Understanding the science of terpenes

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When it comes to marijuana, it has traditionally been all about THC, the plant’s principal psychoactive constituent.

Now, with cannabis legalization and a booming CBD market, interest in terpenes has skyrocketed as businesses market terpene profiles as a way to differentiate their products and highlight their varied tastes, aromas and effects.

The science is also exploding, as research shows how it’s the “entourage effect,” the hundreds of compounds in cannabis performing in concert, that makes the plant so special.

And with consumer curiosity about this alchemy sufficiently stoked, more people want to know: what exactly are terpenes? Read on for a crash course in this fast-growing science.

Cannabis plants — like all plants — are composed of a huge variety of primary and secondary compounds. Some examples of primary compounds (or metabolites) include nucleotides, lactic acids and amino acids, which play essential roles in growth, development and reproduction.

Secondary compounds include terpenes: a large and diverse class of organic hydrocarbons produced by a variety of plants (and also some insects).

Other secondary compounds include the cannabinoids, flavonoids, stilbenoids, lignans, alkaloids and many more. Numerous factors influence the development of a plant’s terpene profile, including climate, weather, maturation, fertilizers, soil type and even the time of day.
“Terpenes are the way plants communicate with the outside world,” said Stacy Page, who owns Market Street Wellness in Medford.

Since plants can’t run or fly away, terpenes evolved, in part, as a stationary defense. That’s why terpenes are often aromatic: some repel herbivores, while others attract predators and parasites for protection from herbivores. Terpenes, typically oily and volatile, also serve as pigments, hormones and chemical agents that lure pollinators or attack other plants.

“Terpenes are volatile because they evolved to leave the plant so readily,” Page added, “and that’s why we can so easily distill or process them for our own use.”

Terpenes have always been a rich part of our lives. There’s the citrusy smell of oranges, the piney odor of evergreens in the forest, and the scent of lavender on the breeze in a summer garden. Terpenes talk to our noses, and with cannabis, this might be an important conversation for physical health. When consuming cannabis for fun, terpenes influence taste, smell and headspace.

Thousands of years ago our ancestors began the ancient art of refining a variety of plants — including cannabis — to produce oils that amplified desirable aromas and tastes or provided medicine.

Fast forward to modern times and synthetic derivatives of terpenes and terpenoids (naturally occurring organic chemicals derived from terpenes) have enormously expanded the variety of aromas and flavors found in perfumes, foods, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and countless biotechnologies.

Cannabis is unique though. Unlike other plants, each cannabis strain has its own terpene profile that’s responsible for its particular scent and flavor.

“That’s why distilling cannabis terpenes has become such a huge industry,” said Page, explaining the process. “Heat from steam releases terpenes from flowers in a liquid form, which is then captured and sold to other companies who add terpenes to their own cannabis products, to provide different flavors. You wouldn’t want to take it by itself though, it’d probably burn. Distilled terpenes are very concentrated.”

Page helps customers understand terpenes by comparing them to essential oils: “Certain scents seem to trigger certain feelings — and even memories — in our bodies. Like how peppermint is awakening and uplifting. It’s similar with terpenes.”

Identifying terpenes

“A few hundred different terpenes have been identified in cannabis so far, and more are discovered all the time,” said Jeremy Sackett, founder and chief science officer of Cascadia Labs, located in Portland and Bend.

“Scientists say there’s between five and 10 super categories of terpenes. What’s challenging though, is how hundreds of possible ‘terps’ might be found in different combinations and concentrations within any particular plant — and more are discovered all the time. It’s complex. Most cannabis plants have several terps, with a few being most dominant. We know a lot about the single terpenes, but the science is new in respect to all the combinations.”

This means that connoisseurs seeking specific terpenes when choosing products must remember that the effects might change in the presence of other compounds.

While terpene testing is not required in Oregon, Sackett said, “there’s huge interest in terps as well as other flavor compounds. So testing and labeling are really useful. That way consumers understand from terp profiles not only how products will taste and smell, but also what their experience will be, which can be really important for those with anxiety.”

Breeders and growers are busily manipulating the sticky aromatic terpenes to create cannabis varieties with distinctive flavors.
“Many of the most common cannabis terpenes are also found in other plants,” Page said, “like myrcene, it’s found in hops and is present in cannabis strains like Blue Dream, which smells and tastes like berries. Myrcene promotes relaxation and stress-relief without causing drowsiness, which makes it popular among medical marijuana users.”

The citrus smell comes from limonene, the terpene found in the peels of oranges, lemons and more. Linalool, which is found also in lavender, is said to be another calming and soothing strain. Pinene, the most ubiquitous terpene in nature, smells like pine trees and is said to foster alertness and focus.

Caryophyllene, another common terpene, is found in black pepper, basil and oregano as well as cannabis, and typically delivers a warm spicy smell and taste, similar to cinnamon and cloves. According to wikileaf.com, “published studies have shown evidence for its application in pain management … as a gastroprotective, immune booster, anti-malarial, and effective in the treatment of addiction.”

