This is an introduction to our new weekly series, “Let’s Talk Terpenes.” This series will feature some of the most commonly known terpenes, their uses, effects, medical benefits and more. Read on for an in-depth look into the important role terpenes play in choosing your medicine.

There’s no mistaking the aroma of cannabis – whether it be the sweet scent of Blue Dream or the lemon scent of Sour Diesel – many can recognize and appreciate what they smell and taste. However, many patients are unaware of the science that lies behind those aromas. As it turns out, the molecules responsible for the unforgettable aura do a lot more than provide a pleasant essence. They have potentially life-changing health benefits.

So what exactly is behind these different fragrances and what is it that makes them so unique? The answer is Terpenes. 

So let’s dive into what terpenes are, how they behave, and how you can make informed decisions about terpene profiles when buying and consuming medical cannabis.

What are Terpenes?

Terpenes are the aromatic organic compounds responsible for the scents that many plants produce – including cannabis. When a wine sommelier puts their nose to a glass – when one stops to enjoy the fragrance of a flower, cuts into a lemon, walks among pine trees – or when someone inhales the aroma of a freshly ground bud, they are enjoying the fragrance of terpenes.

There are more than 20,000 varieties of terpenes throughout nature, more than 100 of which are found in cannabis. Terpenoid production evolved in plants, including cannabis, to attract pollinators and to act as defense compounds. 

Also, the plant can produce an estimated 111 individual cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found in all parts of the cannabis plant, primarily concentrated in the female flowers. They are responsible for the physical and psychological effects that occur when cannabis is consumed. These various molecules can be combined in a myriad of ways to produce plants with unique chemical properties. These diverse combinations give each cannabis strain and flower their personality.

Female cannabis plants produce glandular trichomes, which are glands that look like small hairs or growths that protrude from the flowers and leaves. Trichomes house crucial compounds, including cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD), flavonoids, and terpenes.

While terpenes provide aroma, molecules like THC, called cannabinoids, do not produce any scent. THC alone isn’t the only molecule that makes cannabis plants unique. The herb is a terpene-producing powerhouse. Terpenes account for about 10 to 20 percent of the weight volume of resin in cannabis flowers.

Terpenes In-Depth

There have been many developments in the classification of terpenes and their effects and benefits, and scientists and researchers are working to make them easy for patients to comprehend. Generally, terpenes can be broken down into four categories: sweet, sour, spicy, or bitter – with each category further breaking down into more specific smells. These specific smells correspond with certain strains, which in turn correlate to the effects of that plant. 

For example, a sour-smelling plant may have a strong lemon scent. Lemon-scented strains are often correlated with strains like Lemon Skunk or Lemon Haze; these are spicy sativas that give a boost of energy and euphoria. With a better understanding of terpenes and how they relate to the scent of each strain, patients can come to certain conclusions about the plant by simply smelling it. This is compelling information, not only for patients but for consumers and growers alike.

By using terpenes to regulate the adverse effects of other cannabinoids, producers are now able to create super strains of cannabis that are focused on providing the best experience possible for patients with specific needs.

Whether that means weakening a THC “high” with anti-anxiety or anti-inflammatory properties of a particular terpene or doubling the antidepressant properties of a CBD-rich strain, the opportunities for medicinal uses are broad. Research in this area is still evolving, and the industry is working to learn more about how terpenes function singularly as well as together in different strains.

For example, the popular terpene myrcene is known to lower the resistance across the blood-to-brain barrier, which speeds up the effects of the prominent cannabinoids. If myrcene was present in a THC-rich strain, it would decrease the time between consumption and the psychotropic aftereffect. (It also increases the maximum saturation level for cannabis and thus bolsters the extent of the effects on your endocannabinoid system.)

Terpenes or Terpenoids?

You may have also heard about terpenoids. The words terpene and terpenoid are increasingly used reciprocally, but they have different meanings. The key difference between terpenes and terpenoids is that terpenes are hydrocarbons (the only elements present are carbon and hydrogen); whereas, terpenoids have been altered by oxidation (drying and curing the flowers) or chemically modified. The drying process and conditions change the way the molecules transform and taste.

Terpenoids are regularly used outside of cannabis and other plants for their aromatic qualities. They are used in the manufacturing of perfumes, essential oils, and spices.

Research also hints that terpenoids play a significant role in the medicinal effects of cannabinoids.

How Do Terpenes Work in the Body?

As mentioned, terpenes have individual effects apart from their relationship with cannabinoids, including inhibiting serotonin uptake and intensifying norepinephrine activity (acting as antidepressants), increasing dopamine (regulating emotions and pleasure experiences), and amplifying GABA (the “downer” neurotransmitter associated with relaxing effects).

More research is needed in regards to the compounded therapeutic effect of terpenes with cannabinoids regarding the mind, emotions, and behavior of patients.

As of now, the accepted knowledge is that terpenes compound or lighten the effects of cannabinoids THC and CBD (among others) by binding to endocannabinoid receptors and neurotransmitters and imitating compounds our bodies naturally produce (to regulate emotions, weight, health, etc). The FDA and other agencies have recognized terpenes as safe. If terpenes weren’t legal, lemons and pine trees would be prohibited.

With research, cannabis scientists, growers, and enthusiasts are starting to tailor strains to use terpenes to balance the negative effects of cannabinoids – such as pinene balancing the short-term memory loss from high concentrations of THC – and creating medicine tailored to particular needs and ailments.

Terpenes & The Entourage Effect

Because terpenes have medicinal effects (apart from providing the tastes and smells of cannabis), they work together to boost or lessen the dominant effects of the other cannabinoids. This is called the “entourage effect” because of the way the different components can work together, play off each other, and enhance or downplay the end effects.

If cannabinoids and terpenes are all working towards the same goal, you’ll notice stronger effects. If they’re equalizing each other (as they would in a group), the effect, on the whole, is subdued.

Flavonoids vs. Terpenes

Flavonoids sound like something representing flavor, right? They are not – they’re the nutrients that produce color in living things. 

Flavonoids are one of the largest nutrient families known to scientists and include over 6,000 already-identified family members. About 20 of these compounds have been identified in the cannabis plant. Flavonoids are known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities, as well as their contribution to the vibrant color of many of the foods we eat (the blue in blueberries or the red in raspberries). They are what gives cannabis plants a purple or brighter green color. 

Some flavonoids extracted from the cannabis plant have been tested for pharmacological effects. The clinical findings are promising, but further research is needed to fully understand what role flavonoids play in the overall therapeutic effects of cannabis treatment, especially how they interact with cannabinoids by either synergistically enhancing them or minimizing their effects.

Your Most Important Takeaways about Terpenes

From what we know, the potential benefits of terpenes are encouraging. These organic, naturally occurring compounds not only enhance your cannabis experience but also offer tremendous medicinal benefits. Terpenes have been used for thousands of years by cultures around the world for their healing properties and as cannabis science expands, the possibilities to help more people become increasingly favorable.

The correlation between terpenes and cannabinoids and their cannabis-consumption experience is becoming more apparent to patients and consumers. The more the patient educates themselves, the more evolved the products on the shelves will become, and with breakthroughs in cannabis legalization, the market for products geared towards patients and consumers will rapidly expand. Concurrently, research will continue to evolve and more data exhibiting the benefits of the cannabis plant will emerge.

It’s up to patients to better understand what they are looking for from their experience with cannabis. By having clear conversations with medical professionals and budtenders, they open to door to new possibilities. It is our hope at Dispense to aid in the process of educating patients and doctors alike in this process.

Stay tuned for the first installment of “Let’s Talk Terpenes” which will break on Monday, July 22.