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 It's Time For An Honest Conversation about Cannabis!

Cannabis and Terpenoids

By Jack Turner of Pan's Ink -  Science has finally caught up with what connoisseurs have known all along—scent and flavor are associated with the effect of your cannabis medicine. In a series of publications beginning back in 2001, researchers started to talk about “Terpenes,” the small, volatile scent and flavor chemicals which make up aromatic plants’ essential oil. Terpenes, they concluded, when absorbed with other terpenes and other active ingredients in your cannabis medicine, had a strong physiological effect. And without terpenes and the minor cannabinoids, the medicinal benefits of cannabis are severely limited.

For thousands of years, humans have used cannabis in one form or another for its healing properties. Some strains are useful for pain and inflammation, while others are good for sleep or anxiety, while still others are useful for appetite stimulation. With so many effects possible, it can be difficult to tease out the causes behind the effects.

First and foremost, cannabis medicine is about synergies—synergies among phytochemicals found only in the cannabis plant, and synergies among the components of the plant’s essential oil. The following is taken mostly from Dr. Ethan Russo’s work on the subject of Terpene/Cannabinoid interaction.[1] First we’ll touch on a few of the cannabinoids and then we’ll discuss terpenes.

The Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids are plant chemicals, or phytochemicals, that are found only in the cannabis plant. Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, was first isolated and synthesized in 1964. Following this discovery, scientists were able to search for and identify a nervous system receptor site, CB1, which was activated by THC. Finally, scientists discovered endo-cannabinoids—cannabinoids that are manufactured within the human body. After these important discoveries, focus began to shift to the other cannabinoids: cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol (CBN), and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV).

  Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -  THC is a major constituent in cannabis resin, sometimes reaching 20 percent of weight. THC has stimulating and psychotropic effects when smoked or ingested. At high doses, THC becomes sedating. It is a powerful analgesic (pain killer). It has twenty times the anti-inflammatory power of aspirin and twice the anti-inflammatory power of hydrocortisone. Furthermore, THC has neuroprotective effects and is an antioxidant. It even helps prevent amyloid plaque buildup, the leading culprit in Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, THC reduces nausea.

 Cannabidiol (CBD) - CBD is usually found in concentrations of around 0.5 to 2 percent in high-THC strains of cannabis, but can reach levels of 15 to 20 percent of resin by weight in high-CBD strains such as Harlequin and Cannatonic. CBD has a sobering and alerting effect vs. THC. It is neuroprotective and an antioxidant. It has anti-convulsant properties, as well as being a strong anti-anxiety and antidepressant agent. It protects against breast cancer and many other cancer lines. Additionally, CBD reduces nausea.  Scientists are also experimenting with CBD’s natural anti-addictive properties to fight nicotine, opiate, and cocaine addiction.

  Cannabigerol (CBG) - CBG is a minor constituent in cannabis, rarely reaching levels higher than 1 percent. CBG has antidepressant properties and is a GABA reuptake inhibitor, which makes it effective against anxiety. Furthermore, CBG is anti-hypertensive and may have pain relieving properties. 

Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) - Found almost exclusively in Indica varieties of cannabis native to Afghanistan, Nepal, and South Africa, this chemical is suspected to be the cause behind Indica cannabis strains’ couch lock effects.  THCV has anticonvulsant as well as anti-inflammatory effects.

The Terpenoids

Terpenes, or Terpenoids, are volatile, aromatic phytochemicals which make up the essential oil of a variety of aromatic plants, herbs, and roots. Terpenes are what give flowers and herbs their distinctive, complex odors. There are thousands of unique terpene molecules that have been identified by scientists. And of course, different herbs have different terpenes, although certain terpenes are shared among many plants, such as alpha-Pinene in the various coniferous trees and d-Limonene in citrus peels. Drawings of terpene molecules look similar to drawings of cannabinoid molecules, only they are less complex.  Like the cannabinoids, the terpenoids have distinct biological properties when ingested or inhaled. And it is these biological properties, when combined with the biological properties of the cannabinoids present, which lead to the specific effects you feel when smoking your medical cannabis. 

alpha-Pinene -  alpha-Pinene is our first terpene under consideration. alpha-Pinene is the most abundant terpene in nature. Found in all coniferous trees (like pine), herbs and spices, and the cannabis flower, alpha-Pinene smells sharp, bitter, and, well, piney. alpha-Pinene has anti-inflammatory properties that synergize with the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD. Furthermore, it improves short term memory—a scarce resource for a regular smoker—by inhibiting the enzyme Acetyl cholinesterase, which plays a role in memory formation. alpha-Pinene is also a bronchodilator, meaning it opens up the airways in your chest. This is helpful for asthmatics and anybody with restricted air flow into their lungs. Finally, alpha-Pinene has anti-microbial properties that may help to reduce infections—especially of the lungs and bronchial tract. d-Limonene -  d-Limonene is found in the peels of lemons, oranges, grapefruit, and all citrus fruit, as well as in the cannabis flower.  d-Limonene gives them their distinctly citrusy scents. d-Limonene has several useful properties. It has been shown to have anti-depressant qualities in humans and we know that it acts at the serotonin receptor in mice. d-Limonene also has anti-anxiety properties, likely due to serotonin receptor interaction. These effects synergize with and boost the properties of the cannabinoid CBD and balance out the anxiety caused by THC. d-Limonene has been shown to stimulate the immune system and it has anti-cancer properties, also synergistic with CBD. It may be useful for gastro-esophageal reflux disease when combined with THC.

   beta-Myrcene - beta-Myrcene is a terpene that smells of citrus, chocolate, and fruit, and is found abundantly in the hops flower, the cannabis flower, in herbs like lemongrass and in gums like frankincense. It  synergizes with CBD to block inflammation in addition to reducing pain in conjunction with both CBD and THC. When combined with THC, it is sedating and relaxing.  Myrcene is the most abundant terpene in cannabis and often makes up half of the essential oil of the buds you smoke. 

  Linalool - Linalool, a terpene alcohol, is a part of the scent of many flowers. Found especially in lavender, clary sage, rosewood, and petitgrain, linalool is sharp, flowery, and sweet. Linalool possesses many useful qualities. Combined with CBD, linalool helps reduce anxiety. With THC, it is sedating. Linalool may act through modifying GABA neurotransmission behavior, which would make sense given its anxiolytic and sedating properties. Additionally, linalool has been shown to relieve pain when administered to mice.  Linalool is found in cannabis strains like lavender haze and lavender kush.

 beta-Caryophyllene - beta-Caryophyllene makes up the flavor (but not the spiciness!) of black pepper. It is found abundantly in cannabis leaves, black pepper, cloves, and even echinacea. beta-Caryophyllene is anti-inflammatory  (with CBD) and sedating (with THC). Furthermore, it is a full agonist at the CB2 receptor which allows it to fight inflammation and pain from a second angle. beta-Caryophyllene is found in small-to-moderate amounts in most smoked cannabis. 

When you start digging deeper into cannabis medicine, you begin to realize how complicated it can be, and you also realize why medicines like MarinolTM  (a patented synthetic pharmaceutical) don’t really do it for patients—each individual component by itself is not as powerful as the entourage of components you get when you inhale or ingest whole plant extracts.

[1] Russo, Ethan B. “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects.” British Journal of Pharmacology (2011). 1344 – 1364.