Many plants contain aromatic compounds called terpenes, but cannabis contains significant concentrations of them.
Terpenes, in addition to providing the pleasant and varied scents found among different cannabis strains, add to the plant’s medicinal qualities.
Here we’ll explore what terpenes are, their function in nature, the terpenes commonly found in cannabis, and their proven potential health benefits documented for humans.
What are terpenes?
Diverse and multipurpose terpenes are “the largest class of natural products” that “have a variety of roles in mediating antagonistic and beneficial interactions among organisms.” One way to conceptualize terpenes is as plant hormones.
As they naturally occur in nature, terpenes serve several important functions such as:
- Attracting pollinators
- Repelling predators like foraging animals and insects
- Preventing damage to the plant
- Acting as the plant’s immune system to stave off infectious pathogens
- Signifying the presence of mates, food, or enemies (like a scented smoke signal)
Terpenes have immense commercial value. Often, manufacturers add terpenes extracted from crops into their consumer products. Terpenes are commonly used in fragrances, essential oils, cosmetics, and some processed foods.
What terpenes occur naturally in cannabis?
The cannabis plant contains an abundance of terpenes. The given combination of terpenes lends each strain of cannabis its unique flavor profile.
The most prolific terpenes in cannabis include (but are not limited to):
How do terpenes interact with the human body?
A large proportion of identified terpenes are bioactive in the human body, meaning they produce appreciable pharmacological effects.
These pharmacological effects – which evidence suggests primarily result from interactions with the nervous system — take a wide range of forms, from stress relief and mood elevation to clinically significant medicinal impacts on various chronic illnesses.
For the sake of brevity, let’s cut right to the chase. Here are just a handful (but by no means all) of the documented potential health benefits of terpenes in the human body.
Terpenes have potential anti-inflammatory benefits
Chronic inflammation is a killer. It drives virtually every chronic disease known to science. Countering chronic inflammation, therefore, is critical for fending off numerous age-releated inflammatory health conditions like heart disease, metabolic dysfunction, and autoimmune disorders.
Terpenes counter chronic inflammation, in particular via its suppression of immune system cells called cytokines but also through multiple other signaling pathways:
“Terpenes and terpenoids possess a strong potential as alternative treatments for inflammatory diseases… these involve several molecular targets that include pro-inflammatory cytokines, transcription factors, autophagy machinery, ROS, membrane receptors, and other inflammatory mediators. Therefore, unlike some current drugs, terpenes can simultaneously act through different cell signaling pathways and exert a pleiotropic effect on inflammatory disorders; thus, terpenes could be more effective than existing medications.”
Terpenes have potential anti-anxiety benefits
Research shows that up to a third of Americans in the COVID era suffer from symptoms of chronic anxiety.
Terpenes might be part of a holistic solution to this mental health crisis.
For instance, researchers in one study supplied mice with a potent terpene commonly found in cannabis called a-pinene (which gives many strains their “piney” scent) and documented its anxiolytic (anxiety-killing) activity:
“Mice inhaled α-pinene or water vapor (negative control) for 90 min/day for 1 day, 3 days, or 5 days, and they were then submitted to the elevated plus maze test for 10 min. We used gas chromatography with flame ionization detection to quantify concentrations of α-pinene in the brain and liver. There was significant anxiolytic-like activity, which remained constant for the 5 days’ inhalation of α-pinene.”
Terpenes have potential pain relief benefits
The CDC estimates that upwards of 50 million Americans experience debilitating chronic pain. Unfortunately, common pharmaceutical medications such as opioids present many side effects, including physical dependency.
Terpenes, on the other hand, which are non-addictive and all-natural, have the proven capacity to relieve chronic pain:
“The research team… focused on four Cannabis terpenes: alpha-humulene, geraniol, linalool and beta-pinene. They evaluated each terpene alone and in combination with WIN55,212-2, a synthetic cannabinoid agonist that stimulates the body’s natural cannabinoid receptors…
When a cannabinoid such as THC enters the body, it binds to one of two cannabinoid receptors — CB1R, which is the most abundant, or CB2R. The receptor then activates neurons that affect physiological processes and behavior. In laboratory experiments, researchers found that all four terpenes activated the CB1R, just like THC.”
Terpenes and the ‘entourage effect’
The so-called “entourage effect” is the powerful synergistic effects of the totality of bioactive compounds that occur naturally in the cannabis plant:
“‘Cannabis’ is not a single compound product but is known for its complicated molecular profile, producing a plethora of phytocannabinoids alongside a vast array of terpenes. Thus, the ‘entourage effect’ is the suggested positive contribution derived from the addition of terpenes to cannabinoids.”
What that means, in a nutshell, is that terpenes enhance the medicinal properties of cannabis.
For example, in the context of terpenes’ pain-relieving benefits described earlier, they add to and enhance those same documented effects of cannabinoids like CBD:
“Researchers have found that terpenes mimic cannabinoids and produce similar pain-relieving effects, which are amplified when the two are used together.”
In another example, per research published in Frontiers in Neurology, patients with epilepsy received greater therapeutic benefits with fewer side effects using full-spectrum CBD compared to CBD isolate:
“CBD-rich extracts seem to present a better therapeutic profile than purified CBD, at least in this population of patients with refractory epilepsy. The roots of this difference is likely due to synergistic effects of CBD with other phytocompounds (aka Entourage effect).”
Check out this succinct summary of the entourage effect via the Trichome Institute:
Opt for full-spectrum or broad-spectrum CBD oil for maximum terpene content
To reap the health benefits of terpenes and to take advantage of the previously described phenomenon of the entourage effect, you should select full-spectrum CBD oil.
Full-spectrum differs critically from CBD isolate in that – as the name implies — it contains the entire spectrum of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids that together exert the entourage effect. CBD isolate, on the other hand, contains high concentrations of CBD alone. Another CBD formula, broad-spectrum CBD, is full-spectrum CBD minus the THC content (which some customers worry about due to potential drug testing at work or elsewhere). Broad-spectrum CBD, like full-spectrum CBD, also contains all the naturally-occurring terpenes in cannabis.
Contact Sympleaf to learn more about terpenes
We’re eager to help you better understand the powerful potential health benefits of terpenes and how to incorporate their healing properties into your natural supplement regimen. Contact Sympleaf to learn more about terpenes. Education is an important part of our mission.