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What Are Terpenes? A Guided Tour of These Crucial Aromatic Compounds

If you’ve ever interfaced with medical cannabis, you’re probably familiar with the concept of cannabinoids, a family of compounds that include THC and CBD (among many others) that impart such useful medicinal effects. Today we’re going to shift gears and dive into an equally fascinating group of natural chemicals found in cannabis: terpenes.

What are terpenes? Simply put, they’re a group of volatile hydrocarbons—that’s another way of saying “essential oils”—that happen to be the largest and most diverse family of naturally occurring compounds on the planet. Found in everything from pine trees to parsley, beetles to basil, they serve in crucial roles such as protecting plants from pests and predators. In cannabis, terpenes impart the characteristic scents and flavors that characterize different strains.

But that’s not all. Clinical studies suggest that terpenes impart a wide range of potential medical benefits, and may play a far larger role in producing effects than once suspected.

If you’re interested in matching your cannabis intake to specific symptoms and conditions, today’s post is required reading. In it, we’ll tackle such questions as:

  • What are terpenes?
  • What do cannabis terpenes do inside our bodies?
  • What’s the difference between terpenes and cannabinoids?
  • What’s a list of terpenes and effects?

Ready to explore a brave new world of cannabis scents and flavors? Let’s get started.

What Are Terpenes? An Introduction to the Most Diverse Compounds on Earth

If you’ve ever detected a lemony scent in Golden Panama or an earthy funk in Ultimate Purple, you’re already familiar with the aromatic contribution terpenes make to cannabis—but terpenes are everywhere in the natural world, not just in your bud.

Richly aromatic and memorable, terpenes contribute the essential fragrant notes to an astonishingly broad list of natural products. The distinctive “Christmas tree” aroma of pine resin? That comes from the closely related “twin terpenes” alpha-pinene and beta-pinene, also found in spruce, rosemary, basil, and orange peel. The bracing scent of a hoppy beer? That’s courtesy of humulene, an earthy, woodsy, and spice-flavored terpene also found in ginger. Any way you slice it, terpenes are an ever-present part of life on this planet.

Even when we tighten our focus to cannabis terpenes, researchers have identified at least 150 of them in the plant. And when cannabis plants are subdivided into sativa and indica categories or even individual cultivars (or strains) they all still contain terpenes, working in harmony to produce a unique profile for each and every strain.

Not too long ago, THC was considered the only “active ingredient” in cannabis (more on that in a moment). But thousands of years of folk-medicine history tell a different story: Terpenes such as borneol and linalool have been used for millennia for the relief of specific symptoms and conditions. Now, clinical research is unlocking the secrets of cannabis terpenes and why we feel they’re so important. Here’s their story.

What Do Cannabis Terpenes Do Inside Our Bodies?

Here at Vireo, we’re big fans of the cutting-edge approaches that guide us in crafting our world-class cannabis medicines. But long before researchers had access to the sophisticated tools that allow us to observe the world on a molecular level, traditional healers were using terpenes for a wide variety of specific outcomes.

The linalool found in lavender has been used as a natural calming agent for eons, and Chinese physicians relied on borneol for its pain-fighting and other effects since at least 221 BC, when it was used to concoct a treatment called “moxa” to stimulate the flows of blood and energy.

From a clinical perspective, the most important compounds in cannabis are still the cannabinoids, a group of natural chemicals including THC and CBD, along with over one hundred others. These cannabinoids interact with one of our most important regulatory networks: the endocannabinoid system, or ECS.

THC is the cannabinoid most directly responsible for the cannabis plant’s intoxicating psychoactivity, or what’s commonly called its “high.” In addition, it’s been shown to potentially help us manage pain as well as regulate nausea and appetite, especially in those undergoing chemotherapy and similar treatments.

By way of comparison, CBD imparts at most a gentle cerebral “buzz.” Until a few years ago CBD received far less attention than THC, but that’s rapidly changing as current research supports a wide range of potentially useful effects, including the ability to help us fight pain and inflammation, ease anxiety, and help quell certain types of seizures.

