What are terpenes and why should you care?

Terpenes are finally getting their due in cannabis tech. Most commonly recognized as flavor and smell components, they form the largest group of plant chemicals, with almost 20,000 distinct molecules identified. 200 of these are present in cannabis. Their names might sound familiar—they are common ingredients in cosmetic formulations—and sometimes reflect the scent they convey (you might be familiar with the smell of limonene, pinene, and geraniol, for example). But these little compounds do so much more than provide a beautiful bouquet.

 

The Entourage Effect

In a groundbreaking 2011 paper, Dr. Ethan Russo presented evidence for the long-suspected therapeutic synergy of terpenoids and cannabinoids with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections. This synergy is called the “Entourage Effect.” It’s a way of saying that, when it comes to cannabis, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Terpenes play an enormous role in the infinitesimally complex interaction of cannabinoids with the human body. 

 

Scientific Roots in Aromatherapy

However, with federal funding for cannabis research hobbled, much of what we know about the importance of terpenes comes from aromatherapy research. Contrary to its popular image as a fringe practice, aromatherapy is actually grounded in serious science. Among other things it has been shown to improve cognitive function in patients with dementia, reduce pain in patients with kidney stones and osteoarthritis, and improve transdermal absorption of lipophilic compounds. Cannabis is, of course, notoriously lipophilic.

The effects of particular smells on mood are also well established—many people successfully use lavender oil to help them relax, or lemon oil for energy. Smells influence our mood because terpenes interact with the mood-regulation systems in our brains. The Endocannabinoid System (ECS), the network of neurotransmitters and receptors that is the reason we experience effects from cannabis, is heavily involved in mood regulation, and essential oils such as lemon or lavender often have a primary terpene (limonene and linalool, respectively) which is also heavily present in cannabis. It’s not hard to connect the dots to see why these compounds influence the character of cannabinoids’ effects. Indeed, there is even a terpene (beta caryophyllene) that can directly interact with the CB2 receptor, one of two receptor types in the ECS, to create effects similar to CBD. 

 

Antioxidants & Beyond

In the cannabis plant, terpenes play an antioxidant role, protecting it from sun damage. Some experts believe that this antioxidant effect is sustained when humans consume these terpenes. While we do not yet have the research to confirm that, we do know that terpenes have a variety of direct medicinal effects. For example, myrcene, the most common terpene in cannabis, is a muscle relaxant, a sedative, an analgesic, and is toxic to cancer cells. And pinene is a bronchodilator, an anti-inflammatory, and a memory aid. In fact, terpenes’ effects seem to offset many of the alleged downsides of cannabis. Long term studies showing no increase in lung cancer for long-term cannabis smokers, or a neuroprotective effect on Alzheimer’s patients, are suggestive of terpenes’ role in the complicated balancing act that is the Entourage Effect.  

 

Powerful in Small Doses

Perhaps the most amazing thing about terpenes is the very low levels at which they are effective. Concentrations as low as .01% can influence mood and efficacy of cannabinoids. A little goes a long way! And while there is still much we don’t know about the inner workings of terpene-cannabinoid synergy, there is enough out there to strongly recommend including a terpene profile in cannabis formulations.  

 

Common Terpenes

MYRCENE

Myrcene is the most abundant terpene in cannabis, and also a precursor to other terpenes. With a musky, earthy scent you may recognize from hops, mangoes, and thyme, it is most well known for its sedative qualities–it is believed that myrcene contributes heavily to the “couch-lock” effect common in cannabis. It is also a pain-killer and muscle relaxant, and like most cannabinoids, anti-inflammatory. But myrcene’s most powerful synergy with cannabis is in its ability to increase the permeability of cell membranes, allowing a larger uptake of cannabinoids and stronger effects. If you want to increase the strength of your formulations, increase the myrcene!

 

PINENE

Ever wonder why you feel more alert and breathe more easily when you go hiking? Pinene is part of the reason. As its name suggests, pinene’s scent is redolent of pine and mountain air. It is an excellent bronchodilator, improving airflow to the lungs, and can markedly improve memory retention. Even a small whiff of pinene gives a boost of energy and improved focus. The inclusion of pinene in terpene profiles will lend a clear-headed, energetic effect–without the anxious edge of caffeine. 

 

CARYOPHYLLENE

This terpene is truly special: it is the only one capable of interacting directly with the Endocannabinoid System, the network of neurotransmitters that is responsible for cannabinoids’ singular effects on our bodies. Caryophyllene is best known for its relaxing, anti-anxiety properties. You will recognize its spicy scent as the dominant note from black pepper. In fact, inhaling freshly cracked black pepper can help modulate the discomfort of ingesting too much THC. Topically, caryophyllene is a potent anti-inflammatory and has been used to treat contact dermatitis without causing a reaction in sensitive skin. Choose caryophyllene to give your formulations a calming bend. 

Chelsea Cebara

Chelsea Cebara

Chelsea Cebara is a Product Developer and Brand Manager for the cannabis-infused sexual lubricant, Velvet Swing. She teaches Sex & Cannabis workshops and is constantly on a quest to put out information about the confluence of sexuality and cannabis.
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