Terpinolene, also found in apples, lilacs and tea tree, is frequently found in uplifting, active strains like Jack Herer, and is described as having a “fresh” taste and smell. Researchers are studying terpinolene’s potential to help reduce heart disease risk when consumed with other nutrients.

Page lists the terpenes present in his products so customers can become familiar with their preferred terpene profiles — and he stresses that labeled and lab-tested products also ensure safety and quality control.

“The science isn’t there yet, so that’s why knowing which terpenes and cannabis strains work for you is important,” Page adds. “So for now, we’re using the old-fashioned, time-tested methods of going by what we’re attracted to. That’s why, even with recreational products, whatever smells, tastes and feels good may be exactly what our bodies need.”

Peter Gendron, CEO of Omnibudsman Enterprises, who created his first CBD extracts back in 1990, said “cannabis is the only plant we’ve ever studied that is capable of expressing all these different terpenes — and each strain generally contains several terpenes. And what’s awesome is we now know that literally every terpene ever identified in other plants have all been found in one cannabis variety or another.”

Gendron, often referred to as “Pioneer Pete” in the cannabis industry, is also president of the Oregon-based Sungrowers Guild, and has been deeply involved in the industry both politically and professionally for decades.

“As the legal and political climate improve, the technology is really catching up, and we’re confirming the hunches we’d had for years without the threat of going to prison,” Gendron said.

“20 years ago we could legally study the terpene profile of any plant except cannabis,” he said. “So how ironic is it that cannabis, long treated as a pariah, turns out to express all the terpenes? It’s poetic justice.”

Terpenes, Cannabinoids and the Entourage Effect

The phenomenon known as the ‘entourage effect’ is both logical and intuitive: Terpenes and cannabinoids such as THC and CBD, alongside hundreds of other compounds, evolved in tandem, and it’s the synergy of all these constituents that’s responsible for a strain’s particular flavor and resulting high.

Both terpenes and cannabinoids are secreted by the same resin glands on the flower and leaves of cannabis plants, so why wouldn’t they interact?

Page believes in “Whole Plant Therapy” and tries “to educate customers about terpenes and their key connections to the human body, but also the other compounds, like flavonoids, which give the plants various flavors or tastes.”

Keep in mind how there are many cannabis compounds that are currently little understood or completely unknown. For example, while people are familiar with THC and CBD, Page says, “in the future we may also have CBN or CBC products, and with more study, we’ll learn which terpenes and compounds impact or cure specific ailments or diseases.”

Terpenes thought to enhance the entourage effect of many cannabis products are now manufactured and available for purchase on the market, and Sackett says that “a good terpene product has been independently tested in laboratories, so they’re certified to be free of filler or solvents.”

Whether people want cannabis for medicine or fun, “we’re all trying to match up the right organic compounds the body needs to get back in balance, to achieve homeostasis,” Page says. “That’s always the goal, and ingesting cannabis may be a better preventative than multivitamins.”

The Endocannaiboid System

“It’s the endocannabinoid system that assimilates the terpenes, cannabinoids and other cannabis compounds into the body for use,” says Dr. Margaret Philhower, who practices naturopathic medicine at The Bear Creek Naturopathic Medical Clinic in Medford and at her own family practice in Takilma.

Terpenes interact with the ECS and assist cannabinoids in entering the bloodstream, according Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher who is largely responsible for putting the ECS system on the map. His research keys in on how the ECS system helps all land mammals maintain proper physiological balance — or homeostasis.

Also the director of research and development for the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, Russo has written numerous books and articles on pain management, ethnobotany and neurology.

Russo writes that “endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands and immune cells.”

“Think of these receptors like a dimmer switch in the body which can be turned up or down, depending on what the body needs to regain balance,” Page says.

“The science is young, but the ECS system impacts our entire body system, including the endocrine, nervous, immune, gastrointestinal and reproductive systems,” Philhower says. “One thing research shows is how people who are depressed have decreased cannabinoid receptors in their brains, so they would benefit from ingesting cannabinoids to help them feel better.”

“Despite the prominence and importance of the ECS as an essential regulatory mechanism in the body’s biochemistry and physiology — the basic machinery of everyday life — knowledge of it remains quite limited among American physicians, due to a dearth of appropriate education in medical schools,” Russo writes.

“The greatest challenge in cannabis research remains political and institutional opposition to its performance,” Russo says. “Only reforms in the laws will change that status.”

“So that’s ironic too,” Gendron said. “As we’ve worked to usher in this whole new world of medicine, cannabis was already in use throughout human history — with the ECS working in concert with our bodies since we evolved.”

Numerous websites provide exhaustive information about terpenes, cannabinoids, the ECS and more: www.medicaljane.com/ has a great terpenes list. Plus: www.wikileaf.com/ and www.leafly.com/.

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