What Are Terpenes?
Thanks to the popularity surge of cannabidiol and other hemp-based products, many lay observers are now familiar with their myriad health benefits. However, cannabis alone isn’t what drives these helpful solutions. Instead, it’s the portfolio of organic compounds associated with the cannabis sativa plant that catalyzes the therapies we week. Among them, terpenes are one of the most vital components in this broader equation.
But what exactly are terpenes? Within the cannabis plant reside multiple organic compounds. The most familiar of these are cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD) or tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive catalyst of marijuana. In a similar vein, terpenes represent a category of organic compounds that greatly modulate or enhance the experience of cannabis-based products and therapies.
Specifically, terpenes are aromatic compounds. Essentially, they imbue various cannabis strains with their distinct aromas or fragrances. As most people would attest, the cannabis plant features a striking, earthy aromatic profile. That sensation is directly associated with that particular strain’s terpenes.
Contrary to common assumption or misconception, though, terpenes are not native exclusively to cannabis. Instead, these organic compounds are found in a variety of fruits and vegetation. For instance, the limonene terpene, as the name suggests, is responsible for the tarty aromas associated with freshly plucked lemons or limes. Harkening back to your culinary past, your body may react with vibrancy as these scents hit your senses.
That’s the power of terpenes, which we’ll discuss in greater detail below:
What Exactly Are Terpenes?
At first glance and to the uninitiated, terpenes may sound like an exotic term. However, they’re far more common than many people realize. Broadly speaking, they embody a core component of biodiversity and the ecosystem.
As previously mentioned, terpenes are among the families of organic compounds that are integrated into the cannabis plant. However, terpenes are not just inherent to cannabis. Instead, they are found among several plant genera – particularly conifers – and even some insects.
One of the defining qualities of this organic compound is its strong scent or odor. Designed for plant life to repel herbivores and simultaneously attract predators and parasites that prey on or otherwise antagonize those herbivores, terpenes in their natural form typically offer a defensive or protective attribute.
Another attribute of this aromatic compound is its functionality as biosynthetic building blocks. For example, the controversial steroid is a derivative of a specific terpene. This organic characteristic also aids in the ability to catalyze the “entourage effect,” or the symbiotic process where multiple cannabinoids and compounds work together to promote a holistic therapeutic effect.
Finally, terpenes form the organic basis of essential oils, which are botanical compounds featuring concentrated hydrophobic liquid. Terpenes themselves are hydrocarbons, making them insoluble in water. Moreover, hydrocarbons, because of their distinctive structure, are excellent fuels, helping to explain the power of terpenes.
Terpenes and Cannabis
While terpenes are found throughout botanical life, they play a particularly vital role in cannabis-based products and their overall effectiveness. From their aromatic qualities to their symbiotic benefits, terpenes provide the impetus that makes the cannabis plant unique among botanical assets.
As we previously discussed, in nature, terpenes have been developed to help “carriers” ward off predators; in this case, plant-eating herbivores. But from a human perspective, these compounds’ aromatic profiles have an opposite, attractive effect. Essentially, terpenes represent nature’s organic therapeutic powers.
Here’s how this would work in a real life setting: suppose you are suffering from a particular ailment. One of your friends invites you into a botanical warehouse, which stores myriad cannabis strains. Each gives off a distinct aroma based on their underlying terpene. As you sample each scent, you come across one strain that appeals to you.
Now, it’s possible that you may just like the fragrance as a personal preference. However, extensive research has established a link between our aromatic desires and the need for the underlying terpene. Put another way, your body automatically signals to your brain which terpenes it needs to remedy its ailment.
Think of terpenes (in the human medicinal context) as nature’s budtender!
But how does our bodies know which terpene to consume. This may be largely due to the fact that our brain, as well as multiple organs have cannabinoid receptors. These receptors bind to cannabinoids like CBD or THC and organic compounds like terpenes. Upon connection, the subsequent transmission process sparks multiple health benefits.
Full Spectrum versus Isolate CBD
With the legalization of industrial hemp and hemp-derived organics, one of the most popular cannabis products to flourish has been cannabidiol or CBD. But like terpenes, cannabidiol features a diverse profile, split among the classifications of isolate, full spectrum and broad spectrum.
Isolate CBD, as the name suggests, is pure cannabidiol. You can also look at it as CBD extracts. Featuring nothing but CBD, these products do not have the pungent scent associated with cannabis. As we discussed earlier, absent aromatic terpenes, a botanical material will not carry a distinctive scent.
This characteristic is beneficial for those who use cannabidiol in the kitchen. Imposing neither smell nor flavor, isolate CBD is the perfect ingredient to give your dishes the desired health boost without anyone knowing it. Also, because the isolate platform is pure CBD, it doesn’t contain any other cannabinoids or terpenes. Thus, not even a trace amount of THC is present in isolate CBD products.
