Terpenes, cannabinoids, and flavonoids represent three vital classes of compounds present in the cannabis plant’s trichomes. All three contribute to the medicinal benefits and recreational experience of cannabis and collectively produce what’s known as the entourage effect, a theory that cannabis compounds work in synergy to produce a greater effect than the sum of their parts. Terpenes are the chemical compounds responsible for the intoxicating aroma and unique flavors that the plant produces.
What are Terpenes?
Terpenes are aromatic compounds that occur naturally in many plants. There are at least 20,000 identified thus far in nature. The terpenes are produced within the plant’s trichomes along with cannabinoids, flavonoids and hundreds of other compounds. Trichomes are tiny hair-like outgrowths found on cannabis stalks, stems, leaves, and flowers but not present in the roots or seeds. The highest concentration of trichomes is found in the cannabis flowers.
There are three types of trichomes: bulbous, capitate sessile, and capitate-stalked trichomes. The latter are the only class of trichomes visible to the naked eye and are the most efficient producers of cannabis compounds. During the cultivation process, trichomes are almost factory-like in their production of cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other nutrient-rich compounds. Trichome contents play a vital role in the cannabis plants growth—they create aromas that keep predators away and produce different scents that attract pollinators.
Most Common Terpenes
Researchers have identified between 100 and 200 unique terpenes in cannabis cultivars. Each cannabis strain has a different terpene profile. Described below are some of the most commonly encountered terpenes found in cannabis:
Myrcene is one of the most dominant terpenes present in cannabis plants. Also known as Beta-Myrcene, it is a monoterpene, which means it is the most basic aromatic compound. Outside of marijuana, it is found in mango, lemongrass, hops, cardamom, wild thyme, and parsley. It has a spicy or earthy aroma with sweet undertones and a fruity flavor.
Potential Benefits of Myrcene
Studies indicate Myrcene possesses anti-inflammatory properties. A 2015 report in the European Journal of Pharmacology found it may help patients with osteoarthritis by possibly decelerating the degeneration of cartilage cells and thus possibly extending the lifespan of healthy joints.
Another 2015 study published in the Korean Society for Applied Biological Chemistry Journal claims Myrcene can potentially provide anti-cancer benefits for patients with breast cancer by possibly reducing its spread.
“These data show that myrcene has significant anti-inflammatory and anti-catabolic effects in human chondrocytes and, thus, its ability to halt or, at least, slow down cartilage destruction and osteoarthritis progression warrants further investigation.”
Myrcene may have sedative properties. Consumer testimonials show cannabis cultivars high in Myrcene cause a couch-lock effect, which is term that refers to a potent sedating effect. A 2002 study found that mice given large doses of the terpene demonstrated a sedative response.
Limonene is one of the few terpenes that has a name to match its aroma and flavor. Typically found in citrus rinds, such as oranges, lemons, and limes. Cannabis cultivar studies show it is the third-most abundant terpene in the plant.
Potential Benefits of Limonene
Research suggests that Limonene has antimicrobial properties. A 2013 study determined it may inactivate E. coli, which is a bacteria commonly responsible for urinary tract and gastrointestinal infections. Similarly, research published in the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences found Limonene exhibited anti bacterial activity against pathogens such as S. aureus, which is a common cause for skin infections, and P. aeruginosa, which can cause various infections particularly in those with a weakened immune system.
A 2013 study in the Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior journal learned the terpene has potential anxiety-reducing properties.
“The data indicate that (+)-limonene could be used in aromatherapy as an antianxiety agent.”
Limonene may have anti-cancer benefits. A 2018 report indicates anti-tumor activity in mice with lung cancer.
“d-limonene inhibited the growth of lung cancer cells and suppressed the growth of transplanted tumors in nude mice. Expression of apoptosis and autophagy-related genes were increased in tumors after treatment with d-limonene.”
There are two Pinene terpenes—Alpha and Beta. Both are monoterpenes found in a wide range of plants. Alpha-Pinene is water-insoluble, but soluble in ethanol and oil whereas the inverse is true of Beta-pinene. Alpha-Pinene is more prevalent in cannabis than its Beta counterpart. As the name suggests, Pinene provides a fresh pine scent and is present in pine needles, basil, dill, rosemary, and parsley.
