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Terpene Profile: Caryophyllene, A Powerful Medicine from Cannabis

You’re probably familiar with cannabinoids, the compounds such as THC and CBD we like to describe as the cannabis plant’s “active ingredients.” While that’s a useful way of thinking about these powerful plant-based medicines, it’s not the whole story. The cannabis plant is also home to a stunning variety of terpenes, the fragrant hydrocarbons—or “essential oils”—that give specific strains of cannabis their distinctive aromas and flavors. And it turns out that terpenes bring a host of medicinal properties of their own.

For instance, the terpene we’re focusing on today—caryophyllene—is associated with some powerful effects. Studies indicate it may help us fight pain and inflammation, reduce a craving for alcohol, and even fight cancer cells in laboratory settings. More research is needed into whether the caryophyllene found in cannabis has these same potential effects. 

We’ll share a bit of what is currently known about this powerful terpene, along with some forecasts on what future research on caryophyllene may reveal. 

Caryophyllene: What Does It Do for Us?

If you’ve ever noticed a pleasantly spicy and peppery aroma or flavor in certain strains of cannabis, there’s a good chance you’re detecting the presence of caryophyllene. In addition to occurring in some cannabis strains, caryophyllene occurs in many common plants and herbs, including oregano, cloves, and rosemary.

According to a study published in 2001, it’s believed that terpenes interact with our bodies’ hormonal systems, influencing our levels of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and other brain chemicals. While caryophyllene also exhibits this effect, it’s unique in that it also interacts directly with the Endocannabinoid System, much in the way a cannabinoid (such as THC or CBD) would. It’s currently believed that this direct action increases caryophyllene dramatic anti-inflammatory effects. 

As you’re probably already aware, inflammation is one of the body’s principal responses to pain. Indeed, at least one rodent-based study has demonstrated caryophyllene’s pain-fighting ability. That may be why—anecdotally at least—high-caryophyllene cannabis strains such as the “GSC / Girl Scout Cookies” family are renowned for their effectiveness in helping to dull persistent pain. 

But that’s not all: While another study pointed to caryophyllene’s potential to help combat anxiety and depression, an experiment performed in 2014 suggested a startling new use for the terpene—helping reduce alcohol dependence. 

Admittedly, those test subjects were mice, not humans. Nevertheless, the study suggests a promising new approach in the treatment of alcohol dependence, a potentially dire condition that affects some 15 million Americans in any given year.

Caryophyllene: A Weapon in the Battle Against Cancer?

For many clinicians, curing cancer remains the medical world’s “holy grail”: an immensely challenging goal, but a potentially game-changing advance in our understanding of the human body. 

Especially given the abundance of unsupported claims, we want to be exceptionally clear that there is no current proof that cannabis “cures” cancer. But a number of experiments in laboratory settings suggest that terpenes may have a role to play here, and caryophyllene shows particular promise. 

Separate studies undertaken in Canada and South Korea both demonstrated the terpene’s ability to assist other drugs or spur apoptosis—programmed cell death—in cancer cells.

In the Canadian experiment, caryophyllene was shown to potentiate paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug used to combat several of the most common cancers. By comparison, the South Korean study observed that caryophyllene contributed directly to apoptosis, a finding which could have a profound impact on the development of new anti-cancer medications. 

That said, the medical world moves slowly and cautiously, and it will likely be years until such treatments are tested on human subjects. But we’re excited by the possibility of an effective weapon against one of the medical world’s toughest adversaries, especially one found in abundance in certain strains of cannabis.

If you have further thoughts or questions about caryophyllene or any other terpenes, please don’t hesitate to drop us a line; we’d love to help!

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