With so much focus on the amounts of CBD and THC in products, you may not be aware that they contain many other active components. Terpenes are a subset of these compounds that are gaining more recognition for the influence they have on cannabis products, which this article looks at in more detail.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are a group of chemical compounds that have the same ratio of carbon and hydrogen atoms (C5H8)n. They can be found in many plant types, as well as some species of animal. Many produce or contribute to distinct odors, tastes, and aromas, such as the smell of pine trees or its derivatives like turpentine.
There are more than 30,000 naturally occurring terpenes, and cannabis contains well over 400 of these. They are found in structures called trichomes alongside cannabinoids and are thought to help the plant by making it taste and smell unappealing to discourage attacking organisms.
What are they currently being explored for?
Terpenes are being studied for a wide range of different factors, as there is increasing evidence that they may have significant advantages when consumed in a cannabis product. This includes mental benefits with a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as physiological advantages such as pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties.
Some studies have also indicated the potential use of terpenes for some existing diseases such as epilepsy and schizophrenia, where it has been associated with better symptom management. Cancer patients may also benefit from a reduction in treatment side effects such as nausea, and some evidence suggests certain terpenes may help to prevent certain types of cancer.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one “magic” terpene that has all of these effects—a combination of them has been associated with these outcomes. The data about specific terpenes can be confusing to interpret, but there’s no need to worry. We’ve broken it down for you below.
How do terpenes affect the body?
The sheer range of compounds makes it near impossible to give a general description of their effect on the body, as different terpenes interact with a wide variety of the body’s cells and tissues. Research on the effects of terpenes is also very limited, leaving a lot of gaps in our knowledge. However, some of the most abundant cannabis terpenes have partially understood interactions, which we’ll dive a little deeper into below.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a cell-signaling network of the body that is activated by self-made compounds (endocannabinoids) as well as exocannabinoids, including those found in cannabis. This system is partly responsible for several important functions, such as mood, appetite, motor control, sleep, and memory.
Although most of the research into the ECS focuses on how cannabis compounds like THC and CBD interact with this system, there is some evidence to suggest that some terpenes, including caryophyllene and limonene, can affect the ECS. The system has many receptors throughout the body, categorized as CB1 receptors (found primarily in the brain) as well as CB2 receptors (found primarily on immune system cells and body tissues). As a result, it can be theorized that terpenes that interact with the ECS may engage with some high-level body processes, although a lot more research would be required to outline the exact effects.
Caryophyllene is found in many cannabis strains, as well as rosemary and cloves. It has two variants (alpha and beta), with beta being more common. In plants, it has been observed to have strong antibacterial and antifungal properties, which act as a defense for the species that use it. Additionally, caryophyllene has been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory properties, which has been confirmed in mice. Other evidence has suggested it could be useful in treating cancer, as it kills rogue cells in certain cancer types.
Pinene, as suggested by the name, contributes to the distinctive aroma of pine trees. It is also found in cannabis, where the beta form is more abundant. Some studies have found evidence for anti-microbial actions in plants, which are being explored for humans. Like caryophyllene, it’s been demonstrated to have anti-inflammatory properties, and the alpha form has been suggested to have benefits for anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
This terpene gives lemongrass its characteristic scent and acts as the base for many essential oils. Promising research has highlighted that citral could be beneficial for its anti-fungal, antibiotic, and pain reductive effects, which are being explored on an ongoing basis.
Limonene is one of the most commonly found terpenes in nature, produced in many citrus fruits as well as cannabis. It has recently been investigated for use in cancer treatments, as evidence suggests it is associated with a slow-down in leukemia cell growth. Limonene has also been indicated to have anti-inflammatory properties, particularly in the digestive system.
This is frequently associated with lavender, where it contributes to its pleasant scent, but is also found in mint, cinnamon, and many other spices. It is notable for its frequent use in aromatherapy, which led to an investigation for potential anti-anxiety effects. This has been shown to be effective for mice, but is yet to be confirmed in humans.
Myrcene is commonly found alongside beta-pinene in plants, with a suggested theory that these compounds may work together to enhance their anti-microbial effects. It has also been investigated as a natural sedative and anticonvulsant for sufferers of epilepsy.
Both of these compounds are found in plants used for herbal medicine, including lavender, eucalyptus, and citrus species. They have primarily been explored for their pain-reducing effects, but have also been implicated in decreased inflammation and antidiarrheal actions in humans.
What is the Entourage Effect?
As hinted above, terpenes don’t act by themselves in the body. Just about every chemical we consume interacts with other compounds, sometimes elevating or canceling out different effects when they connect with the body’s systems. For cannabis-derived compounds, this is specifically referred to as the entourage effect.
Essentially, this theory suggests that when cannabis compounds are consumed together, their effects combine to produce a more intense experience. This has been supported by some research, which indicates that the combination of CBD, terpenes, and flavonoids can produce better pain reduction and anti-inflammatory effects than any of them individually.
What product types can they be found in?
Cannabis products containing terpenes can now be found in just about any form, from vaping and dabbing all the way to edibles and oils. Many are known to be heat sensitive, so don’t heat the product before you’re ready to consume it if you want to enjoy the more delicate aromas and flavors.
There’s very little science-based information about what the best way to consume them is, but methods that quickly access the bloodstream (e.g., vapes and tinctures) are more likely to allow more of the terpenes to be available for the body. Therefore, if you already have a preference for a particular way of consuming your cannabis, sticking to that should be fine.
As well as the way they are consumed, cannabis products can be categorized based on the combinations of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other cannabis compounds found in them.
Full-spectrum products incorporate all of the naturally occurring active components of cannabis, including several terpenes. If you’re not after a specific terpene effect or are more interested in the CBD/THC content, full-spectrum products might be the way to go.
Broad-spectrum products have a wide range of active compounds, but they specifically exclude THC. Some of these products may even have specific selections of terpenes to create a particular effect. When you’re beginning to look into different terpene effects, broad-spectrum products might be a good place to start exploring.
Isolate products contain only one cannabinoid, typically CBD or THC. These products will not contain any terpenes, so they cannot take advantage of the entourage effect or any other terpene-specific actions.
The bottom line
Although they are commonly found in nature, the effects of cannabis-derived terpenes are much less understood than other cannabis compounds like CBD and THC.
Terpenes may have a number of advantages for humans, ranging from reductions in pain, nausea, and inflammation to easing the symptoms of depression and anxiety. If you’re looking for cannabis products that may help with these factors, or are interested in more complex flavor and taste profiles, terpenes in your product could take your experience to the next level.
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