There are terpenes in many botanicals, but cannabis is rich in these aromatic chemicals. Photo credit: Twenty20photos.
Terpene extracts are emerging as a new product with multiple therapeutic uses. Here’s what terpenes are, what they do, how to use them, and their benefits.
What are Terpenes?
Terpenes are compounds in plants (and some fruits, such as oranges) that produce the scent usually associated with those plants. They are naturally-occurring aromatic chemicals. The function of terpenes in the wild is to act as a deterrent and prevent herbivorous animals from eating the plants that produce the scent; since the scent of terpenes tend to be very aromatic and pungent, animals avoid them, associating them with something potentially poisonous. But, in many cases, these scents are just the opposite — they’re actually beneficial to many animals and humans.
Cannabis is rich in terpenes. In fact, according to Healthline, there are over 400 terpenes in cannabis. Cannabis terpenes are notable because of the distinct scent they produce. For example, if one strain smells like pine, it contains high amounts of the terpene pinene. Yet, the terpenes in cannabis are not exclusive to cannabis and are in other botanical sources.
While there are benefits to other botanical terpenes, the majority of the research on terpenes consists of the terpenes in cannabis and their various uses.
What are the Benefits of Terpenes?
There are many plants that produce medicinal terpenes. Medicinal terpenes are terpenes that seem to have a special propensity for helping with certain issues and physical ailments. Terpenes have been known to help with things such as anxiety and muscle-pain. They may even have sedating and stimulating effects (depending on the terpene).
Terpenes are non-psychoactive, even those found in cannabis. Although some postulate that terpenes may compound with and potentially alter the THC-high. This is because of the entourage effect which is caused by the synergy of the different compounds present in cannabis.
Some of the most well-known and widely-used terpenes are humulene, myrcene, pinene, and linalool, among others. These are in many botanical-sources, including cannabis. Each of these have entirely different aromatic scents and corresponding effects. Further, because of their extremely low-toxicity, experts consider terpenes entirely safe for human and animal consumption.
Academic peer-reviewed research on terpenes published in the European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry in 2018 unequivocally states the benefits of terpenes: “[terpenes] have a good therapeutic index i.e. they are well tolerated without side effects… they exhibit, especially antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, [and] anti-antioxidant properties.”
Experiments with animals (unfortunately) and anecdotal evidence from humans have proven this. This preliminary research seems to be very positive for the use of terpenes in humans.
The research also notes the potential to combat anxiety and depression due to terpenes interaction with GABA receptors. These are the same receptors that many medications target, albeit they interact with them in different—less direct—ways.
The Benefits of a Single Terpene
Let’s look at the benefits of just one terpene: myrcene. This terpene is found in cannabis strains such as Sour Diesel, OG Kush as well as other plant-sources, such as hops and lemongrass. According to research by Leafly, myrcene is the most common terpene in cannabis and is also the dominant terpene in 40% of commercially-purchased cannabis flower.
Beyond producing a musky, earthy, odor that many associate with the pleasant scent of these plants, myrcene reduces inflammation and chronic pain. It also provides muscle relaxation in animal studies, according to anecdotal reports.
Consumers also attribute myrcene with sedating effects. In fact, in Mexico, many traditionally use it in the form of lemongrass tea as both a sedative and muscle-relaxant. This is also the case in Germany; many Germans use hops (with it’s high-levels of myrcene) as a sleep-aid.
Myrcene illustrates all the potential therapeutic benefits that are in a single terpene. Not only that, but it is the most common terpene in cannabis that has examples of therapeutic uses in other sources (lemongrass and hops).
How do Consumers use Terpenes?
Terpenes are naturally occurring in most botanical sources. So, for example, every time that one smokes cannabis, takes a whiff from a freshly-purchased nug, smells a pine-cone or a lavender plant, they’re ingesting terpenes through their olfactory system.
Yet, in the case of cannabis, unless someone is a terpene expert, they likely aren’t aware of which terpenes are in each strain of cannabis (and since there could be dozens of terpenes in a single strain, even if they are an expert they may not know). Also, the terpenes present in cannabis change during the season. So terpenes extracted from other botanical-sources can provide stability (again, consumers know exactly what they’re getting).
Many people, in order to know exactly which terpenes they’re sniffing or ingesting, purchase terpene extracts, usually in the form of oil. They can use this oil for aromatherapy, among other uses.
The most common mode of aromatherapy is via a diffuser. To do this, one simply places a few drops into the diffuser and allows the aroma to fill a room. Aromatherapy may partially alleviate some symptoms like anxiety, lethargy, or sleeplessness.
But consumers can use terpene extract-oil beyond that as well. For example, they can place it in foods or drinks, or steam them. Terpenes can be used in topicals, but should not be directly applied topically. They are extremely concentrated and can actually cause skin irritation if not diluted.
Terpenes + CBD
Consumers can also use terpenes in conjunction with CBD products. This induces the aforementioned entourage effect, which can produce more of the holistic benefits that many associate with cannabis. For instance, the terpene linalool can increase GABA activity when combined with CBD, which may lead to relaxation and alleviation of stress according to a study in Phytomedicine.
So, if one has CBD gummies or makes THC-infused edibles, adding terpenes can enhance products by augmenting certain effects.
However one chooses to take their terpenes, the science is revealing that terpene extracts are useful products with beneficial therapeutic effects.