Overview: Terpenes are a diverse class of aromatic compounds. August Kekulé coined the term terpene as a derivative of ‘terpentine.’ Terpenes are hydrocarbons that are classified by the number of isoprene units in the molecule, which is why you will sometimes see a prefix such as ‘monoterpene’ or ‘sesquiterpene’. The prefix indicates the number of terpene units needed to assemble the molecule. In addition to giving cannabis an array of flavors and effects, terpenes are used in nature for a wide variety of purposes – from insecticidal protection of plants to pheremonal messages between insects.
by Jamie Toth
As terpenes are some of the primary constituents of essential oils, it is unsurprising that they are used in perfumery and culinary products. But the usefulness of terpenes extends beyond our senses, as they have applications that range from medicinal to industrial.
For cannabis users there are three particularly compelling reasons to learn about the terpenes in your flower. Terpenes contribute greatly to the feeling of being high, and terpenes are often the source of the health and wellness benefits that users are seeking, and terpenes give cannabis its amazing array of flavors.
Entourage Effect and Feeling High
In a groundbreaking study, JAMA recently determined that the feeling of being high is not due to levels of THC in the blood alone. Unfortunately, it will take years of effort to disseminate this information to consumers, as the prevalent understanding about cannabis’ effects being solely THC driven are so endemic that in many states, the only requirement for labeling is the product’s THC percentage/contents.
In a 2001 study, Dr. Ethan Russo examined the entourage effect. In this study, Dr. Russo found that terpenes and cannabinoids worked together and that it is the effect of the hundreds of different compounds contained in cannabis — from cannabinoids like THC to terpenes like limonene — that create the effects that users are seeking. With mobile laboratory innovations, more research is certainly on the horizon regarding how all of these compounds interact.
There have been numerous medical studies regarding the benefit of isolated terpenes. Many terpenes have been scientifically proven to have medical benefits (often these benefits were found to mimic indigenous wisdom) that range from pain-relieving, tranquili
There are hundreds of terpenes found in the cannabis plant, and most of them are also present in a large variety of plants. Terpenes surround us in our lives already – from creating our perfumes to flavoring our food to scenting our cleaning products. Many terpenes are also in use medically. For instance, squalene is a chemical predecessor to steroids. Scientists across many fields are examining the anti-microbial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties of some terpenes. Paclitaxel is a chemotherapy drug derived from a terpene found in the yew plant, which traditional Chinese medicine often used to treat various cancers.
A cursory view of such medical benefits should be enough to convince even the most casual of cannabis users to begin to take note of their favorite terpenes. A recent study by Oasis Intelligence found that 44% of cannabis consumers use for medical purposes, and an understanding of terpenes would be vital to their efforts.
Contributions to the Flavor
A well-flavored bud is a beautiful thing to experience. One of my favorite cannabis consumption rituals is drinking in all of the smells immediately upon grinding up flower. There’s something primal and transcendent about grinding a strain and experiencing its scent before consuming it. Part of the emotional appeal and comfort of cannabis is within the experience of the fragrance and flavors.
The olfactory bulb is the part of the brain that is the closest to the world. It should be no surprise that for many cannabis users, our experience of cannabis and our descriptions of it focus on its smell. Terpenes are what give cannabis its special scent, and that centers them in our cannabis experience.
Until this point, the cannabis industry focused on THC as the marker of the efficacy of cannabis as there were no ways to support research to the contrary. As more researchers begin to discover methods of working with cannabis, we will all have a lot more to learn about our beloved plant.