There are over 200 terpenes that have been identified in the cannabis plant, each one with a unique flavor and aroma. The aromas of different strains can be quite diverse: you may find hints of citrus, lavender or pine in some varieties. This is because terpenes are what give cannabis its distinctive smell.
However, there’s more to these compounds than just giving your weed an earthy or fruity scent. Terpenes also impart many potential medical and therapeutic properties to the plant.
In this article, we’ll take a brief look at some of the research that’s been conducted on terpenes from a medical perspective.
The Role of Terpenes in Cannabis & Essential Oils
Terpenes are natural plant compounds that give different cannabis strains and essential oils their distinctive flavor and aroma profiles. However, terpenes impart more than just smell and taste. Terpenes are noted in medical research as having a plethora of potential medicinal and therapeutic properties.
Let's look at the cannabis strain known as Sour Diesel as an example. The high concentration of myrcene present within the strain doesn't simply infuse it with an earthy, musky odor consumers enjoy; as a relaxant terpene, it also relieves symptoms of chronic pain, sleep and spasticity conditions.
Essential oils are full-spectrum extracts from plants widely considered to have therapeutic properties, such as lavender and juniper berry. These properties are derived from their terpene profiles. The linalool in lavender oil, for instance, is responsible for its ability to melt away stress and relax tight muscles in aromatherapy. Cannabis strains high in linalool — like LA Confidential or Amnesia Haze — have the same effect.
Understanding The Entourage Effect
Another benefit of medical terpenes is their ability to work synergistically with cannabinoids like CBD to enhance their beneficial effects. This process is known as the Entourage Effect, and is a major reason cannabis veterans frequently mix terpenes into homemade CBD oils.
The Entourage Effect was discovered by organic chemists S. Ben Shabat and Raphael Mechoulam during their research into medical cannabis. The term was coined to describe the mechanism by which terpenes and CBD can have greater medicinal potential when used together, rather than separately or individually.
How does it work?
CBD binds to cannabinoid receptors located in the nervous system, peripheral organs and immune system, producing modulatory effects on neurophysiological processes such as pain, stress and inflammatory response. This can greatly complement the effect of a specific terpene (i.e. sedative, antimalarial, etc).
The Entourage Effect gives the cannabis plant a unique place in the field of natural medicine. It not only contains beneficial compounds like cannabinoids and terpenoids which can be used as individual extracts; when used together, they even enhance each other's beneficial properties.
Terpenes as Natural Anti-Inflammatory Agents
Some terpenes, such as the ever-popular limonene, have been shown to provide significant relief from conditions characterized by abnormal inflammation (e.g. tendonitis or gout). In states where medical cannabis is legal, cannabis strains with high-limonene terpene profiles are commonly prescribed to patients suffering from chronic swelling due to its established anti-inflammatory properties.
Limonene is found in citrus fruits, and as such is the most common and readily available anti-inflammatory terpene available. However, other terpenes can provide relief from out-of-control inflammation and swelling — including eucalyptol, borneol and delta-3 carene.
Limonene and alpha-pinene are two of the most abundant terpenes in cannabis. They are also found in some citrus fruits, like oranges and lemons. Terpenes such as these have may have mild antifungal properties. This means they can potentially be used to treat ringworm, athlete’s foot or other fungal infections.
Examining The Research on Anti-Cancer Terpenes
There are several medical terpenes currently being researched for their antitumoral properties. A specific terpene called phytol, which is most commonly found in green tea, has shown impressive antiproliferative activity against lung cancer tumor cells, as well as significant anti-angiogenic potential.
Pinene, the primary terpene found in pine trees and balsam firs, has a long history of use in Chinese medicine for its inhibitory effect on liver cancer tumor cells. Studies show inhibitory rates of up to 79% in vitro and 69% in vivo, and emerging research reveals similar rates against ovarian cancer cell lines.
Other terpenes with established antitumoral potential include humulene and beta-caryophyllene, both of which have the added benefit of having widely compatible flavor profiles for infusion into food and beverages. This makes all four of the listed terpenes exceptionally easy and convenient to use as a supplement — whether preventatively or remedially — in high cancer risk individuals.
Terpenes such as beta-caryophyllene and terpinolene have been shown to possess antimicrobial properties, which can be helpful against bacterial infections.
While terpenes are effective at killing certain types of bacteria on their own, they also can be used as an additive to antibiotics. Terpenes may enhance the effectiveness of these drugs by reducing the amount needed in a given treatment. This could prove useful when working with pathogens that have developed resistance to standard antibiotic treatments such as MRSA or C-diff.
The Benefits of Terpenes
Medical terpenes may be effective in treating a variety of infections, including fungal and bacterial. Terpenes may also help reduce the need for antibiotics or other synthetic drugs by reducing inflammation or providing temporary relief from pain between flare-ups.
In this article, you’ve learned how medical terpenes, as well as cannabis more broadly, are therapeutic assets that are increasingly being studied more seriously.