– What are terpenes? What does the research say about them? What are the most important things to know?
Plants existed on this planet long before mammals did. However, plants couldn’t exist without animals. Interestingly, plants have developed a complex relationship with the world around them; and, though they can be subtle, they’ve developed unique ways of impacting their environment to improve their outcomes. Because they appear sedentary and unconscious, it’s easy to regard plants as passive, non-creative, and docile. However, upon close examination, we’ll discover that’s far from the truth medical marijuana.
More specifically, let’s take a look at the chemical genius that plants employ to influence their environment. Obviously, with hundreds of compounds in cannabis, it would be difficult to cover them all in one article. So, let’s take a close look at an important class of compounds within the cannabis plant: its terpenes.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are a class of organic hydrocarbons that number well over 100 in cannabis. However, they aren’t found solely in cannabis plants. Terpenes are a common plant compound found all across the world. So, why are these hydrocarbons so ubiquitous in the plant world? The answer is: for a variety of reasons.
To get a better understanding of what terpenes are, let’s take a close look at what terpenes do in nature. Then, we’ll look at what terpenes do for humans and some of the key things to remember about them.
What Does the Research Say About Terpenes in Nature?
As we get a better understanding of the chemical nature of plants, it becomes clear that plants are not the docile, innocent, passive creatures they appear to be. In fact, it seems they are keenly aware of their surroundings and have manufactured their own chemicals to appropriately respond to stressors of all kinds.
For example, every creature on earth is born with an innate desire to procreate. Since flowers, trees, and bushes can’t pick up their roots to find a new mate, they require their environment’s assistance. For example, wind can whisk seeds away from their parent and spread the population further. However, plants can’t always rely on wind. That’s partly what they use terpenes for.
A 1993 article that appeared in Chemoecology looked further into how plants use terpenes to improve their procreation outcomes. For example, they found there were a few terpenes that would encourage bees to approach them. According to the research, “Citrus and the sesquiterpene, caryophyllene attracted the bees” more than an untreated control solution. The researchers noted that most terpenes are used as deterrents, but at least a few are used to attract pollinators.
So, plants use terpenes as a deterrent to pests and as a means to attract pollinators, what else do terpenes do in nature?
Not only do plants use terpenes for a variety of reasons, but they also appear to manipulate the creatures around them. For example, they seem to use their terpenes to increase their odds of their seeds spreading. According to research that was published in 2011 in Plant Signaling and Behavior, many fruits see an increase in limonene during the ripest stage of their life, which attracts pests and fungi. By getting the pests and fungi to open the peels at the ripest point of a fruit’s life, the odd’s of a frugivore eating it and dropping the seeds in another location improves. The researchers said, “the consumption of immature fruits would always be detrimental or repulsive because the seeds are not yet viable. By the end of the first period of growth, when seeds are developed, the goal is to make the fruit as appealing as possible so that seed dispersal can occur.”
While the way that plants use terpenes is deep and multifaceted, the terpenes in cannabis play some interesting roles in human well-being.
How Do the Terpenes in Cannabis Impact Human Health?
Most importantly to the average cannabis consumer, terpenes are responsible for the bouquet of smells that can emanate from the different cultivars. Pinene makes cannabis smell like pine, limonene like lemons, linalool like lilacs.
Are the terpenes in cannabis mimicking the terpenes in other plants to give them similar scents? The answer is no. Pinene is present in pine trees, lemons are loaded with limonene, and lilacs are mostly filled with linalool.
So, how do these terpenes impact humans health when they’re found in cannabis?
Most importantly, it’s important to understand that cannabis uses a mechanism called ‘the entourage effect.’ If you’re not familiar with the term yet, it simply means that cannabinoids, terpenoids, and other plant compounds work together in a unique way that’s different from how they function on their own.
With the entourage effect in mind, researchers are keen to learn more about this delicate process. The researchers of a 2018 analysis of the current cannabis science said that it supports the aforementioned ideas, but that more research into specific terpene profiles will be needed to make further clarifications.
Research has come out since that paper that has done just that. One paper that was published later in 2018 clarified the wide range of ailments treated by the terpenes in cannabis. The researchers made specific mention of the low-toxicity of terpenes which positions them as a suitable contender for treating humans. More specifically, the researchers said, “terpenes’ medicinal properties are supported by numerous in vitro, animal and clinical trials and show anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic, anticonvulsive, antidepressant, anxiolytic, anticancer, antitumor, neuroprotective, anti-mutagenic, anti-allergic, antibiotic and anti-diabetic attributes, among others.”
One group of researchers wanted to look a bit further into how terpenes may impact inflammation. Their 2018 research published a day after Christmas in 2018 said that terpenes might “be used to relieve acute inflammation.”
Whether they’re encouraging a deer to eat their fruit or calling in a bee to take some pollen, terpenes are tools being put to work. When they interact with cannabinoids inside the human body, the outcomes are only limited by the number of cultivars available on the market.