Much of the focus towards medical cannabis is either on the content of THC or CBD, but more studies are showing that terpenes may also provide therapeutic benefits, in conjunction with other cannabinoids, and by themselves.
If you have ever been to a dispensary, you have probably seen people sticking their nose in the jars of cannabis and inhaling, before making their final selections. Terpenes are a group of fragrant essential oils found naturally in plants, and contribute greatly to the individual aromas of cannabis strains. Some strains smell like citrus or cheese, while others may smell like pine or roses. Terpenes are important “building blocks” of plant molecules, and when found in cannabis, they interact synergistically with cannabinoids for a variety of different aromas and physical effects. In nature, some terpenes protect the plant by repelling insects; some prevent fungus. When ingested or inhaled by humans, terpenes may provide many therapeutic benefits. 10-29% of cannabis smoke is composed of terpenoids (terpenes that have been chemically modified, by heat or oxidation). Out of over 200 terpenes found naturally in plants and cannabis, there are some terpenes that occur commonly, in higher concentrations.
Myrcene is the most common terpene produced in cannabis. It is highly fragrant, often described as having a musky, earthy, or slightly citrus aroma. It has a pleasant odor on its own, making it a popular choice for the perfume industry. In addition to cannabis, myrcene is naturally found in hops, bay leaves, thyme, lemongrass, basil, and in citrus fruits such as mangoes. Some have suggested that ingesting ripe mangoes, before ingesting cannabis, can lengthen the effects of THC. This is possibly because myrcene lowers the resistance across the blood to brain barrier and chemicals like THC can take effect more quickly. Myrcene increases the saturation level of the CB1 receptor, allowing for a greater psychoactive effect. This may contribute to the “couch-lock” sensation caused by certain cannabis strains, since the effects of THC may be heightened. Myrcene’s natural effects are calming and sedating, making it a useful sleep aid. It may also help with muscle tension, pain, and inflammation.
Pinene (Alpha-Pinene and Beta-Pinene)
Pinene is a terpene that is widely found in nature. Like the name suggests, this terpene has distinct aromas of pine and fir. Pinene is found in many coniferous and non-coniferous plants. It is mostly found in balsamic resin, pine, and some citrus fruits, as well as cannabis. Rosemary and sage have been considered “memory plants” for centuries; this is due to the concentration of pinene. When ingested or inhaled, pinene can increase mental focus and energy. Pinene reacts easily with other chemicals, forming many other terpenes and compounds. Alpha-Pinene has shown evidence of having anti-cancer benefits, and has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for many years. When found in cannabis, pinene may help counteract the unwanted effects of THC, like short-term memory loss. Cannabis strains high in this terpene also seem to act as a natural expectorant and bronchodilator.
In nature, linalool acts as an effective natural insecticide. The Environmental Protection Agency has even approved its use as a safe pesticide. It is found naturally in a wide variety of herbs and mints. Linalool is described as having a floral, lavender, or light citrus scent. Cannabis strains with a higher concentration of ths terpene may posses anti-anxiety or sedative properties. Linalool has been used as a sleep aid for centuries. It may balance out any anxiety caused by high THC concentrations, and has shown promise in the treatment of psychosis. New research is suggesting that linaool can even restore cognitive and emotional function , and may also be an immune booster.
Caryophyllene is found in many edible plants, and has a spicy, peppery aroma. It is found in cannabis, as well as in spices like black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. It is also found in oregano, basil, hops, and rosemary. Caryophyllene is often used in topical rubs and salves, because of its strong anti-inflammatory properties. While there are not any detectable physical effects caused by this terpene, it is the only known terpene to interact directly with the CB2 receptor. Recent studies suggest that this terpene may assist greatly with the treatment of chronic pain, especially when working in conjunction with cannabidiol (CBD).
As the name suggests, this terpene gives off a very strong citrus aroma. Limonene is found in many fruit rinds, as well as rosemary, juniper, and peppermint. Limonene is a strong natural insecticide. Cannabis strains high in limonene may promote an uplifting and energizing mood. Limonene is quickly absorbed by the bloodstream, and assists in the absorption of other terpenes. It is a strong anti-fungal, relieves symptoms from gastric reflux, and may be beneficial in protecting against some cancers. Limonene has been used in food and perfumes, and is a well-known ingredient in many household cleaners. Adverse effects are rarely associated with this terpene.
Humulene is a woody, earthy smelling terpene that is found in hops, coriander, clove, and cannabis sativa strains. Although some strains of cannabis may stimulate appetite, humulene is an appetite suppressant. This terpene has anti-tumor, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Phellandrene is one of the easiest terpenes to identify in the lab, and was originally discovered in eucalyptus oil. It has also been found in cannabis, as well as cinnamon, garlic, dill, ginger, and parsley. It is described as having an aroma of peppermint, with a hint of citrus. It is one of the main compounds in turmeric leaf oil, and is a strong anti-fungal. It is easily absorbed by the skin, making it suitable for use in lotions and topical rubs.
In addition to the diverse array of flavors and aromas terpenes produce, they can interact with cannabinoids and other compounds found in the cannabis plant. Different terpenes create different effects. Knowing what some of the individual terpenes are, and what they can do, can aid the medical cannabis patient in finding their most therapeutic cannabis products. THC can bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body that produce psychoactive results. Some terpenes also bind to these receptors and can affect their chemical output, or modify how much THC gets through the blood-brain barrier. Terpenes can even affect certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin. Terpenes may add additional medical value, as they may help regulate the body’s interaction with other cannabinoids, like THC and CBD.
Let Your Nose do the Picking
As more research suggests the benefits of terpenes, more labs are testing for their content in individual cannabis strains. Until it is a mainstream practice, your nose is the best guide to what terpenes are present in your cannabis. Next time you use cannabis, smell the aromas of the bud prior to consumption. Break up the bud (this releases terpenes) and inhale the aroma deeply. If you let it sit approximately for five minutes, you will maximize the therapeutic benefits from your cannabis. Since a variety of factors (heat, light, humidity, etc.) can affect the terpenoid profile from plant to plant, let your nose do the picking; choose what smells good to you!