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What are Terpenes and how are they used?

Posted by Lewis Olden on
What are Terpenes and how are they used?

The cannabis plant is made up of a variety of compounds and chemicals. Within the plant there are approximately 150 terpenes that are aromatic organic hydrocarbons. Terpenoids are also found within the cannabis plant. The words terpenoid and terpene are often used interchangeably. However, the two words have different meanings. The primary difference between terpenes and terpenoids are not commonly known. Terpenes are hydrocarbons, which means that the only elements within terpenes are hydrogen and carbon. While terpenoids have been denatured by oxidation, this means that cannabis flowers have been dried or cured or even chemically modified.

Terpenes are synthesised within cannabis in the secretory cells which reside in the glandular trichomes, the production of terpenes is improved with increased light exposure. Terpenes are most commonly found in high concentrations in unfertilised cannabis flowers before senescence, which is the condition that causes deterioration with aging. The oil is extracted from the plant biomass by vaporisation or steam distillation. There are numerous terpenes that vaporise at the exact same temperature as THC, THC boils at approximately 157 °C. The volatility of terpenes is variable, and some terpenes are more volatile than others. Terpenes are fundamental in providing the cannabis plant with natural protection against fungi, bacteria, insects and any other potential environmental stresses. 

It is universally accepted that cannabis has the capability to impact the human mind, emotions and behaviour. The most prominent psychoactive and psychotropic cannabinoid is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC has been studied extensively. However, the other cannabinoids within the cannabis plant are not yet fully understood and the specifics of how they interact with the endocannabinoid system remain a mystery. Cannabinoids other than THC, terpenoids and flavonoids are believed to be crucial to providing the medical benefits of cannabis, but much more research needs to be undertaken to fully comprehend the power of these compounds of the cannabis plant.

Terpenes are common within fragrances and flavourings. Unlike cannabinoids, terpenes are responsible for the smell of cannabis. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognise terpenes as being safe, a view that correlates throughout the world. Terpenes cause their effect by acting on receptors and neurotransmitters and can combine with or dissolve in lipids (fats). Terpenes act as an uptake inhibitor of serotonin in a similar manner to antidepressant drugs like Prozac. Terpenes enhance the activity of norepinephrine which operates in a similar way to tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil. Terpenes also increase the activity of dopamine. There is much more research that needs to be carried out into assessing the predictability of terpenes in cannabis and how terpenes can be used medically to treat specific ailments and health conditions.

The Effects of Cannabinoids & Terpenes in Combination  

A study that took place in 1974 illustrated that there is potentiation, which is a form of synaptic plasticity that is known to affect the ability to learn and effects memory, of the effects of THC by the other compounds that exist within cannabis. The double blind study discovered that cannabis with equal or increased levels of CBN and CBD to THC induced effects up to 4x greater than THC alone. The effects of smoking double the amount of a THC only strain was no different to that of the placebo.

This conclusion was back up by a study that was undertaken in 2010 to determine if there was any advantage in using cannabis extract compared to using isolated THC. A cannabis extract of THC, CBN, and CBD (SCE), another extract of pure THC and a pure CBD extract were tested on a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS) and a rat brain slice replicating epilepsy.

The researchers discovered that SCE inhibited spasticity in the MS model to a similar level of THC on its own and caused a more rapid onset of the relaxation of the muscles as well as a reduction in the period of time to maximum effect than the THC alone. The CBD caused no inhibition of spasticity. However, in the case of the epilepsy model, SCE was far more effective and a more fast acting anti-convulsant that THC isolate. In the epilepsy model, CBD also exhibited anti-convulsant activity. The CBD isolate did not inhibit the seizures and it didn’t modulate the activity of THC in the epilepsy model. This would suggest that THC is the active component in enforcing the anti-spasticity properties of cannabis, which can be modified in combination of other components. However, for some of the other prospective medical benefits such as anti-convulsion, THC while active, may not be totally necessary for the desired effect. The results illustrated not all of the therapeutic effects of the cannabis plant can be credited to THC. 

