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What are terpenes? Operation and Benefits

What are terpenes? Operation and Benefits

When we talk about the effects and properties of Cannabis, we are mainly referring to its main active ingredients, phytocannabinoids such as CBD and THC. 

However, there are other very similar components capable of influencing and highlighting the different effects of Cannabis, working in synergy with phytocannabinoids: these are terpenes. Nowadays we often hear about terpenes, but what exactly are terpenes? Why do the effects of Cannabis influence? What are terpenes? What properties do they have? 

In this article, you will be able to resolve all your doubts and acquire some very useful knowledge.

What are terpenes?

Terpenes are aromatic and volatile organic compounds present in the vast majority of plants, being responsible for their characteristic aroma, smell and flavor. In fact, in nature there are more than 30,000 different terpenes, therefore they represent the largest group of all phytochemicals.

The type, quantity and proportion of terpenes present in a certain plant make up its specific essential oil, which will need to be extracted by distillation since, being an oil; it is not soluble in water. For example, the essential oil of lemon is composed of different terpenes, among which Limonene stands out (hence its name), which can be present in many other plants although in less significant concentrations. 

Depending on the degree of volatility and the complexity of their structure, terpenes are divided into monoterpenes (very volatile), sesquiterpenes, diterpenes, triterpenes, tetraterpenes and polyterpenes (low volatility).

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Terpenes in cannabis

The Cannabis plant does not produce exclusive terpenes, all of those it contains are also present in other plants, which when used together can generate a synergistic effect. However, there are hundreds of varieties of Cannabis and each one develops a different mix of terpenes, which characterizes and distinguishes its aroma and its physical and mental effects beyond its phytocannabinoid content.

Where are they located, what function do they have and how do they interact with cannabinoids?

Terpenes, as well as phytocannabinoids, do not fulfill any vital function for the plant, but rather represent defense mechanisms that fulfill an adaptive function, essential to guarantee its survival in different environmental conditions. 

For example, one of the most important functions of terpenes and phytocannabinoids is to attract pollinating insects and repel fungi, bacteria, and other potentially pathogenic insects.

In the cannabis plant, terpenes and phytocannabinoids are two very similar components that are located in structures called trichome. In there, they are produced and conserved in a symbiotic way. In fact, they share the same development (that is, for a certain time they are the same substance) until a moment in which they differentiate, with phytocannabinoids representing a true “evolution” of terpenes that occurs only in the cannabis plant.

Terpenes and phytocannabinoids are the two main components of cannabis resin and interact with each other; therefore, the type of effect of THC and CBD, both experientially and therapeutically, can vary depending on the type and amount of terpenes of each plant. For this reason, there are varieties that provide more relaxing or more stimulating effects, which generally tend to correspond to the respectively more indica or more sativa genetics, even though they have the same amount of phytocannabinoids.

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What terpenes are found in cannabis?

Terpenes can represent up to 10% of the trichome content when the plant is fresh, but due to its volatility and structure, the majority of terpenes (especially monoterpenes) are lost during the drying and curing phases, although with extraction techniques from the fresh plant it is possible to optimize its conservation.

Limonene (monoterpene)

Limonene is the second most abundant terpene in nature, present especially in citrus fruits such as lemon, orange, grapefruit or bergamot, as well as some varieties of mint and rosemary. In cannabis, this terpene can be found especially in sativa varieties and is usually clearly distinguished by its lemon aroma.

What medicinal uses can limonene have?

Limonene has excellent immunostimulant properties, in addition to having a marked anxiolytic and antidepressant effect and being beneficial for the digestive system, especially in case of suffering from gastroesophageal reflux. Limonene also has therapeutic properties if applied externally, acting as an antibacterial and antifungal. 

Thanks to the presence of limonene, the anxiolytic and antidepressant effects of CBD are highlighted, in addition to increasing its ability to stimulate the immune system and enhance its benefits at a topical level, particularly in case of acne.

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Myrcene (monoterpene)

Myrcene is the characteristic terpene of the hop plant, in addition to being present in some varieties of thyme and mango. Cannabis is a plant with characteristics very similar to hops, therefore myrcene is widely distributed in many varieties, although in higher concentrations in the most indica genetics.

What medicinal uses can myrcene have?

