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Cannabis Terpenes: What Are Terps?

Terpenes or terpenoids are aroma compounds produced in the flower and leaves of the cannabis plant. Understanding cannabis terpenes is key to navigating medical marijuana for beginners; they are as important as cannabinoids when it comes to medicating with cannabis.

It’s a widely-held belief that we can no longer just consider the potency of THC and CBD in a strain. The concentration of terpenes may provide as many benefits as potency and cannabinoid content.

WHY DO CANNABIS PLANTS SMELL?

Terpenes are the primary elements of the essential oils in plants. They are responsible for the cannabis plant’s unmistakable flavor and aroma. Unlike other botanical species, each strain of cannabis has a unique terpene profile. Tangerine Dream and Super Lemon Haze have distinctive citrus aromas, while Blackberry Kush and Strawberry Cough have sweeter, fruitier notes. Smell some Sour Diesel flower and you’ll see why people like skunky, diesel-like strains.

Interestingly, many botanists and scientists believe that terpenes originally developed in plants as a deterrent to pests and animals. Some aroma compounds, like linalool, are even used in insect repellents. Though they were intended to be a protective mechanism, cannabis terpenes are ironically one of the most attractive aspects of the plant. Today, many medical marijuana patients rely on how their body responds to certain terpene profiles to help identify what strains may work for them.

WHAT EXACTLY ARE TERPENES?

Terpenes are organic hydrocarbons that occur naturally in the essential oils of plants. Technically, terpenes are a combination of carbon and hydrogen. Though the names are used interchangeably, terpenoids are actually terpenes that have been altered through a drying process.

Cannabis terpenes are produced in the trichomes. Trichomes are the mushroom-shaped, crystal-like resin glands that cover the flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant. Terpenes are volatile and evaporate easily which is why the cannabis plant is so easy to smell.

Many common terpenes found in the botanical world, like camphor and menthol, may have medicinal benefits. If you’ve ever had a cough drop, you’ve experienced the soothing properties of menthol. Though there are thousands of aroma compounds in existence, there are at least 100 terpenes that have been identified in the cannabis plant.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN FUNCTIONS OF TERPENES?

Terpenes are responsible for many physiological effects associated with the cannabis plant. For instance, beta-caryophyllene is the only known terpene that can bind to cannabinoid receptors, specifically CB2 receptors. A 2017 study found that CB2 receptors play a role in dopamine production in mice. This may be why beta-caryophyllene could be a viable treatment for anxiety and stress. The activation of CB2 receptors by beta-caryophyllene may also reduce pain and inflammation.

Considered to have a range of medicinal properties, these aroma compounds work with cannabinoids to provide therapeutic relief to patients. Together, they create an “entourage effect” which enhances the singular therapeutic properties of the plant. The entourage effect is key to medicating effectively with cannabis. Patients should embrace the phenomenon of cannabinoids and terpenes interacting synergistically. Aim to pick products that have robust, natural terpene profiles. Every cannabis strain has varying percentages of terpene content – a diverse terpene profile may help impart a unique and significant sense of relief.

HOW DO TERPENES ALTER THE HIGH?

The terpene profile of a particular cannabis strain may influence the type of high that a patient experiences. Like CBD, certain terpenes may alter the psychoactive effect of THC. This ability to mitigate the mental high may mean that terpenes can actually enhance the medicinal benefits of THC.

Different cannabis terpenes may affect your mood, your physical state and sense of relief. Have you ever experienced the uplifting effect of citrus? This is because of a terpene called limonene that is known to have mood-elevating and stress-reducing properties. If you’ve ever used lavender essential oil at night to help you relax and drift off to sleep, you’re already familiar with the sedative properties of linalool.

The more you experiment with different strains and terpene profiles, the more you will learn what works best for your symptoms.

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON TYPES OF CANNABIS TERPENES?

Terpenes are integral to how humans experience cannabis. From anti-inflammatory to sedative properties, scientists have only begun to scratch the surface of the medicinal benefits of these aroma compounds. To date, researchers have identified over dozens of different cannabis terpenes, but only a handful of them are found in high concentration in cannabis. Below is a list of the most common types of terpenes.

Myrcene

Myrcene exhibited sedative properties in a 2002 study that suggests it could help treat insomnia. This same study found that myrcene has motor relaxant properties as well. The terpene has also shown antinociceptive properties that could make it potentially useful for treating pain. Myrcene occurs naturally in cloves, lemongrass, thyme, and hops.

Limonene

Limonene has an energizing, citrus scent. Limonene has anti-inflammatory properties that could be helpful for coping with certain gastrointestinal conditions. It may be a useful treatment for reducing stress, potentially resulting in mood elevation for some patients. Limonene is often found in common cleaning and cosmetic products, but occurs naturally in citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and oranges.

Humulene

Humulene is found in abundance in its namesake Humulus lupulus, also known as common hops. It is present in ginseng, sage, cloves, and basil. It has illustrated certain antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antitumor properties in varying studies, but more research is needed to understand its potential medical application in humans.

Linalool

Linalool has a delicate, floral aroma and is found in hundreds of different plants. Linalool is present in lavender, cinnamon, birch, and coriander. For centuries, lavender, which is high in linalool, has been considered an herbal remedy for sleep disorders. Recent studies have shown that it may be used in alleviating symptoms related to depression and anxiety. Linalool may have potential as an analgesic as well.

Pinene

Pinene has a fresh, pine tree fragrance. It has certain anti-inflammatory effects. Studies have shown that it could be used as a bronchodilator in some cases. Walk into a pine forest, take a deep breath and see if you notice any effects. It also has gastroprotectant abilities that may be helpful in the treatment of some gastrointestinal conditions. Pinene is most common in pine needles, rosemary, basil, and sage.

Beta–Caryophyllene

β–Caryophyllene is the only terpene known to directly interact with CB2 receptors. It has illustrated antimicrobial and antioxidant properties in some studies, as well as positive preliminary results in pain management studies. β–Caryophyllene is naturally occurring in black pepper, cinnamon, rosemary, oregano, and cloves.

Ocimene

Ocimene can have an herbaceous scent, often with citrus or woody undertones. Certain essential oils that are high in ocimene have shown significant anti-inflammatory effects. Many believe that this terpene was developed as part of a plant’s defense mechanism. Interestingly, pests seem to be averse to strains high in ocimene similar to how mosquitoes avoid geranium. While many other plants have some ocimene present, it can be found in higher quantities in mango, hops, basil, bergamot, and pepper. 

Terpinolene

Terpinolene is present in many cannabis strains, but usually only in small quantities. This terpene has a multi-dimensional aroma that smells like pine trees, citrus, herbs, and florals. It has illustrated antioxidant and sedative features. Terpinolene is naturally occurring in white lilac, nutmeg, tea tree, apples, and conifers.

IN SUMMARY

Terpenes are an integral aspect of cannabis as a plant and medicine. From anti-inflammatory to chronic pain relief, the world of cannabis terpenes may offer medical marijuana patients an impressive variety of therapeutic properties. These compounds define the flavor and aroma of our favorite plant, but may also alter the high we experience from cannabis. Learn how to use terpenes to your benefit by experimenting with different strains and terpene profiles.

* Some of the medical studies cited in this article used non-cannabis-derived terpenes for research.

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