Potential Benefits of Alpha-Pinene
Pinene exhibits anti-inflammatory characteristics in scientific studies. Research published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine proposes it may reduce inflammation in animal cells.
“These results indicate that α-pinene has an anti-inflammatory effect and that it is a potential candidate as a new drug to treat various inflammatory diseases.”
A 2018 study suggests Pinene might prevent damage from ultraviolet (UV) light, which may be of relevance for those at risk of sun exposure-related skin cancers.
“The present findings suggest that AP prevent UVA-induced oxidative stress, inflammation, DNA damages and apoptosis in human skin cells”
The intoxicating terpene also has anti-cancer potential. A scientific journal publication found Alpha-Pinene repressed human prostate cancer growth in mouse models.
“These data strongly suggest that α-pinene inhibits prostate cancer growth in axenograft model and may be an effective therapeutic agent for prostate cancer treatment.”
Beta-Caryophyllene, more simply referred to as Caryophyllene, is a common terpene in cannabis. It is also unique in that it interacts with the endocannabinoid system in the same manner as cannabinoids. Currently, it is the only known terpene or phytochemical to do so, as it has been shown to bind to the CB-2 receptor, leaving some to classify it as an atypical cannabinoid. The terpene or atypical cannabinoid is commonly found in cloves, cinnamon, and black pepper.
Potential Benefits of Caryophyllene
Caryophyllene may offer pain and anti-inflammatory relief. Research published in 2013 determined the terpene might help chronic pain patients. A 2012 study in Free Radical Biology and Medicine reports, “Given the excellent safety profile of BCP in humans, it has tremendous therapeutic potential in a multitude of diseases associated with inflammation and oxidative stress.” Additionally, Caryophyllene’s potential anti-inflammatory benefits may help patients with chronic inflammatory conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
Linalool is one of the terpenes that provides some cannabis cultivars a floral aroma. It also produces a woodsy or spicy undertone. The monoterpene is found in several plants, including lavender, rosewood, birch, and coriander.
Potential Benefits of Linalool
Linalool has many potential medicinal benefits. Most notably are the anti-anxiety and stress relief properties. Studies also show Linalool may slow the growth rate of bacteria and play a role in plant-bacteria interactions in the body.
Research is promising for Linalool helping patients with age-related progressive neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).
“Together, our findings suggest that linalool reverses the histopathological hallmarks of AD and restores cognitive and emotional functions via an anti-inflammatory effect. Thus, linalool may be an AD prevention candidate for preclinical studies.”
Outside of cannabis, Humulene, also known as Alpha-Caryophyllene or Alpha-Humulene, is more known for its role in crafting beer. Also found in hops, it has an earthy and woody scent with a hint of spice. The terpene is an isomer of Beta-Caryophyllene, meaning the two molecules share the same atoms but have different structures and properties.
Potential Benefits of Humulene
Although Humulene does not activate the Endocannabinoid System like Caryophyllene, it has a few possible medicinal benefits, including anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory benefits. According to a 2007 report,
“All these findings indicate that alpha-humulene and (-)-trans-caryophyllene, derived from the essential oil of C. verbenacea, might represent important tools for the management and/or treatment of inflammatory diseases.”
“The leaf oil displayed excellent antifungal activity with the active compounds determined as α-cadinol, β-eudesmol, τ-cadinol, α-humulene, and β-caryophyllene.”
Terpenes & The Entourage Effect
Researchers believe that terpenes, cannabinoids, and the other phytochemicals in the cannabis plant play a more significant role together than as individual compounds. The theory, known as the entourage effect, hypothesizes that the interplay of cannabis compounds allows patients to achieve a better therapeutic response with fewer side effects and more benefits.
Studies indicate that the response is synergistic, and that it holds promise for a number of therapeutic applications.
“Particular focus will be placed on phytocannabinoid-terpenoid interactions that could produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections(including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).”
Dr. Ethan Russo, a phytocannabinoid expert and the author of the original study as well as a follow-up review regarding the entourage effect explains his concept in a simple, single sentence:
“The plant does it better.”
The powerful phytochemicals group perfectly with the plant’s phytocannabinoids, terpenes, and other vital nutrients to enhance the flower’s overall benefits and effects. With a better understanding of prominent compounds such as terpenes and their therapeutic properties, patients and recreational users alike will be better equipped to select cannabis strains that are best suited to achieving the desired user effect.
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