We all love aromas like rose and lavender, orange, cinnamon and rosemary. But do we know what creates this characteristic scent and how else it can be put to good use? Enter terpenes.
Terpenes are aromatic compounds derived from cannabis species, as well as a range of plants and insects. Terpenes and terpenoids have slightly different chemical structures, yet their names are often used interchangeably.
They are key phytochemicals which contribute to the medicinal actions of medical cannabis formulations and other botanical medicines, as well as having wide-ranging therapeutic actions on their own.
While medical cannabis research has only been picking up speed in the last few decades, investigations into the actions of terpenes from other botanical or synthetic sources have been going on consistently since the early 1900s and have thus produced a greater wealth of knowledge regarding terpenes’ applications. Here is just a taster:
Everyday encounters with terpenes
Terpenes are not only present in foods and herbs, but are extracted to be used as flavourings in cordials, soft drinks, lollies and many other tasty treats we encounter on a regular basis.
Terpenes are also added to skin care products for their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as household cleaning products for their pleasant smells, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial action.
Cannabis vs plant-derived terpenes: what is the difference?
Terpenes have certainly been catapulted into the limelight as medical cannabis has surged globally, however, it doesn’t matter whether they are extracted from lavender or a cannabis plant, terpenes are chemically the same.
Given all terpenes are structurally the same – does it matter where we get them from?
Financially, the benefits of plant-derived terpenes far outweigh those of cannabis. Cannabis-derived terpenes can cost as much 10 to 20 times as much as plant-derived terpenes.
This dramatic difference is largely due to the price of cultivation and production. It is much more cost-effective to harvest fields of lavender or hops than it is to invest in licensing and facilities necessary for cannabis cultivation.
Additionally, plant-derived terpenes are excluded from medical cannabis laws. There are regulations around how they can be included in healthcare and skincare products and are not restricted in the same way cannabinoids extractions are.
Terpenes and the Entourage Effect
In the medical cannabis landscape, there is a phenomenon known as the Entourage Effect. This is described as the synergism created between cannabinoids, terpenes and other phytochemicals found in medical cannabis formulations.
Together, each chemical compound has the potential to initiate greater or different therapeutic effects than they would in isolation.
The symbiotic relationship and physiological effects of terpenes and other phytochemicals has long been recognised in traditional medicines and can be encouraged by including terpenes with other ingredients in food and health products.
As research into terpenes continues to evolve, we may witness an increased focus on the terpene content in tailoring cannabinoid medicines and other adjunct therapies, to individual patients.
A most abundant terpene: Myrcene
Myrcene is an abundant monoterpene found in mango, hops, lemongrass, bay leaves and many other common plants and foods.
Myrcene has been researched for its pain-relieving, muscle relaxant, anti-oxidant, anti-anxiety and sedative actions. Investigations in animals and human cell lines show it to be a potent anti-inflammatory with promise for conditions like osteoarthritis.
𝛽-caryophyllene and Linalool, two terpenes with far-reaching actions
While terpenes are tiny compounds found in small quantities, they pack a big punch. 𝛽-caryophellene has a pepper-like, woody scent and linalool provides part of the characteristic smell from lavender.
Both these terpenes share a huge range of therapeutic actions including:
Separately, 𝛽-caryophyllene is believed to interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system and potentially have anti-tumour actions, which could be used in the future as an addition to conventional cancer therapies to help improve their efficacy.
Plenty of possibilities for Pinene
The terpene pinene comes in two main forms 𝛼-pinene and 𝛽-pinene, both contributing to the distinctive smell of pine needles but also found in eucalyptus, guava fruits and parsley.
Pinene has been investigated for its anti-tumour effects in cancer cells of the liver, prostate, ovaries and lungs. While these effects have yet to be proven in human trials, what has been observed in a petri-dish so far is promising.
Pinene may also benefit inflammation, oxidative stress, platelet aggregation and bacterial infections, including treatment-resistant forms of Staphylococcus aureus. Animal studies show it to be a hypnotic that may improve sleep onset in humans, as well as increasing REM sleep which could have influence over sleep-maintenance insomnia.
Huge potential for Humulene
Humulene is a terpene ingested by millions of people every day in the form of beer, it is also found in herbs like cinnamon and sage.
Most recognised for its anti-inflammatory properties through inhibition of inflammatory pathways, humulene has been shown to have a comparable effect to anti-inflammatory corticosteroids such as dexamethasone.
Humulene is another terpene being investigated for its anti-cancer effects. In cell lines and animal studies humulene has exhibited an inhibitory action on cancer cell growth.
Research into terpenes and cancer is still in its infancy and hasn’t been correlated directly to humans, however provides foundational evidence for further explorations and hope for novel treatment options in the future.
There are thousands of terpenes we currently know of, with as many as 200 found in cannabis species alone, you can see their potential is vast. Continued research into their therapeutic application is sure to unveil further exciting prospects for their application.