Terpenes are a hot topic within the world of cannabis today. They’re used to describe flavorful strains, added to trendy vape pens, and renowned for their sometimes-unique aromas. And despite their use throughout history is as old and established as virtually anything else in medicine, terpenes continue to be poorly understood.
Let’s start with a simple definition, before venturing into what it means for medical marijuana users:
Terpene: [broadly]: any of numerous hydrocarbons found especially in essential oils, resins, and balsams.
While terpenes are found throughout much of the natural world, they’re especially prominent in the cannabis plant. In fact, marijuana is unique — it contains many terpenes that are normally only found in one or two other plant species (we’ll get to specific examples of that soon). Most of these compounds are produced alongside cannabinoids in the flowering tops, or buds, of mature cannabis. For conceptual purposes, you can think of terpenes as being very similar to essential oils.
While there are at least 150 terpenes that can be found in any given phenotype, some of these terpenes are more common than others. Of course, terpene profiles vary from strain to strain; that’s part of what gives certain marijuana cultivars their trademark scents and flavors. The most common terpenes include:
This terpene can be found in mangos, hops, and basil. According to a 2010 metabolic analysis of 11 popular strains, it’s also the most prevalent terpene in cannabis. Many users find that myrcene reduces pain and promotes deep relaxation. Studies show that the terpene is able to relax motor neurons and lengthen sleeping times.
One of the most noticeable terpenes in marijuana, limonene endows the strains it’s found in with a delicious citrus flavor. It stimulates and vitalizes the mind, and may have a wide spectrum of health benefits.
Limonene reduces anxiety and stress and seems to biochemically address problems like inflammation, chronic pain, and even cancer. It’s also highly bioavailable.
Found in fragrant plants like nutmeg, apples, and lilacs, terpinolene gives marijuana strains like Jack Herer some of their trademark piney flavors. Like myrcene, terpinolene is highly sedating and seems to promote good sleep. Terpinolene also shows medical potential as a powerful anti-proliferant that slows the growth of cancer cells.
This terpene activates the endocannabinoid system so strongly that some researchers feel it should be reclassified as a cannabinoid. Indeed, a 2011 study by Dr. Ethan Russo called β-caryophyllene “the first proven phytocannabinoid beyond the cannabis genus”. In other words, β-caryophyllene and the human body go hand in hand.
Commonly found in black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves, this compound provides cannabis a spicy, herbal flavor. β-caryophyllene is highly anti-inflammatory, and also has antibacterial properties that may make especially good for intestinal health.
Linalool is a deliciously-scented terpene found in many flowering plants, notably lavender. Cherished since ancient times for its sheer pleasantness, linalool seems to be most common in purple-hued medical marijuana strains.
Extremely calming, linalool is able to relax the central nervous system itself en route to promoting good health. It may also reduce pain and neurodegenerative problems, and seems to potentiate the effects of cannabinoids like CBD.
As you might expect, alpha-pinene is found in pine trees. But it’s also found in rosemary, basil, and many varieties of cannabis. Pinene boosts concentration and memory and is responsible for many of the benefits of forest bathing. When smoked or vaporized, the terpene acts as a bronchodilator, yet it might also be calming for people with cancer or anxiety.
Ocimene is found throughout the herbal world, mostly in mint, parsley, and basil. It has an aroma that’s both sweet and earthy; you might detect hints of Ocimen in iconic strains like OG Kush. The compound is anti-viral, antifungal, and pretty much anti-anything bad.
Another earthy, woody terpene, nerolidol has some promising medical qualities. It’s currently being researched for its ability to increase transdermal absorption of other drugs, and has already proven to be an antiparasitic agent. This could mean good things for sufferers of anything from Lyme disease to staph infections.
Phytol is derived from chlorophyll, so it’s not surprising that this terpene would be most commonly found in green tea — and marijuana — as well as every other green plant. Phytol may promote relaxation by interacting with the GABAA receptor, a neurotransmitter receptor that prevents hyperactivity in the brain. Interestingly enough, phytol also seems to protect against potential vitamin toxicity.
Terpenes: Better Together
While the benefits we’ve covered so far are impressive enough, they pale in comparison to what happens when terpenes are taken together. Also keep in mind that the cannabis plant contains cannabinoids, flavonoids, and chalcones in addition to its terpene content. This results in a special type of plant synergy scientists call the entourage effect.
So, how exactly do terpenes participate in the entourage effect? For one, they ‘hit’ different receptor sites than cannabinoids do. The lavender terpene linalool, for example, has been shown to activate TRPA1 receptors that help the body sense chemical and/or oxidative damage, while CBD has been shown to activate TRPV1 receptors that help sense heat and regulate pain perception.
As it turns out, the endocannabinoid system and other signaling pathways are subtly linked; there’s “cross-talk” between them, as researchers say. What benefits and improves signaling in one system will likely carry over to another. This implies that terpenes are able to deepen and broaden the impacts of cannabis as a whole. Terpenes may also either counteract or enhance the plant’s psychotropic effects.
In general, terpenes seem to make cannabinoids stronger. This may be caused by conformational changes that occur in endocannabinoid receptors when terpenes are present. Another thing to note is that terpenes are much smaller molecules than cannabinoids are, so taking the two together may boost everything from transdermal to oral absorption. This same physical quality means that terpenes can also easily pass through the blood-brain barrier, in the process helping cannabinoids do the same.
Terpenes as Medicine
Though there’s still much to learn about terpenes, cannabinoids, and their combined synergy, it’s clear from the findings thus far that terpenes hold amazing medical potential. Look for them to play a treatment role for any or all of the following diseases in the future:
- Bacterial infections
- Chronic pain
- IBS / GI Issues
And it’s likely this list is just scratching the surface. Once again, many studies have uncovered the health benefits of one or two terpenes in isolation, but who’s to say what we would observe from more extensive combinations?
Until terpene-terpene interactions are more fully understood, our best option is to ingest terpenes through one of the most time-tested delivery methods out there: cannabis. It’s likely that nature knows best — and that her blend of terpenes, cannabinoids, and other compounds works best — when it comes to optimizing human health.