Myrcene has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, in addition to promoting relaxation and sleep. The presence of myrcene increases the sedative and relaxing effect of both CBD and THC (as can be experienced when drinking cannabis and craft beer), in addition to highlighting their anti-pain and anti-inflammatory properties.

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Pinene (monoterpene)

Pinene is the widely present terpene in nature, characteristic of all conifers such as pine, fir, cypress, juniper and rosemary, in addition to being present in black pepper and many other plants. In cannabis, it occurs in greater quantities in the most indica genetics, although it can be found in many hybrids.

What medicinal uses can pinene have?

Pinene is an excellent anti-inflammatory and is particularly beneficial on the respiratory system, due to its balsamic and bronchodilator effect. An interesting property of pinene is to stimulate cognitive functions, favoring attention and memory mechanisms. 

The presence of pinene especially highlights the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD and THC.

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Linalool (monoterpene)

Thanks to its relaxing effect on both a mental and physical level, linalool has anxiolytic, sedative and anticonvulsant properties, in addition to acting as an anti-inflammatory both internally and externally. These properties fit perfectly with those of CBD, enhancing its benefits against anxiety and stress problems and increasing its anticonvulsant and anti-inflammatory effect.

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What medicinal uses can linalool have?

Thanks to its relaxing effect on both a mental and physical level, linalool has anxiolytic, sedative and anticonvulsant properties, in addition to acting as an anti-inflammatory both internally and externally. These properties fit perfectly with those of CBD, enhancing its benefits against anxiety and stress problems and increasing its anticonvulsant and anti-inflammatory effect.

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Beta-Caryophyllene (sesquiterpene)

Beta-caryophyllene is the characteristic terpene of black pepper, but it can be found in other plants such as hops, cloves, and basil. In cannabis it occurs in almost all genetics and represents the terpene most present in flowers and dry extracts, since being a sesquiterpene it has less volatility and can be maintained and preserved after the drying, curing and extraction processes.

What medicinal uses can beta-caryophyllene have? 

Beta-caryophyllene has very peculiar analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, since it is capable of directly stimulating our endocannabinoid system, acting in a very similar way to phytocannabinoids. For this reason, beta-caryophyllene is considered a “mimetic cannabinoid” and if it is used together, especially with CBD, it is possible to obtain a much more powerful anti-inflammatory effect than using the two substances separately. Beta-caryophyllene also provides many benefits for the digestive system.

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Eucalyptol (monoterpene)

Eucalyptol is the characteristic terpene of the eucalyptus tree, the tea tree and many types of rosemary, while in cannabis it can be found in some genetics, especially sativa. Eucalyptol is the only terpene capable of stimulating the Central Nervous System and must be used in reduced quantities.

What medicinal uses can eucalyptol have?

In addition to its expectorant and bronchodilator properties, eucalyptol is an excellent analgesic and anti-inflammatory, highlighting the same properties of both THC and CBD and favoring a more energizing effect.

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Other terpenes to mention

Humulene (sesquiterpene)

Humulene or Alpha-Caryophyllene is a terpene characteristic of hops, although it is also found in basil and sage, with anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that are highlighted in synergy with phytocannabinoids.

Caryophyllene Oxide (sesquiterpene)

Caryophyllene oxide is present especially in the lemon balm and eucalyptus plants, with optimal antifungal properties. In cannabis, it is present in many genetics, since it is derived from beta-caryophyllene, and represents the aroma that police anti-drug dogs are trained to look for.

Nerolidol (sesquiterpene)

Nerolidol is present in some citrus fruits and has relaxing, antimicrobial and antifungal properties that are also very useful in external application, in addition to facilitating the absorption of other components through the skin.

Phytol (diterpene)

It is a compound derived from the oxidation of chlorophyll and vitamin E, with relaxing and calming effects.

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Uses of essential oils. Recommendations and dosage

In general, essential oils are not applied directly, but are mixed, diluted and used in small, safe quantities to avoid unwanted side effects such as poisoning or skin irritations.

  • Internal route (ingestion): the vast majority of essential oils are suitable for human consumption and are used in the food industry as flavorings. Essential oils can be mixed in a fatty medium such as oil or milk or in different types of food, without exceeding the maximum recommended dose of 1-2 drops per day.
  • Internal route (inhalation): due to their volatility, terpenes can be inhaled through both a diffuser and a vaporizer, always diluted in safe concentrations. It is worth highlighting the high bioavailability of some terpenes such as pinene and limonene, which can be absorbed up to 70-80% through inhalation. (2)

External route: there are essential oils only suitable for external use, such as tea tree, which have to be diluted to a 1-2% concentration in a base oil or cream before being applied. In the vast majority of cosmetic products on the market, terpenes are used in pure form (linalool, pinene, limonene), both for their individual properties and for their ability to promote the skin absorption of other compounds.

