By Harriet Clark
Terpenes are organic hydrocarbons responsible for the unique aromas that plants give off. Studying how terpenes affect the overall experience of cannabis is opening up a lot of new exciting information. Terpenes don’t only produce the signature taste and flavor of each cannabis strain. Scientists now know that terpenes work synergistically with the characteristics of each strain of flower, and can have an impact on whether your high is cerebral or somatic and sedative for example.
In this blog post we will look at terpenes in nature and their role in the cannabis plant.
Before diving into terpene profiles, let’s turn briefly to look at how our sense of smell has contributed to human survival. Unless you count yourself as a ‘super-smeller,’ our sense of smell is mostly subordinate to our other senses. We lack the language to capture the mysteriousness of our olfactory world, a shared space that is strangely private. It is private because, as we will see, our olfactory system links us directly to personal memory and emotions.
In evolutionary terms our olfactory system has been vital to our survival, flagging dangers around us such as the smell of burning. Put simply, smells are processed in the olfactory cortex that are routed very closely past the emotional pathways in our brain, bypassing conscious thought. There is an evolutionary reason for this. Our sense of smell has been designed to trigger rapid reactions when faced with something threatening, to enable us to move into fight, flight or freeze at high speed.
Terpenes in the cannabis plant - why do they matter?
- Terpenes give the different strains of cannabis their unique taste and flavor
- Terpenes increase the bioavailability of the major cannabinoids of CBD and THC, thereby enhancing the beneficial mood boosting elements of cannabis.
- Terpenes contribute to the entourage effect of cannabis
Terpenes are used in medicine, such as antimalarial drugs but they are also used across diverse fields of food, cosmetics and vitamins. They have antifungal, antiviral, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antihyperglycemic, antiparasitic, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties.
What are cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. The role of cannabinoids is to help to redress balance in the human body by activating CB1 and CB2 receptors in the human brain and body, a central part of the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system in the human body is responsible for regulating systems of appetite, sleep, immunity, reproduction and more. When our nervous systems are off kilter, the cannabinoids present in cannabis communicate with CB1 and CB2 neurotransmitters in our bodies to regain balance.
There are around 60 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant and they are mostly non- psychoactive. The most well known psychoactive cannabinoid is THC. When terpenes and cannabinoids work together they show greater therapeutic potential than their individual component parts. This process is called the ‘entourage effect,’ a term coined by S. Ben-Shabat and Raphael Mechoulam in 1998.
In 2011 Ethan Russo wrote a groundbreaking paper that redefined our understanding of how cannabinoids and terpenes work in partnership. Essentially the whole plant is better than the sum of its parts, but like any scientific enquiry, there is debate still as to how much terpenes mediate an entourage effect, altering the effects of THC.
Terpenes give the distinctive taste and flavor of different cannabis strains. The type of terpene you ingest or inhale, and the percentage in each strain of cannabis will directly correspond to the type of physical, mental or emotional response you will have. It is because of the “entourage effect” of all of the cannabinoids working together, including terpenes, that enhance the physical and mental effects. Terpenes play a sometimes imperceptible role but account for why different strains have unique effects on you even when the THC levels are the same.
Much research is being carried out to understand if and to what extent terpenes have the capacity to modulate your experience of the strain of cannabis you are consuming. A new study from Arizona found that terpenes in cannabis sativa are analgesic (pain relief) and could modulate cannabinoids of CBD and THC to improve outcomes.
Terpenes in nature
Terpenes or terpenoids are the essential oils released by plants and some insects. The term ‘terpene’ comes from ‘τερέβινθος,’ the Greek name for the terebinth tree that is celebrated for its resin that is rich in terpenes. Terpenes are produced inside the resin glands of the trichomes, which are the sticky glands that cover the buds of the cannabis plant.
In nature there are around 20,000 terpenes. In the cannabis plant, around 200 terpenes have been identified. Five of the most common are caryophyllene, limonene, linalool, myrcene and pinene. Terpenes have many functions beyond providing a lovely, soothing or energising smell. Their main purpose is adaptability. By giving off odors, predators such as insects and other threats like fungi and bacteria are deterred. Terpenes form a major part of the plant’s arsenal against external stimuli and internal stimuli that compromise the healthy development of the plant. They do this through emitting unpleasant smells to protect from predators and pleasant smells to attract pollinators to ensure successful fertilization.
