How terpenes work with cannabinoids to produce the cannabis plant’s most desired effects.
Some of the cannabis plant’s most appealing qualities are the aromas and flavors we experience during the consumption experience. Many of the most popular cultivars (strains) are named after their scents and tastes. Blueberry is named for its sweet, citrusy blueberry flavor, Sour Diesel for its pungent and intoxicating fuel-like aroma, and Cheese for its, well, cheesy taste and smell.
You can thank terpenes for all the cannabis flavors and aromas you know and love. Whether you smoke cannabis flower, dab concentrates, or vaporize, terpenes are hard at work delivering tasty citrus, diesel, woody, pine, skunky, coffee, spicy, herbal, or tropical flavors to your palate.
But terpenes do more than provide flavor and aroma. They also support other cannabis molecules in producing physiological and cerebral effects. There is synergy between cannabinoids and terpenes, not to mention other secondary metabolites and phytochemicals. We call this the entourage effect, and it’s the reason terpenes have revealed themselves to be such a critical piece of the cannabis puzzle.
Cannabis contains hundreds of molecules that have the ability to directly interact with our bodies and minds. Phytocannabinoid molecules are relatively unique to the cannabis plant, but other plant-derived molecules such as flavonoids and terpenes also bind to our cells and receptors, influencing our experiences.
Terpenes are a large class of molecules that are produced by many species of plants. They are the main ingredient in essential oils, and are the fragrant compounds responsible for plants’ distinctive smells. The cannabis plant produces upwards of 200 different terpenes, in varying concentrations and combinations, though the amount it could potentially produce is yet unknown. This makes terpenes the largest group of known phytochemicals in marijuana. The distinct scent of each cannabis cultivar is a result of the unique balance of terpenes produced by that particular plant’s breeding. Terpenes dissipate into the air very easily, and are the first molecules to vaporize when heat is applied to flower. The flavor of terpenes is maximized by whole-flower vaporization, which gives the brain a chance to interpret the flavor without overwhelming it with the taste of smoke.
It is currently being speculated that a plant’s terpene profile has much to do with the nuances of elevation, far beyond the more common sativa or indica indicators. Getting to know the bouquets of your favorite cultivars will help you recognize cannabis flowers and concentrates most beneficial to your needs.
So why are terpenes so much more than fragrant, flavorful molecules?
In addition to their aromas, terpenes have direct interactions with our bodies. For instance, when alpha- and beta-pinene are consumed together, they display synergistic anti-tumor properties. Evidence suggests that whole-plant cannabis is superior to isolated compounds from the plant. This isn’t surprising, as with many beneficial plants, fruits, and vegetables, we consume many, many phytochemicals at one time. The combinations make up the nutritional and therapeutic properties we enjoy, and though isolated compounds and molecules have benefits that are quantifiable by lab testing and research, the synergistic aspects of the interacting components justify a combined experience whenever available.
So how is this all happening? What bodily processes or mechanisms could explain why combined terpenes and cannabinoids are superior to isolated ones? One way is that they may increase the blood-brain barrier permeability and even affect the way that THC binds to CB1 receptors. In another example, alpha-pinene, the most common terpene found in nature, may counter some of the short-term memory loss associated with high levels of THC.
An additional contributing factor could also be that cannabinoids and terpenes hit different targets, and the summed activity at those targets (receptors or other cellular pathways) results in a better outcome; for example, multiple molecules attack inflammation at multiple sources of said inflammation. It’s also plausible that terpenes could enhance our bodies’ ability to absorb or process cannabinoids.
On the other hand, we have decent evidence that the undesirable effects of cannabis are minimized when there is a diverse set of molecules consumed at once. For instance, when CBD is consumed alongside THC, people experience less paranoia and anxiety. And when certain terpenes are present in a cultivar, the experience, from reduced anxiety to a cerebral high, is catalyzed into being.
The thing about the word “entourage” is that it gives the connotation that all the work is being done by a prevalent cannabinoid (like THC or CBD), while the other minor cannabinoids and terpenes are there as a sea of relatively insignificant minions. In some cases this may be true, like when an individual uses a THC isolate that doesn’t have much else going for it.
However, there are a staggering variety of chemical phenotypes (chemotypes of cannabis) out there in the world. Plants that have a rich diversity of cannabinoids and terpenes may fall more into an “Ensemble” effect, rather than an “Entourage.” Just like an orchestra, each individual instrument contributes to the overall experience of the musical piece. THC may be the conductor, and CBD might be first-chair violin, but every instrument, every different cannabinoid molecule, every terpene, contributes to the overall experience.
Almost everything we know about terpenes and cannabinoids is a result of studying their properties in isolation. With the exceptions of THC and CBD, the majority of this work has been done in animal models and petri dishes. Although this kind of science tells us a lot about the cellular mechanisms by which cannabinoids and terpenes promote health, these models could be a bit too simplistic to generalize the results to the entire human population.
In the real world, we usually don’t consume isolated alpha-pinene and wait to see how much it improves our breathing. It’s far more common (and more beneficial) for us to consume hundreds of molecules at a time. While there is a humongous amount of research left to do in order for us to understand exactly how terpenes enhance the other health benefits of the cannabis plant, and exactly which constellations of molecules produce the different kinds of highs for which cannabis is known, we can safely say that the more the merrier when it comes to phytochemical diversity.