To the naked eye, cannabis is a simple and easy to understand entity. Extracted from plants and thought to include high levels of the psychoactive agent THC, it’s a largely illegal substance that has been known to get people high through the ages.
This basic description does an injustice to cannabis and the plant from which it’s extracted. The cannabis plant, in particular, is home to a diverse range of organic chemicals and compounds, each of which has its own unique purpose and array of attributes.
Take terpenes, for example, which play an integral role in protecting the plant from bacteria and various environmental stresses and also be extracted for a number of different purposes. We’ll explore these in the post below while appraising the full range of applications associated with terpenes.
What are Terpenes?
In simple terms, terpenes are best described as organic, aromatic hydrocarbons, with around 140 different examples located in the cannabis plant.
Often, terpenes may also be described as terpenoids, but while these words can be used interchangeably they do have different meanings.
While terpenes are hydrocarbons that only feature hydrogen and carbon as core elements, while terpenoids have typically been denatured by oxidation or chemically modified in some instances.
This is an important distinction, as terpenes are entirely organic and synthesised through secretory cells.
These exist inside glandular trichomes, and their rate of production tends to be increased when exposed to natural light.
Different compounds will be found in various parts of cannabis and hemp plants, with examples such as CBD located in stems. Conversely, terpenes tend to be extracted in high volumes from unfertilised, female cannabis flowers, before they’ve begun to deteriorate as part of the ageing process.
As an interesting aside, terpenes are believed to vapourise at 157 degrees Celsius, which is around the same level as THC.
However, some terpenes are more durable than others, which just goes to show the diversity that exists among this large group of associated compounds.
What do Terpenes do?
When describing precisely what terpenes do, it’s important to note that the compound serves various purposes at different stages of its life-cycle.
When inside the cannabis plant, terpenes play the incredibly important role of providing natural protection from bacteria and fungus.
Similarly, it safeguards the plants against insect attacks and a host of environmental stresses, making an integral component and one that underpins natural growth.
Once extracted from female cannabis flowers terpenes can be utilised in an entirely different way. Most commonly, terpenes exist as common components of natural food flavourings and fragrances, as most have an aromatic and colourful profile that lends itself to these diverse applications.
The use of terpenes is tried and tested in this respect, with the FDA (in the States) and a number of other authorities having officially recognised these compounds as being “safe”.
It’s also worth noting that terpenes are responsible for the unmistakable aroma of cannabis. So, whether you love this fragrance or dislike it intensely (and you’re bound to fall in one of these camps), terpenes is the compound behind it.
Like the CBD compound, there are other potential terpene functions that have yet to be fully explored or substantiated by studies.
Like cannabidiol, terpenes are believed to interact with the CB1 and CB2 receptors that exist within the human body, making them capable of impacting positively on numerous natural functions and immune responses.
In terms of the CB1 receptors located in the brain, terpenes are thought to enhance norepinephrine activity and can subsequently help to counteract symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Norepinephrine is an organic chemical that functions primarily as a hormone and neurotransmitter, and one which has a significant impact on our mood over a sustained period of time.
Similarly, some studies have hinted that they also act as serotonin uptake inhibitors, and in this respect, they naturally replicate the functionality of popular antidepressants.
More research is required to determine the full impact of terpenes within the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), of course, and it may be that we have yet to realise the full potential of this incredible compound.
Will Terpenes Get you High?
Now we get to the question that is on everybody’s lips; do terpenes get you high? The short answer is no, as terpenes contain minimal traces of the psychoactive agent THC, and therefore operates in a similar way to CBD.
This assertion has been supported and expanded further through scientific research conducted by Dr, Ethan Russo, who has demonstrated that terpenes will actively restrict the impact of THC intoxicating effects.
Not only does this confirm that the fact that terpenes should not be considered as a psychoactive agent, but it also suggests that they the potential to improve the application of cannabis-based medicine when treating a variety of physical and mental ailments.
Although further investigation is required to explore this further, it’s undoubtedly an interesting space to watch in the future.
What are Flavonoids?
Flavonoids are among the largest nutrient family known to scientists, with around 6,000 members having already been identified. An estimated 20 of these organic compounds have been located within the cannabis plant, including common examples such as apigenin, vitexin and luteolin.
