Terpenes belong to a diverse group of compounds that are produced by a wide range of plants. These tiny compounds have been catapulted into the limelight as interest into medical cannabis has spread globally.
Talk of terpenes internationally is largely centralized around the adult-use market, where recreational users tout their benefits both medicinally and as agents that influence the effect of the psychoactive cannabis compounds.
Yet the history and medicinal benefits of terpenes run much deeper than the lofty spotlight placed on them more recently. The possibilities for enhancing patient outcomes by actively utilising terpenes profiles in medical cannabis formulations is one of the exciting frontiers of this industry and should be considered by researchers and prescribing physicians alike.
Terpenes are organic hydrocarbon compounds that are volatile in nature. When crushed or disturbed they produce characteristic aromas that you would associate with citrus, lavender or pine needles, amongst many others. Each of these scents is attributed to a type of terpene.
The sweet, uplifting smell of lemons is caused by the terpene limonene. Whether you find limonene in cannabis, lemons or as a food additive, there is no recognisable difference to the chemical structure or effect.
Plants produce terpenes for a variety of reasons. The aromatic or pungent qualities can help protect plants from being eaten by herbivores or subject to insect damage. They are also responsible for aspects of the plant’s energy and oxygenation processes, as well as being helpful in attracting pollinators.
Clearly terpenes play an important role in the plant world, but do they have medicinal effects in humans?
In recent times the medicinal benefits of terpenes have been somewhat clouded by the recreational use of the compounds and their ability to amplify the intoxicating effects of cannabis. However, their benefits go far beyond recreational activities.
Terpenes interact with a variety of body mechanisms and can influence the hormones and other chemical messengers. One of the most recognisable relationships between terpenes and humans is observed in the historical use of the terpene linalool. Everyone knows, either cognitively or somatically, that lavender has a soothing and relaxing effect, this is largely attributed to the linalool content.
Medical cannabis has long been researched for its potential in attenuating insomnia symptoms and such clinical research is beginning to be supported by human trials. More recently, interest into mitigating symptoms and disease progression of Alzheimer’s has gained momentum.
On a macro level medical cannabis shows glimmers of promise for insomnia and Alzheimer’s diseases, and when we zoom into a micro-level we find isolated terpenes also exhibit similar actions on these conditions.
A great deal of information has been uncovered on the sedative effects of the terpene linalool, aiding in sleep and anxiety. Asides from its classic association with sleep, it’s also been investigated as an anti-inflammatory agent with potential for modifying disease markers and behaviours in Alzheimer’s models.
𝛽-caryophyllene is found in appreciable quantities in many cannabis varieties and has been researched widely for its therapeutic effects. This terpene commonly found in pepper and cinnamon has been examined in animals as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. These actions can be correlated to a multitude of conditions such as IBD, chronic pain and arthritis.
Additionally, 𝛽-caryophyllene has been shown to interact with the endocannabinoid system, The possibility for using this terpene as a therapeutic agent to stimulate the endocannabinoid system without the use of cannabis products or synthetic agonists has vast potential.
Pinene is another terpene widely encountered in nature, responsible for some of the lovely aromas experienced walking through pine forest. It is thought to have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects.
Pinene is also recognised for its capacity to affect memory and cognition by inhibiting the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. While preclinical research is still in its infancy in this realm, researchers believe pinene could help mitigate impacts on short term memory and some of the intoxicating effects elicited by psychoactive aspects of cannabis.
On top of their independent medicinal benefits, terpenes contribute to the all-important entourage effect. Terpenes, together with cannabinoids are thought to act synergistically enhancing the therapeutic activity of each other. Producing a greater effect together than if they were administered in isolation.
Early research supports this understanding, yet it will be years until detailed investigations will unveil what combinations and ratios of terpenes and cannabinoids will be most successful in treating different conditions.
There is such an immense range of applications of terpenes for medicinal purposes, their extensive assortment of effects have barely been touched on here and are worthy of further scientific exploration.
Ascertaining how and to what extent terpenes and cannabinoids act on disease processes, together and separately, will ultimately provide physicians with better understanding of how to incorporate terpene profiles into treatment aims.