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All flowers, herbs, and plants get their unique scent from organic compounds called terpenes. So when you dowse your pillow with lavender essential oil to help you sleep, or inhale eucalyptus oil to clear your bronchial tubes, it’s the terpenes that are the aromatic, active ingredients.
So, let’s get better acquainted with the aromatic world of plants in this homage to their secret smelly agents, terpenes.
Aromatherapists have proclaimed the healing benefits of essential oils for years, but do they actually cause any physiological changes in the body? Turns out, yes they do. Any terpene with a concentration of over 0.5% is considered to be of pharmacological interest and can alter behaviour or indeed bring about physiological changes. One study in which depressed patients were exposed to citrus aromas not only saw depression reduced, but 9 out of the 12 patients actually discontinued taking antidepressants.
We humans like to think that evolution has our species at its centre. In the case of terpenes, rather than existing to ease our troubled minds and heal our ailing bodies, they are in fact part of a plant’s defense mechanism, protecting against pest invasions and high temperatures. It’s just one of those mysteries of nature that terpenes also happen to make us feel better, too.
Yes, you heard it right. The cannabis plant contains an astonishingly complex array of terpenes that determine each strain’s unique aroma and some would even say its effect. Many terpenes in cannabis can also be found in more common or garden flora such as Myrcene in hops, wild thyme and lemon grass, Pinene in pine resin and conifers, Limonene in citrus fruits, Linalool in lavender, and β-caryophyllene in black pepper, leafy greens, and cloves.
We all know how relaxing a quick whiff of lavender oil can be, but did you know Linalool, the dominant terpene in lavender, has been found to have anticonvulsant properties? Scientists found that glutamate — the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain that initiates seizure activity — is modulated by its application. However, so far no research has been carried out on humans.
In cannabis, terpenes and cannabinoids make up the majority of the 400 compounds found in the plant. Most people these days have heard of THC and CBD, the two most abundant cannabinoids in cannabis. THC in particular creates a physiological effect by activating the endocannabinoid receptors in the body. But it is not alone. The terpene β-caryophyllene is considered cannabinomimetic, meaning it acts like a cannabinoid by activating CB2 endocannabinoid receptors. This explains why β-caryophyllene has an anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating effect on the body.
Nature is a mystery unto itself, especially when it comes to the cannabis plant. For a few years now, scientists have been researching the mechanisms of cannabinoids like THC and CBD, but it’s only now that they’re starting to examine all the other hundreds of molecules, including terpenes. Neurologist and research scientist Dr. Ethan Russo suggests in the paper “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects“ that many of the other compounds in cannabis, such as terpenes, act as inhibitors to THC’s intoxicating effect, as well as having pharmacological effects in their own right.
He goes on to say that terpenes “may contribute meaningfully to the entourage effects of cannabis-based medicinal extracts.” By the “entourage effect,” he is referring to the synergy between the various compounds in the plant, so that, as Aristole put it, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
It’s common practice for pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs containing one or two molecules. They’re easier to study, to patent, and consequently to turn in a tidy profit. Sadly, the cannabis plant doesn’t fit within that model. It’s a sprawling labyrinth of cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and who knows what else.
So far, any cannabis based medication that has made it to market has either been single molecule or synthetic versions, apart from Sativex (Nabiximols), which combines CBD and THC. However, studies show that medical cannabis containing the full spectrum of active components is more effective than isolated or synthetic versions, and terpenes almost certainly perform an important role in that therapeutic plant synergy.
So it’s up to us to fight for the cannabis plant to be studied in all its messy, synergistic glory, not just shoehorned into a model that fits a reduced understanding and fills pharmaceutical companies’ coffers.