While flavonoids should be considered as a fascinating and independent entity, they also share numerous similarities with terpenes.
They’re commonly used to add flavour and colour to food, with studies having shown that they’re largely responsible for the rich and vibrant shades associated with fruits such as blueberries or raspberries.
Additionally, flavonoids also boast proven antioxidant benefits, while there is ongoing research into whether this compound can help to reduce the inflammation that often occurs in the human body.
Interestingly, flavonoids share another similarity with terpenes in that they influence how cannabis impacts on our senses.
While there is much more to be done to determine precisely how flavonoids interact with naturally occurring cannabinoids within the ECS, it’s believed that these compounds counteract the psychoactive elements of THC and work in a similar way to terpenes and CBD.
The Terpene Wheel Explored
We’ve already touched on the fact that terpenes are responsible for the aroma associated with cannabis, but recent studies have revealed that there is far more to this than initially meets the eye.
In fact, it has been determined that different terpenes and associated medical marijuana treatments boast distinct aromas, which enable individuals to identify alternative strains and their effects.
Image credit: Leafly
This is particularly true in the case of treatments with a relatively high concentration of specific terpenes, as these are usually easier to identify by their smell alone than other strains.
This has encouraged both public and private sector entities to classify each available strain and the terpenes that underpin them, with this data presented in the form of a so-called “flavour wheel”.
This associated a specific strain with an effect, with those that smell of musk or clove believed to deliver sedative or relaxing effects on the body.
Conversely, an aroma of pine underpins strains that optimise mental alertness and memory retention, while those that smell of lemon are flavoured to improve mood and create a more positive mental attitude.
So, medical marijuana patients can review this data before identifying the strain that best suits their needs, as they seek a specific effect that treats their ailments.
The terpene wheel has also become an invaluable tool for caregivers, who can offer actionable advice that is based on knowledge and research.
Terpenes in Cannabis – Appraising the Main Compounds and their Aroma
With these points in mind, the only thing that remains is to address the most common terpenes and their unique characteristics. We’ve summarised these below, using data from the terpene wheel and the broad categorisation of strains.
We start with myrcene, which is the most common terpene produced by cannabis and one that can contain up to 60% of the essential oil. It’s also an example of an earthy and decidedly musky terpene and one that may work as an effective sedative or muscle relaxant (or even as an antidote for insomnia).
It has a host of other medicinal benefits too, including lowering the resistance across the blood to brain barrier. This is important when looking to deliver rapid pain relief and achieved the desired effect quickly.
This terpene also boasts anti-inflammatory qualities, meaning that it interacts with CB2 receptors to optimise the body’s immune response when required.
Next, we come to the second main categorisation of terpene aromas, which includes the widely used pinene. As the name suggests, this terpene smells of pine and fir, while it is the most prolific, naturally occurring compound of its type in nature.
This terpene can also be used as part of an anti-inflammatory treatment, while some studies have shown that it may even work as a local antiseptic. Some strains of this terpene have even been used as an anti-cancer agent traditional Chinese remedies for centuries, although it is thought to counteract the psychoactive effects of THC.
These strains can be isolated from pine needle oil, and they remain a fascinating area of study for experts in this field.
Once again, the clue is in the name here, with limonene a monocyclic monoterpenoid that boasts a strong citrus aroma. It is also one of two major compounds formed from pinene, and it’s becoming increasingly popular in the medical marijuana marketplace.
In simple terms, strains that are high in limonene are attributed with having a positive effect on mood and outlook, and therefore have particular relevance for anyone who suffers from the effects of stress or anxiety.
As a terpene that is easily inhaled and quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, it also has a rapid effect and can assist in the absorption of other compounds through the skin.
Like the CBD compound, it’s also believed that limonene can help with weight management, by interacting effectively with the body’s CB1 receptors and suppressing various ‘hunger hormones’ in the brain. This affords the terpene far wider appeal, especially in fields such as physical fitness and sport.
The Last Word
There are many more terpenes, of course, each of which has their own unique aroma and range of physical and mental effects.
While some of this data may need further research, it’s a fascinating area of study that is continuing to reshape science and medicine in the modern age.
There’s no doubt that compounds such as terpenes and CBD are moving increasingly into the consumer mainstream, however, as their purpose and benefits are clarified for the world to see.