On the other end of the scale, we have full spectrum CBD. This refers to cannabidiol that offers the full range of associated cannabinoids and terpenes. Thus, you get everything: the smell, the taste, and most importantly, the entourage effect.
Although the term “medical cannabis” has entered the mainstream lexicon, it’s also a misunderstood concept. Cannabis alone isn’t responsible for the holistic benefits associated with it, as much as an engine alone doesn’t do much for transportation purposes. It’s when all the associated parts working together in a vehicle produces the desired outcome: moving from point A to point B.
As we’ll discuss in greater depth below, the cannabis plant has multiple terpenes, along with the choice cannabinoid, usually CBD. While CBD may impart a few benefits, each different terpene also facilitates its own helpful catalysts. Thus, with full spectrum CBD, you’re not just receiving a single pathway toward wellness, but multiple pathways, all working together to promote comprehensive health.
However, the drawback for full spectrum CBD is that contains a trace amount of THC (less than 0.3% content). As such, there is a small risk that you can test positive for a drug test.
To get around this dilemma, the botanical industry created broad spectrum. A best of both worlds’ scenario, broad spectrum CBD has CBD along with all cannabinoids and terpenes. However, it does not contain THC, thus helping to eliminate the drug-test concern.
Still, one major drawback of broad spectrum is that they’re priced higher than their full spectrum and isolate counterparts. Thus, the choice of pathway will depend largely on balancing personal needs and finances.
Benefits of Terpenes
With the constantly advancing nature of modern healthcare, a major irony is that one of the most profound innovations of this sector is no innovation at all. Instead, naturally occurring cannabis plants maligned by myopic historical mandates are recently rising to the forefront. However, cannabis alone is only half of the story.
The other half, as we discussed, is stored in the powerhouse that is the terpene. However, the remarkable aspect of this attribute is that it’s not singularly linear but instead dynamic. Rather than accelerating the magnitude of one physical effect – say for instance, increased vigor or energy – terpenes impact the whole spectrum of human wellness benefits.
For example, certain terpenes act as sedatives. This is especially beneficial for those who take cannabidiol for anxiety or restlessness. On the other hand, we have terpenes that ramp up alertness or memory retention, which are ideal platforms for students as well as high-demand, high-stress occupations such as security officers or dispatchers.
Moreover, these are not just anecdotal tales from paid customer reviews. Instead, groundbreaking research and discoveries by Dr. Ethan Russo, which were published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, demonstrated the wide-ranging depth of terpenes and their ability to impart positive change.
Some of the identified terpenes and their “operational” profile to facilitate the entourage effect include:
The most common terpene in the botanical arena and often found within various strains of the cannabis plant, alpha-pinenes are bronchodilators – substances that cause the widening of the bronchi. As you might imagine, these terpenes are incredibly useful for asthmatics. Additionally, alpha-pinenes promote alertness and memory retention due to providing a chemical pathway for the neurotransmitters responsible for these characteristics.
Another common terpene variant among cannabis plants, myrcene is a natural sedative. Thus, this is useful for those who are restless or have difficulties sleeping but don’t want to take traditional pharmaceutical pills. Furthermore, myrcenes are also muscle relaxants, analgesics (reduces pain) and feature anti-inflammatory properties. Thus, this terpene is beneficial for medicinal use.
As discussed earlier, limonene are terpenes present in citrus fruits. However, they’re also found in many cannabis strains. Among the most powerful terpenes, limonene have a clinical track record in dissolving gallstones and relieving heartburn and gastrointestinal reflux. Further, this compound helps with mood and emotional management and it can kill pathogenic bacteria.
A terpenoid (or any large class of organic compounds that includes terpenes) found in lavender and some cannabis strains, linalool features anxiolytic properties. This is a high-brow way of saying that it relieves anxiety and stress-induced reactions. Moreover, linalool increases the magnitude of the serotonin-receptor transmission, thereby promoting an anti-depressive effect. As a secondary function, linalool is very effective against acne and skin burns.
Prominent in some cannabis strains, as well as in the essential oils of black pepper, oregano and other edible herbs, beta-caryophyllene features gastro-protective properties. Useful in treating ulcers, beta-caryophyllene demonstrates great potential for mitigating inflammatory conditions and autoimmune disorders.
Because of the powerful and dramatic effects associated with terpenes, many botanical enthusiasts gravitate toward either full spectrum or broad spectrum CBD. While the isolate CBD platform has advantages in terms of culinary applications and for reassurance during a drug test, it unfortunately eliminates the possibility of enjoying the entourage effect.
Plus, all things being equal, full spectrum CBD tends to be less expensive than its isolate counterpart. Therefore, unless you have an occupation that requires 0% THC exposure, full spectrum CBD is usually the best pathway for cannabis-based therapies.