Bibliography:

1 - https://www.fundacion-canna.es/los-terpenos

2 - Russo E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344–1364. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01238.x

3 - LaVigne, J. E., Hecksel, R., Keresztes, A., & Streicher, J. M. (2021). Cannabis sativa terpenes are cannabimimetic and selectively enhance cannabinoid activity. Scientific reports, 11(1), 8232. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-87740-8

4 - Liktor-Busa, E., Keresztes, A., LaVigne, J., Streicher, J. M., & Largent-Milnes, T. M. (2021). Analgesic Potential of Terpenes Derived from Cannabis sativa. Pharmacological reviews, 73(4), 98–126. https://doi.org/10.1124/pharmrev.120.000046

5 - Peana AT, D’Aquila PS, Panin F, Serra G, Pippia P, Moretti MDL. Anti-inflammatory activity of linalool and linalyl acetate constituents of essential oils. Phytomedicine. 2002;9(8):721–6

6 - Weston-Green, K., Clunas, H., & Jimenez Naranjo, C. (2021). A Review of the Potential Use of Pinene and Linalool as Terpene-Based Medicines for Brain Health: Discovering Novel Therapeutics in the Flavours and Fragrances of Cannabis. Frontiers in psychiatry, 12, 583211. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.583211

7 - Sommano SR, Chittasupho C, Ruksiriwanich W, Jantrawut P. The Cannabis Terpenes. Molecules. 2020 Dec 8;25(24):5792. doi: 10.3390/molecules25245792. PMID: 33302574; PMCID: PMC7763918.

8 - Booth, J. K., & Bohlmann, J. (2019). Terpenes in Cannabis sativa - From plant genome to humans. Plant science : an international journal of experimental plant biology, 284, 67–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plantsci.2019.03.022

9 - Anandakumar, P., Kamaraj, S., & Vanitha, M. K. (2021). D-limonene: A multifunctional compound with potent therapeutic effects. Journal of food biochemistry, 45(1), e13566. https://doi.org/10.1111/jfbc.13566

10 - Scandiffio, R., Geddo, F., Cottone, E., Querio, G., Antoniotti, S., Gallo, M. P., Maffei, M. E., & Bovolin, P. (2020). Protective Effects of (E)-?-Caryophyllene (BCP) in Chronic Inflammation. Nutrients, 12(11), 3273. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12113273

11 - Russo E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344–1364. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01238.x

12 - https://eybna.com/terpenes/the-terpiodic-table/

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Author information

Neuropsychologist | Specialised in treatments with Medical Cannabis

Tommaso Bruscolini

Tommaso Bruscolini (Rimini, Italy) is a neuropsychologist and phytotherapist based in Barcelona, where he has been running his private practice since 2014, both in person and online, where he formulates and produces different preparations with all kinds of medicinal plants, as well as making personalised recommendations.

A member of the Official College of Psychologists of Catalonia and qualified as a Health Psychologist, he is a specialist in Neuropsychology, the branch that studies the brain and its neurological function. Tommaso complements his training with studies in Phytotherapy and Herbalism at the Guild of Herbalists of Catalonia and two Masters, one in Nutrition and Herbal Dietetics and the other in Mindfulness.

In recent years she has specialised in Medical Cannabis, through private training and collaborations with different entities in the world of Medical Cannabis, coordinating for a year a clinic specialising in cannabinoid medicine, carrying out consultations, writing articles, talks, training courses as well as carrying out consultations and patient follow-up.

He currently collaborates with several entities of the cannabis sector in Spain, among other things he is the coordinator of the therapeutic area of the magazine DolceVita España, consultant in the SmokingMap portal, collaborator of the Unión de Pacientes por la Regulación del Cannabis (UPRC) and Alpha-Cat certified technician to perform cannabinoid analysis.

What fascinates him most about the Cannabis plant is the possibility it has to change the current medicinal and therapeutic paradigm towards a more holistic vision as it acts on our body, mind and mood, in a synergic way.

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