Why You Should Care About Terpenes
Like many people, I’m a huge fan of (certain) aromas. Some faves include: cinnamon, lemon, freshly baked bread, basil, summer rain on mowed grass and the pages of a new book when it’s first cracked open. In healthcare, the once-mystic practice of aromatherapy is gaining ground – we use lavender diffusers in dementia care for calming, eucalyptus balms for cold-sufferers and mint, ingested or inhaled, for nausea or stomach upset.
Cannabis has its own distinctive aroma – or I should say aromas. In fact, the scent of the cannabis flower when heated is unmistakably distinctive. This is due to organic compounds known as terpenes which reside in plants of all sorts. The surprising part is that terpenes render so much more than fragrance.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are a large class of molecules produced by virtually all plants. They are responsible for plants’ distinctive aromas and flavors. Many are well-known as “essential oils”. We are familiar with the smells of many plant species, including conifers (like pine, cedar, juniper trees) and citrus fruit trees, but most plant varieties have distinctive terpenes and mixtures of terpenes that provide fragrance.
In cannabis plants, these fragrant oils are abundantly secreted in the flower’s sticky resin glands, called the trichomes. There are thousands of naturally occurring terpenes, and the cannabis plant alone produces over 200, making terpenes the largest group of phytochemicals in the plant.
What about the distinctive scent of certain cannabis strains? That’s due to the particular blend of terpenes, varying in concentrations and combinations, in a plant’s breeding. Terpenes quickly vaporize when heat is applied to flower, dissipating into the air. The flavors and aromas of these compounds are maximized by whole-flower vaporization, which gives the brain a chance to interpret the flavor without overwhelming it with the taste of smoke.
Beyond the Olfactory
But the task of terpenes is grander than scent and flavor; they also play a big role in in the effects of other cannabinoids. In fact, when terpenes and cannabinoid compounds team up, they can create a synergistic effect – intensifying or downplaying both physical and cerebral effects of cannabis, opening an even wider channel of therapeutic cannabis combination possibilities.
In a 2011 paper, cannabis researcher and neurologist Dr. Ethan Russo described the way cannabinoids and terpenes work together to boost and modulate the effects of one another in the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) (1), Russo’s research helped reveal how other cannabinoids, such as CBD, and terpenes can either increase or decrease the effects of THC and other chemicals in the body that interact with the ECS.
One quick science terminology lesson here – the terms “terpenes” and “terpenoids” are sometimes used interchangeably but they are different molecules. Terpenes are still in the hydrocarbon form and terpenoids have been denatured by oxidation, the process of drying and curing the flowers. Just so you know.
Can you get high from terpenes alone? The short answer is no. If terpenes were isolated or extracted from a cannabis plant, you would still be able to experience the smells and flavors associated with those terpenes, but consuming those terpenes alone would not render any noticeable psychoactive effects.
Why Terpenes Matter
Why get excited about terpenes, the Spice Kit of nature, with respect to medical cannabis? Because they can amp up the healthful properties of the other cannabinoids so effectively. In Dr. Russo’s paper, the terpenes are purported to produce a “phytocannabinoid-terpenoid synergy,” as Russo calls it. In turn, this synergy increases the potential of cannabis-based medicinal formulas to treat pain, inflammation, fungal and bacterial infections, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy and cancer.
Like other cannabinoids, some terpenes are more abundant than others and have the ability to bind to receptors in the human brain and body. Each type of terpene has unique characteristics when it comes to how it expresses itself when ingested – some may promote relaxation while another might increase energy, for example.
Now that your appetite is suitably whetted, it’s time to introduce you to some specific terpenes and their unique personalities. Stay tuned.
Meredith Patterson is a nurse specializing in neurology. She writes about the brain and brain health at her blog – www.BrainStormmindfitness.com.
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