For decades, we have pretty much single handedly attributed the effects of cannabis to active cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). And actually, it’s only been within the last several years (with the introduction of CBD-specific oils and therapies) that we’ve given much consideration at all to CBD.
As more and more money gets tossed into marijuana research, though, (in response to its increasing legality and booming popularity), it seems that these two active compounds are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the functionality and pharmacologic effects of the herb. For instance, scientists have already uncovered several additional phytocannabinoids (such as CBG, CBN, THCV, and THCA) that they know play at least some active role in terms of the plant’s therapeutic and psychoactive effects.
However, it’s becoming more evident that there is another completely different class of active compounds in marijuana that may play just as important a role as the cannabinoids – the terpenes. In case you haven’t heard of them, terpenes are basically aromatic chemical compounds that are responsible for giving marijuana its wide-range of tastes and aromas. However, in addition to their unique smells and flavors, scientists are proposing that terpenes may play a crucial synergistic role that allows cannabinoids like CBD to work their therapeutic magic.
In this article, we talk about a few of the most common terpenes, what their effects on the human body might be, and how they weigh in in terms of physiological importance when compared to some of the most well-known cannabinoids. While not much is known of these “new” cannabis compounds, what’s seemingly clear is that they play a central role in the herb’s profound effects on human physiology and psychoactivity.
The Difference Between Cannabinoids and Terpenes
Terpenes are not unique to marijuana. In fact, they are common compounds that can be found in the majority of vegetables and edible herbs. Their chemical structure makes them aromatic molecules, meaning they are responsible for giving marijuana its vast array of unique flavors and pungent aromas. (In the wild, it’s believed that these aromas have evolved to ward off insects, fungus, and other would-be predators).
In terms of function, though, the aromatic properties of terpenes are far from their only physiologic effect. For example, a 2011 study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that beta-caryophyllene – a common terpene found in many herbs (including cannabis) – has gastro-protective properties and is good for treating ulcers, inflammation, and even autoimmune disorders. This makes sense, considering that an earlier (2008) study showed the ability of beta-caryophyllene to physically bind to CB-2 receptors in the body’s immune response system. Up until that point, it was believed that CBD and THC were the only active cannabis compounds that were able to bind to endocannabinoid receptors.
In terms of their actual chemical structure, terpenes are quite similar to cannabinoids, and they are actually secreted from the same part of the plant (the resin glands). The key structural difference comes in the form of a repetitive aromatic 5-carbon ring called isoprene, which is not found in cannabinoids like CBD and THC. While the isolated functions of specific cannabis terpenes have not been studied, it is known that they are extracted from other herbs and used for holistic aromatherapy purposes.
Like we just mentioned, the effect of specific terpenes has not been well-studied in cannabis. While the plant is known to contain as many as 200 different terpene molecules, or terpenoids, very little is actually known of their individual functions in the body.
What is widely-accepted, though, is the idea that terpenes play major synergistic roles with active cannabinoids. This means that the effects of both THC and CBD – including their medicinal, therapeutic, and psychoactive effects – are likely due in large part to the presence and function of terpenes.
For example, while therapeutic benefits have been documented for both CBD and THC in their pure, isolated molecular forms, it is widely understood that their effects on the body are greatly amplified when administered as a full-spectrum unit (full-spectrum means derived from the whole cannabis plant – not just an isolated CBD or THC extract).
Also, it is believed that marijuana’s wide range of psychoactive “highs” is due to the presence of various types of terpenes. This makes sense considering the fact that you can get a dozen distinct highs from a dozen different marijuana strains with the same level of THC.
For example, Strawberry Cough and Northern Lights are two different marijuana strains that are known to have very different psychoactive effects; while the Strawberry strain produces an energetic, uplifting high, Northern Lights produces an extremely sedating, calming high that’s great for inducing sleep and couch lock. However, the THC content is pretty similar in both of these strains, as it ranges upwards of 20%.
Taking that into consideration, it is only plausible that the psychoactive differences in these strains is due to the difference in their terpene profiles. And of course this makes perfect sense considering that Strawberry Cough and Northern Lights have very distinct aromas and flavors from one another.
What Are Some of the Most Common Terpenes in Marijuana?
Like we said, even though cannabis is known to contain hundreds of different terpenes, there are really only a handful that exist in a high enough quantity to produce any sort of real effects. Here are several of the most common cannabis terpenes that are found in marijuana:
Linalool. This is a natural terpene that is found in abundance in the lavender plant – any cannabis strain that has a wonderful lavender scent is likely very high in linalool. It is known to be great for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, and is also known that when applied topically, it works as a great natural medication for acne and other skin conditions.
Myrcene. Myrcene is probably the most common cannabis terpene – it has a really dank, earthy, musky smell similar to cloves, and in terms of its synergistic effects, it is known to be an excellent muscle relaxer and is great for relieving pain and inflammation. It’s also a great sedative and is known to exist in high quantities in marijuana strains that produce couch lock.
Limonene. This is the “citrusy” terpene – any cannabis strain that has a pungent citrus aroma (such as Agent Orange or Lemon and Citrus Kush) is high in limonene. As far as effects, it is known to work great as an anti-seizure therapy, and it is also understood to improve mood and relieve heartburn and acid reflux. Additionally, it has been clinically proven to dissolve gallstones, destroy breast cancer cells, and kill microbial bacteria.
Alpha and Beta-pinene. This terpene is highly abundant in natural pine oils, and gives some marijuana strains (like Jack Herer and Chem Dawg) that classic “pine-y” smell. It is the most common plant terpene in the world, and it is a known therapy for individuals that suffer with asthma. However, it’s also known to improve memory, alertness, and general energy levels.
Beta-caryophyllene. This terpenoid is found naturally in many edible herbs like oregano and black pepper, and, like we talked about earlier, has been shown in studies to treat ulcers and work as a gastro-protectant. Also, because of its known ability to bind to CB-2 receptors in the immune system, it is believed to have synergistic roles in treating inflammation and autoimmune conditions.
Final Thoughts: Are Terpenes Better Than Cannabinoids?
It wouldn’t be relevant to label either terpenes or cannabinoids as being any “better” or “worse” than the other – in truth, it’s actually believed that they work in sync with one another rather than producing distinct, individualistic effects.
What is widely believed to be true, however, is that terpenes – due to their influence on THC activity in the central nervous system – are actually what gives marijuana its distinct highs and varying psychoactive effects from strain to strain.
While we don’t know exactly the specific role that cannabis terpenes play in human physiology, we do know that without them, the medical, therapeutic, and psychoactive effects of cannabinoids like THC and CBD would not be nearly as relevant as they are.