But here’s the thing: While terpenes and cannabinoids are very different types of compounds, there’s strong evidence that they actually work in partnership to effect even more impactful medical benefits than they would on their own. The theory is known as “the entourage effect.”

First proposed by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam—the Israeli researcher who identified THC as the source of cannabis’ euphoric “high”—it suggests a large number of potential synergies and interactions between cannabis terpenes, cannabinoids, and potentially other compounds still.

Thus far, some research supports the theory, though its exact mechanisms remain unknown. For instance, one study published in 2011 suggests that THC interacts with pinene to potentially help counteract the cannabinoid’s negative impact on short-term memory.

What that established, let’s turn now to a list of cannabis terpenes, and some intriguing effects they may elicit inside our bodies.

Major Terpenes and Their Effects

As we mentioned earlier, cannabis contains a large number of terpenes, most of which only play a minor role. Here are a few of the most abundant and medically impactful ones.

  • Caryophyllene
    Calling to mind black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and oregano, caryophyllene is as medically active as it is flavorful. Studies suggest that caryophyllene delivers powerful analgesic and anti-anxiety properties. And thanks to its unusual molecular binding properties, it’s often used in anti-inflammatory topicals and creams.
  • Eucalyptol
    Closely associated with the eucalyptus tree, this terpene—also known as cineol—imparts a bracingly minty aroma and flavor to certain cannabis strains. Along with its wide use in medical aromatherapy, eucalyptol has been shown to function as an anti-inflammatory and to potentially reduce the pain associated with certain types of arthritis.
  • Humulene
    Another distinctive terpene often found in cannabis, humulene also occurs in hops, the ancient plant which lend many beers their spicy and bitter flavors. As well as being an anti-bacterial, humulene has been shown to fight the growth of tumors and even suppress the appetite.
  • Limonene
    Renowned for its ability to impart general uplift and mood-lightening effects, limonene has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety. What’s more, studies suggest that this terpene may help regulate our immune system, and may potentially play a role in controlling the spread of certain cancers.
  • Linalool
    Perhaps the terpene most clearly associated with the stereotypical “marijuana smell,” linalool is largely associated with lavender. It’s known to help fight anxiety and depression and impart sedative and relaxing sensations. What’s more, preliminary studies suggest that linalool might help reverse the cognitive impairment and memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Myrcene
    The most abundant cannabis terpene, myrcene is characterized by a fruity and grapelike flavor and scent. In addition to its known gentle sedative effects, myrcene helps synergize the actions of other terpenes and cannabinoids. That’s why it’s sometimes known as the “Mother of Terpenes.”
  • Pinene
    With a distinctively resinous scent, pinene is an instantly recognizable cannabis terpene. Research suggests pinene is also a gentle anti-inflammatory. In fact, inhaling cannabis rich in pinene may help modulate inflammatory responses such as asthma.

Explore Cannabis Terpenes with Vireo

As we hope today’s post makes clear, cannabis terpenes play a major role in the cannabis ecosystem. In addition to comprising the distinctive terpene profile of each strain, they impart important medical effects that in turn may help empower cannabinoids such as THC and CBD. It’s yet another example of how the natural compounds in cannabis provide a safe, sustainable, and effective alternative to pharmaceuticals.

At Vireo Health, this knowledge drives all our decisions when it comes to formulating the best-in-class medicines that serve our customers. Today, we take advantage of cannabis terpenes when we formulate products in the Vireo Spectrum™, a family of cannabis medicines color-coded to help address specific symptoms and conditions. That’s why you’ll find myrcene, caryophyllene, pinene, limonene, and ocimene in our Vireo Yellow distillate oil, and terpinolene, beta-caryophyllene, ocimene, myrcene, and limonene in our Vireo Red oil.

If you’re interested in learning about the dominant terpenes in any particular strain, be sure to check out our growing Cannabis Strain Library to explore a database of sativa, indica, and hybrid strains. Or peruse the terpenes in our current selection of cannabis strains at the Vireo Health dispensary nearest you for online and in-store shopping or home delivery in New York state.

Any further questions about terpenes? Don’t hesitate to reach out, we’re here to help!

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