You’ve probably heard the word “terpenes” tossed about in relation to their healing potential. The impressive health benefits of terpenes are commonly discussed. Most people hear the word “terpenes” in a discussion related to CBD or THC, but what exactly are terpenes, and why are they so important?
Terpenes are aromatic volatile compounds. These compounds are found in almost every plant and flower in the world, including THC and CBD. These diverse chemical structures make up the scents and flavors of some of our most commonly-consumed foods and spices. The terpene Limonene, a powerful antioxidant, is found in high concentrations in the peels of citrus fruits and is what gives your orange or lemon its distinctive smell. Linalool, on the other hand, has calming and stress-relieving properties and is found in many plants, the most common being lavender.
Plants have evolved to use terpenes in a number of significant ways. Terpenes can attract pollinating insects, thereby ensuring the reproduction of a plant species. They can also act as defense mechanisms, with some plants releasing a terpene resin that acts as a protective barrier against invasion or infestation of the plant by predators. Elizabeth Moriarty, CEO of Luminary Medicine Co. and a Clinical Herbalist states:
We’re just beginning to recognize the nuanced relationship between people and plants; terpenes are the most commonly spoken language of nature, bio-chemical messages from plants to each other, and to creatures of every terrestrial kingdom.
Aromatherapy, the practice of using plant essential oils to enhance physical and mental well-being, is a classic example of human use of terpenes.
Health Benefits Of Terpenes: Outlining Their Importance
Most plants have multiple terpenes in them, and, in the case of cannabis, over 200 different terpenes have been identified. In addition to the role that they play in plant health and reproduction, terpenes may also offer health benefits for humans and animals, ranging from anti-inflammatory to anti-cancer. According to Moriarty, “Terpenes influence neurological function, mood, respiration, endocrine function, appetites and desires, immunology, circulation, cognition … and they tend to be potent antimicrobials as well.”
Part of the reason that terpenes are so valuable is due to their synergistic properties, especially in relation to other healing compounds found in cannabis. Dr. Ethan Russo, director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute in Prague, describes synergy in this way:
Synergy is a boosting of effect. So, it would be the idea that 2 + 2, instead to equaling 4, it gives you an 8 in terms of the benefit. So, for example, cannabidiol treats pain. But there are other ingredients in cannabis that also treat pain or may limit the side effects of other components and so it is sort of like an ensemble of musical instruments where you might think of THC as the soloist with an important part provided by cannabidiol, but you also have these other components producing a harmony that really increases the overall effect and hopefully makes the best possible medicine.
This synergistic effect as it relates to the other compounds in cannabis is particularly important in regard to the terpenes alpha-pinene and beta-caryophyllene.
As the name suggests, alpha-pinene (a-pinene) is responsible for the fresh and invigorating smell of pine and is found in high concentrations in pine needles, herbs like rosemary and basil, and cannabis. The most commonly found terpene in nature, a-pinene is a potent anti-inflammatory that has exhibited positive results in the treatment of chronic diseases like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Studies have also shown that this terpene is helpful in the treatment of bronchial issues like asthma, as well as in the treatment of ulcers and other gastrointestinal issues. And if that weren’t enough to convince you of its efficacy, a-pinene also has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties and has proven effective in the treatment of Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumonia, two bacteria that have developed resistance to many conventional antibiotic treatments. A-pinene is also a memory booster, counteracting some of the short term memory loss associated with THC consumption, and has proven helpful in the treatment of dementia.
An extremely unique terpene, beta-caryophyllene (b-caryophyllene) is found in abundance in green leafy vegetables and warming spices like nutmeg, ginger, and black pepper. One of the many exciting medical aspects of beta-caryophyllene is that it acts as a cannabinoid by stimulating the CB2 receptors (responsible for immunomodulatory and pain-relieving activities in the brain) in the endocannabinoid system, without causing any psychoactive effects. The stimulatory and binding action is a unique phenomenon, and so far it is the only identified terpene that acts as a cannabinoid.
In addition to its unique behavior, beta-caryophyllene is a potent anti-inflammatory and anti-pain agent that works particularly well when used in conjunction with CBD and THC. A study published in 2014 examined the relationship between b-caryophyllene and pain relief, ultimately concluding that it significantly reduced the occurrence and duration of pain incidents. Most conventional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) cannot be taken for long periods of time because they destroy the lining of the stomach, but this terpene actually helps heal ulcers and supports overall gastrointestinal health, while providing much-needed pain relief.
Terpenes In The Age Of An Opioid Crisis
Cannabis has long shown promise as a means of treating opioid addiction. With more than 72,000 deaths attributed to opioids in 2017 alone, this is an issue that has affected almost every corner of the United States, and in some cases has virtually destroyed entire towns. According to Dr. Russo, “It’s been known for 150 years that cannabis is capable of acting in concert with opioids to treat pain and allowing what’s called ‘opioid-sparing.’ This means a lower dose producing the same or better level of pain control.“
Beta-caryophyllene has also shown significant potential in its ability to treat opioid addiction, due in large part to its ability to act as a cannabinoid by stimulating the CB2 receptors in the brain. Russo explains the action this way:
There’s another component in cannabis, a terpenoid called caryophyllene, that also is anti-addictive through a totally different mechanism than CBD. It’s working on another receptor called the CB2 receptor that’s involved in addiction. So, a preparation that had THC, CBD, and caryophyllene may be an ideal way of dealing with chronic pain and particularly people who are addicted to opioids.
Despite the existence of so much knowledge related to cannabis, terpenes, and their role in relieving pain and addictive cravings, it is only recently that this information has become more readily available to healthcare professionals and the general public. With the successful passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the production, sale, and use of CBD were finally legalized in all 50 states. This, combined with the partial legalization of THC cannabis for both medicinal and recreational uses, is an important step in finally legitimizing the incredible healing benefits of these plants.
Rosanna Keyes is a freelance writer, editor and non-profit office administrator living in the Asheville, NC area. She has a B.S.S. from Ohio University with concentrations in English Literature, Creative Writing, and Geography. She is a passionate advocate for sustainable food production, herbalism and the preservation of wild spaces for plant and animal habitat.
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