By John Garvey
Think of some of your favorite smells. Chimney smoke, sage, pine trees, lawn trimmings, lavender, the house in which you grew up. These obviously vary by person, but at least a couple of your 10 favorite smells are probably plant-based terpenes. … Even if you aren’t a pothead.
There might not be a single more neglected discussion point in the cannabis industry than terpenes. Everyone interested in cannabis understands the basic distinction between indicas and sativas, but knowledge is lacking about what physical attributes actually make a strain relaxing or stimulating. Few understand why some strains help you sleep while others drive you into a flurry of creativity. Is it the percentage of THC? The THC:CBD ratio? The flowering cycle?
Nope. The available findings point mainly to terpenes.
Terpenes profoundly influence the effects of cannabis on the mind and body. Excluding them from a discussion about the effects of cannabis is like excluding jazz from a discussion of 20th century music theory just because its intricacies aren’t widely understood. (I hold Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and John Coltrane in far greater reverence than weed but the analogy fits.)
What are terpenes? Bueller? Bueller?
Terpenes are components of essential oils, responsible for the scent and flavor of hundreds of plants: conifer pines, sage, peppermint, lavender, citrus fruits, hops, pepper, birch and mangos and on and on. They also give cannabis its scent — and by extension, a lot of Colorado’s patios and concert venues.
But the effects of terpenes go well beyond all those wonderful smells.
The Entourage Effect
Terpenes act alone in certain ways but they also enhance or modify one another’s effects, as well as the effects of THC and CBD. This is referred to as the entourage effect.
A number of terpenes are known to relieve anxiety, depression, asthma, insomnia and gastric inflammation. They also largely determine whether any given strain of cannabis is a sativa, an indica or a hybrid. If you take an indica and a sativa, switch their terpenes around and leave all the cannabinoids intact, the indica will in effect become a sativa, and vice versa. (Contrary to many people’s understanding, the designation isn’t due to a flower’s cannabinoid profile. At least not primarily.)
Pinene, myrcene, lupulin, limonene, humulene, beta-caryophyllene. Oreos.
Some of the best-understood terpenes were described in detail by medical scientist Ethan Russo in a 2010 article in the British Journal of Pharmacology. In that widely-cited article, Dr. Russo noted that cannabis terpenes affect animal and human behavior in very low concentrations. Here are a few commonly found in cannabis.
- α-Pinene: Alpha pinene is singularly pleasant and useful. Prominent in conifer pines and sage, it’s a bronchodilator that sharpens alertness. Smoking anything is bad for asthma, but pinene enters the bloodstream when inhaled in very low concentrations so having pinene rich plants around may benefit people with respiratory conditions.
Scientific American and British Journal of Pharmacology have reported that pinene can prevent the short-term memory impairment THC causes.
- ß-Caryophyllene: Prominent in black pepper, caryophyllene is an anti-inflammatory and, like THC, a gastric cytoprotective. That means it may help with acid reflux or more severe conditions like Chron’s disease. (At this point it would still be irresponsible on my part to recommend it for a chronic illness, but I’m excited about the potential for anything to treat something as debilitating as Chron’s disease.)
- Humulene: Abundant in hops and coriander, humulene has potential as an appetite suppressant to counter the munchies. For all those stoners who also diet. (Both of them.)
- Myrcene: Found in mangos and in some of the best damn beers you’ll ever encounter (such as Odell’s Myrcenary IPA), myrcene is believed to catalyze — or enhance the effects of — THC. If you’ve ever gone from being mildly high to feeling like you were floating on a cirrus cloud after drinking a hoppy beer, it may be because of myrcene.
Thankfully, the media is no longer referring to THC as “the active ingredient in marijuana,” but the conversation about terpenes has been moving forward at a sluggish pace.
As we move further away from THC myopia, “the entourage effect,” “terpenes” and related terms will become far more common. And the world will hopefully become tastier.