If you’ve found yourself here, it’s likely because you’ve seen the word “terpene” being thrown around and you’re wondering what the heck it means and why it’s recently become a buzzword in the marijuana industry. More often than not, you’ll hear lots of talk about cannabinoids like THC, CBD, and occasionally even CBN and CBG. The truth is, the cannabis plant is made up of hundreds of other therapeutic compounds and valuable components that, unfortunately, often hang in the shadow of cannabinoids. Terpenes fall into this category.
Put simply: terpenes are the molecules that give all plants their aroma and flavor. For example, a lemon is going to be high in the terpene Limonene, which is what gives it and other citrus fruits their unique citrus scent and taste. The same applies to marijuana: strains like Lemon Haze, Orange Crush, or any other variety that has a citrus flavored profile is only that way because it is rich in the terpene limonene.
Terpenes are secreted all over the leaves, stalk, and buds of the cannabis flower from tiny glands called trichomes, along with THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids. Even in a world full of incredible, aromatic hybrids and flavorful strains, terpene levels tend to take a backseat in importance when it comes to cannabinoid content, especially that of THC. It is, after all, the molecule that gets you high, and that’s what most recreational users are after.
To keep up with the demand for THC, growers began to hybridize plants to be rich in cannabinoids, eventually breeding out many high-terpene strains altogether. Josh Wurzer from SC Labs addressed this at the 2017 Cannabis Health Summit: “One of the real disservices that the testing industry did to the cannabis industry early on is that we only tested for cannabinoids,” he said, “…As soon as we began testing for THC, then all anyone wanted to grow were strains that tested 25% or higher in THC. A lot of the strains that were really interesting, or had really interesting terpene profiles, or that produced a lot of terpenes rather than cannabinoids, people stopped growing.”
Here’s the real kicker: terpenes are more than just flavor and scent. They are packed full of remarkable therapeutic qualities that humans have been using for thousands of years. Essential oils used in aromatherapy, massage, and other forms of holistic medicine are basically just little bottles of terpenes that have been extracted from different plants and herbs. While terpenes are therapeutic by themselves, they can actually modulate the effects of cannabinoids when used together. Whole Plant Therapy has become increasingly more important as researchers are discovering the massive impact of keeping organic compounds together. The synergy of cannabinoids and terpenes make up what is known as the Entourage Effect, and this effect largely depends on the plant’s natural compounds and their relative proportions.
For example: ever wonder why you can smoke two very similar strains of marijuana with similar cannabinoid content and levels, but have a completely different experience with each one? This is because of the role that terpenes play in the Entourage Effect. Terpenes not only affect and change the way cannabinoids interact in our system, but they can also have an impact on feelings, sensations, and overall experience.
Because modern research on terpenes in relation to cannabis is fairly new, studies are still being done on just how much they can affect different strains and how that can play a role in treating different illnesses and conditions. What we do know is that there are certain strains of marijuana that are known to be more effective than others in treating the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). When we broke the top 10 marijuana strains used for autism down into individual compounds, three terpenes were found frequently and in high concentrations: pinene, myrcene, and caryophyllene. This is what they do:
Pinene smells exactly how it sounds: like pine. Definitely the most abundant terpene in the plant world, pinene can be found in any conifer or plant that produces cones and needles. Used in aromatherapy to promote alertness and help reverse short-term memory loss, this terpene is also found in rosemary, frankincense, and juniper berry. Pinene is most applauded for its anti-inflammatory properties which can play a huge role in treating autism: brain tissue scans and studies of individuals with ASD frequently show widespread inflammation. Additionally, pinene counters some of the intoxicating effects of THC and can actually amplify the anti-inflammatory benefit that CBD already offers.
Myrcene is an earthy terpene also found in hops (yes, what beer is made of), basil, cardamom, and mangoes. Myrcene is believed to enhance the effects and medicinal benefits of THC and is one of the most valuable terpenes in cannabis. Like pinene, myrcene is an anti-inflammatory, but it doesn’t stop there: it’s a natural antibiotic, analgesic (pain reliever), muscle relaxant, and sedative. The sedative effects are especially important in the treatment of autism, as many individuals with ASD have difficulty falling asleep or may struggle with hyperactive or compulsive behaviors.
Caryophyllene has a spicy flavor profile and is also found in oregano, black pepper, and cinnamon bark. Another anti-inflammatory and pain reliever (do we see a trend here?), caryophyllene is also a powerful anti-anxiety. A 2014 study reported that this terpene reduced the stress levels in worms so much that it actually increased their lifespan. Possibly the most important benefit of caryophyllene is its antioxidant and neuroprotective qualities. We already know that cannabinoids CBD and THC have U.S. patents on them (for being antioxidants and neuroprotectants), and this little molecule not only helps both cannabinoids along in the process, it also has similar effects and can aid in oxidative stress and protect the brain and nervous system from damage. High levels of oxidative stress influence the progression of autism, making this a terpene you won’t want to pass up.
Because terpenes are a fairly new interest in the medical and recreational marijuana industries, there is still a lot of research that needs to be done in relation to cannabis and autism and how terpenes can help. Many people who shy away from smoking medical marijuana are finding success in using cannabis extracts or cannabinoid oils, which are typically isolates of compounds CBD and THC. Many times, these extracts are made to have no psychotropic side effect, which is particularly useful when treating children with autism. The downside? Oftentimes, terpenes and other potentially beneficial cannabinoids are left out. But the more researchers are learning about cannabinoids and terpenes, the more their data shows that whole plant therapy is the key to using cannabis as medicine. The good news? Just like you can purchase isolated cannabinoids (like CBD oil or cannabis tinctures), the market for isolated terpenes is also on the rise. In fact, you can even purchase bottles of terpenes of your favorite weed strains, which makes using marijuana products as medicine much more personalized and efficient.
If cannabis products are accessible to you in your state, make an appointment with your trusted medical provider so you can get your questions answered and your concerns addressed. While there is no way that marijuana (when used as a whole plant) can kill you or harm you in any way, terpenes are extremely potent when isolated. Many essential oils can be toxic in high amounts and are not recommended for oral use, and you can assume the same for isolated terpenes from cannabis. Yes, it’s an herb, but even herbs are powerful and in some cases have adverse effects if not used properly. Treat marijuana like you would any other drug or medicine.