If you’ve ever had the pleasure of standing in a warm greenhouse or visiting a fragrant garden, you’re probably already aware that plenty of plants, such as the cannabis or hemp plant used to make CBD oil, have rather strong, identifiable scents.
You may also be familiar with the fact that many herbs and flowers, such as lavender, thyme, mint and cannabis, possess a range of wellbeing properties – some of which can be harnessed through the use of CBD products. But what is not such common knowledge is how these two things tie together.
The link lies in terpenes: a word perhaps most commonly associated with the infamous aroma of cannabis that is just one example of the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of different chemicals found widespread in nature, both in plants and the human body.
The chemicals found in plants are characterised into phytochemical classes – different classes based on chemical structures and the atoms within them. Terpenes are one of these classes, and it’s their high structural diversity that makes them responsible for the variation in smell, taste and even effect of cannabinoids (and other plant compounds) on the body.
To be a terpene a molecule must contain hydrocarbons (bonded hydrogen and carbon atoms). The smallest terpene starts with 5 carbons so the formula is C5H8, and is called an “isoprene”. Every other terpene is based on a multiple of that, so for example monoterpenes have 10 carbons and are based on the formula C10H16, diterpenes have 20 carbons (C20H32) and so on.
But enough depth about phytochemistry…
An extensive range of naturally occurring terpenes can be found in cannabis, with the amounts of each type differing depending on the strain. When left to their own devices these varying terpenes give every type of marijuana plant a unique personality and profile – some are higher in the terpenes responsible for inducing a sense of relaxation, others are rich in terpenes shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and so on. And as the side effects change with the variance of terpenes, so too do the smells and flavours of each plant.
When it comes to CBD oil, these all-important terpenes can be found in full spectrum (containing THC) and broad spectrum (very low levels of THC). CBD isolate is when CBD is extracted for use on its own, however, some people are now building specific oils starting with an isolate and then adding higher concentrations of a few terpenes to create a desired effect. CBD alchemy at work!
There are many, many different types of terpenes in cannabis plants, all of which bring their own unique characteristics to the table. But there are some found more readily than others that the scientific community have started exploring the benefits of…
Hops flowers, used to make beer, are said to be useful when people can’t sleep and myrcene is thought to be the active compound responsible for this (10). This monoterpene occurs in many other fragrant plants such as lemongrass, bay leaves, thyme and basil, as well as cannabis.
Studies performed on mice have shown that myrcene helps relax muscles (11) and it’s thought that the combination of THC and myrcene causes the super-relaxed “couch lock” effect some people enjoy when using cannabis or full spectrum CBD.
Linalool is another monoterpene found in abundance in lavender, coriander oil and cannabis. This terpene has been shown to soothe worry, working synergistically with CBD and cannabigerol (CBG) (9). When in a blend with THC, experiments show linalool can be useful for sedation (9) and even for pain relief (14) (but again, only officially in our rodent friends so far!).
Additionally, studies show that it can inhibit the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate having anticonvulsant effects, working beautifully with CBD, THCV and CBDV (12).
Probably the most common sesquiterpene found in the superplant, cannabis, and the first proven phytocannabinoid beyond the cannabis family. This molecule fully binds to the CB2 receptor, which is involved with the immune system, and it is also found in black pepper which is one of the reasons you’ll often see black pepper added to CBD oil to enhance the effects. The b-caryophyllene terpene has been shown to be anti-inflammatory (15) although evidence for CBD oils use for anti-inflammation can only be based on anecdotes as clinical trials are limited.
As you can probably tell from the name, limonene is frequently found in citrus fruits (specifically the peels). It works well with CBD for relaxing the mind, and it does this by stimulating serotonin receptors (16). It’s been shown in a cell-based study to be useful with CBD for acne (17), and a human study shows it stimulates the immune system when inhaled (18).
There is limited research on this terpene, so we’re excited to see what future research will reveal! What we do know is that humulene is found in cloves, basil and hops and has been shown to be anti-inflammatory in mice (1). It’s also been shown to have some antibacterial properties (2).
Geraniol is commonly found in roses and geranium flowers, and is often used as a perfume (8). Aside from its lovely scent, it has also been shown to have some antimicrobial and antioxidant effects which are important for protecting cells and overall maintenance of the body (19).
This terpene is commonly found in tea tree and eucalyptus, as well as cannabis, and is used in many commercial products for coughs and mouthwash. A study in rats was shown that eucalyptol helped protect the liver (4) and its anti-inflammatory properties were also shown to be useful for asthma in a study conducted on people (5). Note that this experiment was done with high doses of the isolated molecule though, and a massive amount of superplant would have to be consumed to get near the effective doses (definitely not recommended!).
This monoterpene is the most widely found terpene in nature. It is present in pine trees and has insect repelling properties. It is also known as a broad-spectrum antibiotic (20), meaning it can target many different types of bacteria. Fascinatingly, it has been shown to be an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, meaning it blocks the enzymes that break down our molecules that make new memories – ultimately aiding memory (21). Here’s hoping high α-pinene levels can help stop the memory loss that can come as a downfall of the superplant.
Terpenes are, without a doubt, an incredibly important molecule in cannabis’s arsenal and the more we know about them, the more we will be able to get out of the superplant. Cannabis research is still a relatively young science and cannabis specific terpene research even newer, so there’s a long way to go before we can fully discover and explore the qualities that these terpenes have to offer.
In many ways, plants are a lot more difficult to research than single active compounds, and scientists have a lot of work to do before we can entirely understand synergistic effects and optimum strains. However it is evident that terpenes are a fascinating and useful point of interest for future research.
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