Another study that was conducted in 2011 demonstrated that non-cannabinoid components of the cannabis plant such as terpenes can serve as inhibitors to THC’s intoxicating effects which results in an increase of the therapeutic effect of THC. The phtocannabinoid-terpenoid synergy as Dr. Ethan Russo describes it, increases the capacity of cannabis-based medications to treat inflammation, pain, bacterial infections, depression, anxiety, epilepsy, addiction and even cancer.

What are Flavonoids?

Flavonoids are one of the biggest families of nutrients that are known to the scientific community. There are over 6,000 known flavonoids. Approximately 20 of these compounds including apigenin, quercetin, cannflavin A and cannflavin B, vitexin, kaempferol, luteolin, isovitexin and orientin have been discovered and identified within the cannabis plant.  Flavonoids are renowned for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and resulting health benefits. These Flavonoids contribute a vibrant colour to many of the fruit and vegetables we eat regularly such as the blue in blueberries and the red in raspberries.

There are some flavonoids that are extracted from the cannabis plant and have been tested for pharmacological effects. These clinical findings are promising and there is still a tremendous amount of research that needs to be conducted to fully comprehend the role flavonoids have in the therapeutic effects of using cannabis as a treatment method. One vital thing that needs to be understood is how flavonoids interact with cannabinoids by synergistically enhancing them or by reducing their effects. 

Variations of Terpenes

Terpenes are imperative in the process of building blocks of complex molecules and plant hormones, pigmentation, sterols and even within cannabinoids. Terpenes are responsible for the smell of cannabis and the resulting psychological effects. Cannabis users will often request to smell cannabis when making a selection. Different strains can be identified by their aroma and their effects can be estimated.

Medical marijuana strains can differ a lot from one supplier to another, and sometimes there can even be a variation between harvests. The strains with high concentrations of specific terpenes make strains easier to identify by their smell. There is an understanding that the varieties that have a musky smell or smell of clove provide a sedative, relaxing effects due to the high level of the terpene myrcene.  A strain that has a piney smell helps to promote mental alertness and improved memory; this is due to the high concentration of the terpene pinene. A lemon aroma often means that the strain provides an uplift in mood and mentality because of the high level of limonene.

By mapping the various terpene profiles, it enables scientists and formulators to predict and manipulate the effects and the medical value of strains. This will over time enable breeders and producers to fine tune their strains to have the desired effects. The need for real analytical data is ever present and companies such as Alta Flora are leading the way to provide a platform that allows patients to track the efficacy of variations of cannabis-based medications. This will help to assist in the breeding process to establish which strains prove to be the most effective at treating specific conditions.

Terpenes in Cannabis

Myrcene – is a monoterpene and is the most prevalent terpene produced by cannabis. The smell of myrcene is described as earthy, musky and herbal and often compared to the smell of cloves. A high level of myrcene often results in couch lock which is often associated with indica strains of cannabis. Myrcene is also prominent in the oil of hops, bay leaves, citrus fruits, eucalyptus, thyme and lemon grass as well as many other plants.

Myrcene has some incredible medicinal properties that include decreasing the resistance across the blood to brain barrier which allows itself and other chemicals to cross the blood to brain barrier more efficiently and effectively. With cannabinoids such as THC & CBD, myrcene enables the effects of the cannabinoids to take effect faster. Myrcene has been proven to increase the maximum saturation level of the CB1 receptor that allows for a greater psychoactive effect.

Myrcene is a very potent analgesic, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory. It achieves this by blocking the action of cytochrome, pro-mutagenic carcinogens and aflatoxin B. A study that took place in 2014 investigated the role of myrcene in preventing peptic ulcer disease. The findings illustrated that myrcene acts as an inhibitor of both gastric and duodenal ulcers. This means that myrcene may be helpful in stopping peptic ulcer disease form developing. Myrcene is also a sedative and its relaxing effects can make it ideal for the treatment of sleep issues and pain. 

