC alone. The THC-free extract caused no inhibition of spasticity in the mouse, although it did exhibit anticonvulsant activity in the rat brain. However, the standardized extract outperformed the pure THC in all circumstances. Therefore, the effects of THC were modified by the presence of other components, and thus, THC is not necessary for all the possible medicinal effects of cannabis.
Ethan B. Russo further supported this theory with scientific evidence in his 2011 study, “Taming THC”, in which he proved that non-cannabinoid plant components such as terpenoids serve as inhibitors to THC’s intoxicating effects, thereby increasing THC’s therapeutic index. This “phytocannabinoid-terpenoid synergy,” as Russo calls it, increases the potential of cannabis-based medicinal extracts to treat pain, inflammation, fungal and bacterial infections, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy and even cancer.