Terpenes, fondly referred to as “terps,” are fragrant compounds in plants, and in the case of cannabis, they can be found alongside THC and CBD inside the plant’s trichome glands. They contribute to the plant’s medicinal properties and along with flavonoids, are responsible for the aromas that plant gives off. In fact, terpenes are the primary components of the plant’s essential oils. The function of the odiferous hydrocarbons can be to either ward off potential predators or help attract pollinators in order to facilitate reproduction — the intrinsic end-game of all species.
In order to get the most out of your cannabis, a non-fractionated combination of terpenes, cannabinoids and flavonoids result in the most powerful and efficient delivery system famously called “the entourage effect.” With their powers combined, the healing properties of these cannabis compounds are more effective than when used independently (though it’s worth noting that they still have significant medicinal benefits on their own). Additionally, THC and CBD work better when administered together.
The levels of specific terpenes present in each cannabis plant are determined predominantly by that strain’s genetics. Each genotype has a unique terpene profile that helps identify the healing properties of a particular strain. The potential health benefits of terpenes include anti-cancer, anti-tumor, antimutagenic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain relief), anti-epileptic, anti-seizure, anti-convulsive, anti-spasmodic, sedative, anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal … just to name a few.
Many people are probably already familiar with some of the terpenes in cannabis and their uses. For example, the commonly known lavender plant’s calming and relaxing properties are largely attributed to a terpene called linalool. This stress-reducing terpene can also be found in certain strains of cannabis! A terpene near and dear to this writer’s heart, linalool is an impressive, multitalented super-terp that can be found in genetics like Grand Daddy Purps, Lavender Jack and Amnesia Haze. Studies on linalool show that it can act on the central nervous system to suppress muscle contractions and convulsions related to epilepsy. It is also a powerful anti-inflammatory. In a 2016 study on mice with Alzheimer’s disease, administering linalool every 48 hours resulted in improved learning and spatial memory, as well as greater risk assessment when they made their way through their mazes. This reversal of the disease is theorized to only be possible because of the inflammation reduction found in the brains of the linalool-treated mice.
Limonene is one of the most easily identifiable terpenes due to its distinctive citrusy scent. Within the top five most prevalent terpenes in cannabis, limonene has anti-cancer properties on top of being a strong anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. When ingested, limonene has been found to inhibit cancer progression by encouraging cell apoptosis (also known as “programmed cell death” where a tumor cell sets into motion a set of processes that ultimately lead to its own orchestrated demise without leaving anything behind to harm other cells). Limonene is also thought to function as a protectant against some carcinogens found in cannabis smoke, and when inhaled, limonene vapor increases serotonin and dopamine in areas of the brain associated with anxiety, depression and OCD. A few strains known to be high in limonene include Purple Punch, Strawberry Cough and White Fire OG.
The single most prevalent terpene found in cannabis is myrcene (β-Myrcene). It is known for contributing to the relaxing, sedative effect of many strains. Also found in ripe mangos (the riper the better), ylang-ylang and hops, myrcene has anti-inflammatory, anti-tumoral, anti-mutagenic, anti-bacterial, anti-psychotic, anti-spasmodic and analgesic properties. Both limonene and myrcene aid in the absorption of cannabinoids, flavonoids and other terps by increasing the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, which allows these healing compounds to work their magic more efficiently.
Delta-3-carene is another beloved super-terp. Paradoxically, it could also be largely responsible for your dry-mouth and red, dry eyes. As unpleasant as that parched mouth may be, if you are sick and need some congestion relief, delta-3-carene can come to your rescue! It can be found in many haze and hashplant strains, contributing to their sweet, pungent smells. Furthermore, it has been proven to be a powerful anti-fungal agent when applied topically.
The healing powers of terpenes cannot be ignored. They have been found to work synergistically or antagonistically with one another as well as with cannabinoids to enhance their efficiency. Their ability to work with cannabinoids to directly alter brain function and increase/inhibit certain processes makes them powerful system regulators, and once researched properly and harnessed, they might prove to be safe, natural alternatives to synthesized pharmaceuticals that are typically laden with unpleasant side effects. Cannabis and its terps have the potential to contribute to re-inventing how we approach health in the west. Recently, there has been a rise in US patent applications related to cannabis and considering the clear relationship between the two, terpenes may not be far behind! The more countries and states that make the informed decision to legalize, the more research on how cannabinoids, terpenes and other compounds in cannabis can work together to prevent and treat some of humanity’s most obstinate maladies.