What are Terpenes and What do they do?

Most of us may have heard about terpenes before, but may be unsure of what they are or what they do. These compounds found in the cannabis plant are slowly but surely being recognised as a massive factor in determining the physical and psychoactive characteristics of cannabis strains.

what are terpenes

Terpenes may just be some of the most underappreciated compounds within the plant, doing their work silently in the background to produce their many therapeutic benefits. We’ve become aware of the effects of cannabinoids such as THC and CBD as they become more well known and commonplace in society. 

So we have a rough understanding of what cannabinoids are, but what exactly are terpenes and how do these compounds work? 

Flavour & Aroma 

One way to look at terpenes is to consider them as the flavour molecules in cannabis, providing the range of scents cannabis can provide. These aromatic compounds give cannabis strains their smell and their taste, such as the way that Sour Diesel has a citrusy burst to it, or how Strawberry Cough can smell like freshly picked strawberries when smoked. Sour Diesel is abundant with the terpene called limonene, which as you may be able to guess is derived from lemons! In addition to the citrusy scent, this terpene is known for energising and uplifting effects. 

Strawberry Cough, on the other hand, is rich in caryophyllene, which gives the strain its earthy aroma and contributes to feelings of relaxation experienced when consuming this strain. 

Over 200 terpenes have been identified in cannabis, but we have a handful that enjoy the spotlight more than others. Known as monoterpenes, these tend to enjoy the highest quantities in the cannabis plant. In addition to limonene and caryophyllene, other monoterpenes may include linalool (lavender), pinene (earthy pine), and myrcene (citrus-y, hops, mangoes). Any combination of these monoterpenes when breeding can provide a unique strain experience for the consumers. 

Terpenes have evolved as a way for plants to lure in or protect against unwanted guests. The tempting scents, bright colours and succulence brought bees, deer and various herbivores to the plant – increasing cannabis’ ability to spread genetic material. Certain tastes and smells may deter some animals, ensuring pest protection and allowing them to evolve freely. Only recently have humans become more aware of these compounds and began creating special strains with a blend of effects by utilising these molecules as best as they can. 

Isolating Terpenes 

The cannabis industry has observed an upswing of trends to isolate certain cannabis compounds, as seen in the case of THC and CBD. Here we see pure THC resin for dabbing, CBD isolated in the form of a tincture, and certain terpenes being isolated for aromatherapy. In regards to terpenes, is it the right move so be isolating them? 

Recent research has shown that terpenes have a unique ability to work well with other compounds found in cannabis. The term given to this relationship is ‘phytocannabinoid-terpenoid synergy’ – which only further validates the entourage effect

In 2014, scientists found that full-spectrum cannabis extract eliminated issues with dosing CBD when compared to dosing pure CBD isolate. CBD isolate typically behaves in a way that manages pain at lower doses but loses its efficiency at higher doses (known as the biphasic effect). When CBD is consumed with all the other compounds present, such as THC, terpenes, CBG or CBN, there appeared to be no cutoff and the compound functioned effectively at all doses. 

Medical professionals treating epilepsy patients observed a 71% improvement rate in the frequency of seizures when consuming CBD rich extracts, compared to a 36% improvement from pure CBD isolate. They also noted that patients required a higher dose of CBD when isolated than when given a whole plant or full-spectrum extract – which further led to more adverse side effects. These results are helping confirm the entourage effect theory and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid synergy. 

We are aware that some terpenes are particularly effective at addressing certain conditions, for example, limonene is great for managing anxiety when combined with CBD. We also know that CBD itself is anxiolytic, so it would appear that these molecules help each other out. When they are combined, we see greater effectiveness than if patients consumed CBD in isolate form. 

Heat & Combustion 

Terpenes are rather variable compounds, particularly when it comes to boiling point. This may also substantiate the idea that some forms of cannabis consumption are superior to others depending on what you aim to get out of your experience. 

Myrcene has a boiling point of 167°C, while pinene is activated at 155°C. This may not be a huge difference, but vaporisers help control these temperatures so you can get the most out of your bud. THC only becomes active at 104°C.

If these compounds and terpenes are not activated, it’s unlikely that they will have any effect – they may work in conjunction with CBD or THC, but to obtain the effects of the terpene alone you will need the ideal temperature. 

After All 

Scientists have found that smell is the sense most strongly linked with memory, and terpenes are the main reason you might catch a whiff of cannabis and have it bring back memories of previous smoke sessions. 

If you are a big cannabis consumer, you may even be able to accurately distinguish that various smells and flavours of different strains. You may even have a favourite strain which brings back good memories. Luckily for us, with cannabis-based research taking off, we’re just going to be learning more and more about these important compounds. 

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