Myrcene is commonly found in the essential oil of citrus fruits. Leading to claims that eating a mango before consuming cannabis will lead to a faster onset of psycho activity and a more intense experience. Make sure your mango is ripe. 

Pinene – is a bicyclic monoterpenoid. Pinene has the smell of pine. There are two structural isomers of pinene that can be found in the natural world. Alpha pinene and beta pinene. Both isomers are crucial components of the resin found in pines. Alpha pinene is the most common terpenoid in nature. Pinene is found in the majority of conifers and in some non-coniferous plants too. Pinene is commonly found in citrus fruits and pine woods. Pinene is the principal monoterpenes that is vital in both animals and plants. Pinene reacts with other chemicals that forms a variety of other terpenes such as limonene as well as other compounds.

Pinene is used medicinally to treat inflammation and local antiseptic purposes. Alpha pinene has shown anti-cancer properties and in Traditional Chinese Medicine it has been used as an anti-cancer treatment for centuries.

Limonene – is a monocyclic monoterpenoid and is one of the two significant compounds formed from pinene. Strains that are high in limonene have a strong citrus smell similar to oranges, lemons and limes. Strains that have high levels of limonene typically provide an uplift in mood and attitude.

Inhalation is the optimal way to consume limonene. Limonene assists the absorption of other terpenes through the skin and body tissue. It has been discovered that limonene suppresses the spread and growth of fungi and bacteria which means it is ideal for treating fungal issues. Limonene may be beneficial in protecting against cancers and orally administered limonene is undergoing clinical trials to see if it is effective in treating breast cancer. There also theories that limonene can help assist weight loss

Caryophyllene – Beta caryophyllene is found in plants such as cloves, basil, cinnamon and black pepper. It is also sometimes found in lavender. The smell of caryophyllene is woody and it is the only terpene that is definitively known to interact with the endocannabinoid system via CB2 receptors. There are studies that show promising findings that beta caryophyllene could be used in cancer treatment. Caryophyllene selectively bind to the CB2 receptors and is a CB2 receptor agonist. 

A study that took place in 2013 found that phytocannabinoids in combination, particularly CBD and beta caryophyllene delivered orally, appeared to be a promising treatment for patients with chronic pain conditions due to the high level of safety and low adverse effects of the treatment.

Linalool – is a non-cyclic monoterpenoid. The smell of linalool is described as having lavender and floral undertones. Varieties of cannabis that are high in linalool tend to have calming and relaxing benefits.

Linalool has been used throughout the ages as a sleep aid and reduces the anxious emotions that can be provoked when using THC. This enables linalool to be a useful treatment for both anxiety and psychosis. There are studies that suggest that linalool can boost the immune system and can significantly reduce the level of inflammation in the lungs. Linalool can restore emotional functions as well as improving cognitive performance.

Terpinolene – is an active component within rosemary and sage. It is commonly used in soaps and perfumes around the world. Terpinolene is also commonly used as an insect repellent. It has a pine aroma with some floral nuances while having a sweet flavour comparable to lemons and oranges. 

Humulene – is also known as alpha humulene and alpha caryophyllene. Humulene is commonly found in cannabis sativa strains, coriander and hops.

Humulene is considered to be effective in treating inflammation, tumours and can suppress appetite. Within Traditional Chinese Medicine, humulene is commonly used.

Phellandrene – has a peppermint odour with a distinct scent of citrus. It is believed that phellandrene has incredible medicinal properties and has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat digestive disorders. It is one of the primary compounds in turmeric oil which is often used to treat and prevent fungal infection.

Phellandrene was first identified in the early 1900s within eucalyptus oil. 

The prospective uses for terpenes are fascinating and breeders of cannabis strains are working to create strains that have the optimal impact on treating specific symptoms or having a particular desired effect.

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