Here is a terpenes wheel, which is a useful visual to connect aromas to the health benefits they can offer.
These statements have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA and are not intended to cure or treat any medical conditions.
How do terpenes affect the body and brain?
Here is a list of the most common terpenes found in the cannabis plant and their effect on the body
Beta-Caryphallene: Beta-caryphallene has spicy notes and is found in black pepper, cloves, cinnamon and oregano. It is useful as a sleeping aid and for pain relief.
Limonene: Found in the rind of citrus fruits and carries a citrusy aroma. This terpenes is understood to give a cerebral high.
Linalool: Linalool comes from the lamiaceae plant family. It has an undertone of lavender, along with a floral, musk and spiciness. It is most notably found in lavender, mint and the scented herbs of sage, rosemary, bergamot and lemon balm. It is found in 200 plants, so quite a commonly found terpene.
Linalool is known for its calming properties.
Pinene (Alpha and beta varieties): Pinene is found in plants within the pine family, and has an easily distinctive aroma of pine and fir.
Energetic and therapeutic, this terpene is common in pine needles. Walk through a forest and if you feel a little euphoric, you've experienced this terpenoid!
Pinene is found in many coniferous and non-coniferous plants, as well as in rosemary, dill, parsley and in some citrus fruits. Pinene and pine needle oil has been used in Chinese medicine as an anti-cancer medicine, and is known in nature to be an antiseptic. In the cannabis plant it is known anecdotally to be a booster for focus and memory, and to alleviate pain.
Terpinolene: Terpinolene is found in sage and rosemary, apples, turmeric leaf and pine. It has a woody aroma with citrus and is found and used in the States in soaps and fragrances. Terpinolene is also found in nutmeg and cumin. Terpinolene has been found to induce drowsiness in mice but in humans it is thought to be stimulating and non-drowsy making. It is found in strains such as Dutch Treat, Ghost Train Haze and Golden Goat.
Myrcene: Myrcene is the most common terpene in cannabis. It’s scent profile is earth, spice, citrus and clove. It is found in mangoes. It is known as the "couch-lock" terpene for its highly-sedative effects. Other therapeutic benefits are anti-inflammatory properties.
Myrcene reportedly works very well along with THC, the myrcene increases cell permeability so that the brain can absorb greater amounts of THC. This is why it is said if you eat mangoes before you vape or smoke cannabis you are preparing your body to be able to better absorb THC!
You cannot vape terpene oils on their own. To vaporize you would need an e-liquid base consisting of a blend of propylene glycol (PG) and vegetable glycerin (VG). Some people add terpenes to make their e-liquid taste better. Terpenes like CBD and THC, are biphasic. The body metabolizes terpenes and cannabinoids at different rates, depending on the consumption method. In cannabis flower terpenes are typically found at levels of 2 - 5% but found as high as 20% in cannabis oil.
This is a concern as the effects are not yet known, so no matter your choice of consumption method, from beverages to capsules, topicals consuming terpenes of any method at such high levels may be harmful. At a certain threshold the therapeutic benefits are helpful, but if you go beyond that dose then the opposite effect happens.
Heat Not Burn vs. Smoking: What’s Better for Tasting CBD Terpenes?
While extracted concentrates may be hot in the vaping world, the downside is you don’t know what is being added to the concentrate. One of the results of complicated regulation laws is some CBD vape pens have unwanted additives, such as heavy metals and pesticides.
Smoking 100% flower directly is probably the most efficient, and cleanest way to achieve the full health benefits from cannabis. Dry flower vaporization through a convection heat at the lowest heat setting allows all the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant to work together to achieve the entourage effect, allowing you to get the most medicinal benefits. By keeping to a low temperature setting you gain the full taste and flavor of the terpenes.
Check out Omura’s pre-filled hemp CBD flower sticks.