What Are Terpenes And How Do They Help?
There’s a lot more to marijuana than just its cannabinoid content. In fact, there are many constituents of cannabis that make it unique - taste and smell being two of the most obvious.
But have you ever wondered what it is in cannabis that gives it its very distinctive aroma and taste? Well, it all comes down to special fragrant oils known as terpenes, of which there are around 140 so far discovered in cannabis. As each strain has a unique terpene composition, each also has a unique aroma, taste, and effect.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at exactly what terpenes are, how they work, and why they are good for us.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are a class of aromatic organic hydrocarbons, meaning they are comprised of just carbon and hydrogen atoms. They are found in many other herbs, fruits and plants - not just cannabis - and are the building blocks for essential oils.
They are made in the flower’s glands, known as trichomes, which is where the plant’s sticky resin is excreted. It is also here that cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are produced.
Terpenes play an important function in the plant, protecting it from various environmental stresses such as bacteria, fungus and insects.
How terpenes work and the ‘entourage effect’
Most of us are very aware of the mind-altering effects of cannabis. This psychoactivity is caused by THC, which, along with CBD, has been extensively studied. What science has yet to learn, however, is how other components of cannabis (such as terpenes and flavonoids) work together synergistically with cannabinoids for a greater therapeutic effect - known as the ‘entourage effect’.
You see, like cannabinoids, terpenes bind to receptors throughout the body and brain to give rise to various effects. They can even influence neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin. The terpene limonene, for example - responsible for the citrus smell in many plants - can actually increase serotonin production in the brain, thus elevating mood.
Some terpenes, such as myrcene - which gives off a musky smell - can also help cannabinoids to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, effectively making cannabinoids more efficient. This gives us an idea of why different strains not only smell and taste different, but can also have different effects on our mood or our ‘high’.
As there are so many terpenes found in cannabis, our knowledge of them is yet incomplete. However, one scientist, Dr. Ethan Russo, a leader in cannabis research, has demonstrated that plant compounds such as terpenes can, in fact, serve as an antidote to THC’s intoxicating effects, possibly increasing THC’s therapeutic uses.
Russo’s research indicates that, by utilizing the entourage effect, the potential of cannabis-based medicine to treat numerous conditions increases. A few of the conditions he mentions are depression, anxiety, addiction and dementia, but there are many more that cannabis may help with.
When it comes to the terpene profile of cannabis, it is worth noting that strains can vary greatly from one source to another, and even from one harvest to another, as this study shows.
When choosing a strain, therefore, it can be very hard to know exactly what is in it without it being lab-tested. Of course, your nose is always a good tool to employ when lab tests aren’t present; the stinkier the buds, the more terpenes it probably has.
Also, when it comes to choosing your method of ingestion, keep in mind that the beneficial qualities of terpenes can be damaged if heated too much. Many terpenes vaporize at around the same temperature as THC, although some are more volatile than others, so it’s best to keep your vaporizer on a low setting.
Lastly, learning about terpenes shines new light on the therapeutic qualities of cannabis and suggests they may play an important part in the future of cannabis medicine. In the meantime, it can be a lot of fun experimenting with different strains and with different terpene profiles. So what are you waiting for, crack out your vape and release your inner botanist now!