Cannabinoids don’t work alone to create the famed “entourage effect.” Cannabis contains hundreds of distinct compounds, one of the leading active types being terpenes.
These chemicals can be found in countless organisms, including fungi and plants. Cannabis terpenes, in particular, are responsible for the herb’s aroma and flavor, as well as many of its medical and therapeutic benefits.
What does the “terpene” classification mean?
Experts say that terpenes are the largest group of naturally occurring compounds with an impressive range of structural variation. You’re probably most familiar with them as the primary component of plants’ essential oils.
Due to their many health and wellness benefits, terpenes are a critical component of numerous medicinal supplements, especially those derived from the following herbs and fruits:
- Various types of tea
- Spanish sage
- Citrus – primarily lemon, orange, and mandarin
Regardless of how you consume them, terpenes pack a punch in terms of health advantages. People have relied on these compounds for their medicinal value for millennia. Its health-boosting characteristics have become exceedingly well-known worldwide, in part due to terpenes’ flexibility in administration, along with its ability to suppress adverse side effects.
Different types of terpenes
Among terpenes’ many healing characteristics are their antiplasmodial activity (fighting microscopic parasites like those that cause malaria), antiviral qualities, and even their ability to help cancer patients. These are some of the most powerful organic compounds used in modern medicine, arranged in separate groups:
- Monoterpenes: Each with ten carbon atoms, earning the label “C10,” many terpenes in this group are primarily known for their fragrance and repellent qualities. Because of this, they’re best known as the main component of many essential oils. Some of the best examples include α-pinene, which gives pine trees their scent, and limonene, responsible for citrus smells.
- Sesquiterpenes: Having only 15 carbon atoms, these are some of the most medicinally valuable terpenes, certain terpenes in this category are known to treat malaria, help manage bacterial infections, and fight cancer. In the plants, fungi, and insects where they naturally occur, sesquiterpenes provide defense, attract bugs, and support plant development.
- Diterpenes: Characterized by having 20 carbon atoms, making them “C20 compounds,” these compounds evolved mainly for plants’ protection against sickness and being eaten. Some compounds from this group are beneficial to those with anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular conditions. One particularly renowned diterpene from the Pacific yew tree acts as an anticancer agent.
- Triterpenes*: These “C30” compounds have defensive functions, too. However, they maintain a slightly more specific focus, mainly fighting against fungal and insect disease-causing agents. People might often encounter terpenes in this category, as they’re well-known for their wound-healing traits and ability to boost circulation.
- Tetraterpenes: Also called “C40” carotenoids, plants synthesize these compounds for protection against light-related damage. Plus, they maintain various responsibilities in different species, including converting to vitamin A after human ingestion. Of course, you might also recognize the name “carotenoid” as the compound responsible for giving carrots their rich orange color.
There are also hemiterpenes (C5) and sesterterpenes (C25), but researchers discuss these compounds less often than the others. Additionally, some scientists acknowledge another group known as “polyterpenoids,” which represents compounds with more than 40 carbon atoms. For what it’s worth, hemiterpenes are the most basic unit needed to initiate terpenoid biosynthesis.
*Perhaps the most interesting thing about triterpenes is that their evolution is believed to be closely related to that of eukaryotic organisms (organisms whose cells have a nucleus). This is because “macroscopic multicellular organisms” emerged with heightened oxygen levels in the oceans and atmosphere, and triterpenoid synthesis is a pretty oxygen-intensive process.
Apart from their distinct advantages, terpenes are separated by the number of chemical structures, called “isoprene units” or “isoprenoid units,” they contain.
An isoprene is a type of hydrocarbon compound, making up an “isoprenoid” when many combine. As isoprenoids, these units have many biological responsibilities across species, including the production of vitamins and sex hormones.
These days, some use the names “isoprenoid” or “terpenoid” and “terpene” (once spelled “turpentine”) interchangeably, although this is inaccurate. Originally, the latter term was used to refer to specific naturally occurring compounds that come from a single isoprene unit – quite the opposite of the actual isoprenoid.
Naturally, growing knowledge about terpenes has catalyzed the widespread popularity of products containing curcumin, for example. Curcumin is famed for its multifaceted health-strengthening characteristics. Like many other terpenes, it offers anti-inflammatory qualities, antioxidant activity, protection against cancer, potential to inhibit harmful microorganism growth, and much more.
Is a terpene a cannabinoid?
A terpene is not a cannabinoid, although they do coexist. Instead, terpenes are largely responsible for the sensory experience associated with various plants, particularly their flavors and pigments (especially red, yellow, and orange).
This means that the “skunky” smell you know cannabis so well for is not from a high THC content or any other cannabinoid but the plant’s terpene profile. Particularly, the terpene known as “myrcene” is responsible for that proper “Mary Jane” scent.
Despite many people’s habit of associating myrcene’s strong smell to cannabis, this terpene occurs in several plant species. Sniff around; you might be able to recognize it! You can find hints of myrcene’s fragrance in:
- Bay leaves
Additionally, cannabinoids and terpenes impose significantly different effects on the body. In fact, terpenes don’t even interact with the endocannabinoid system like cannabinoids do! Although these two compounds work closely, collaboratively providing you the incomparable benefits of the entourage effect, they have unique jobs in offering you symptomatic relief.
Terpenes vs. terpenoids (neither can get you high)
First, you should know the difference between terpenes and terpenoids, also known as “isoprenoids.” Despite the two terms often being used interchangeably, they’re quite different.
Together, they comprise a stunningly large group of organic compounds – the largest and most diverse known to man – having roughly 20,000 distinct terpenes and terpenoids and counting.
Though no solid number yet exists, this far outnumbers the total known cannabinoids. Currently, scientists estimate this to be more than one hundred (although some reports say that there are over 400). This smaller number suggests that cannabinoids are significantly more specialized than terpenes and terpenoids.
Such an inference is seemingly correct, especially considering that “phytocannabinoids are bioactive terpenoids,” according to Thies Gülck and Birger Lindberg Møller of the University of Copenhagen’s Plant Biochemistry Laboratory.
Still, all three compounds are similar in that they occur in several plant species. For instance, you can find phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids that naturally occur in the cannabis plant) in many flowering plants, as well as liverworts and even fungi.
Yet, at the most fundamental level, terpenoids and terpenes are structurally distinct. You can identify the terpene’s building blocks, known as “isoprene units,” within terpenoid structures. However, the two are separated by a key distinction: Terpenoids contain oxygen, while a terpene is a hydrocarbon made up of many isoprene units. Isoprene is a natural, gaseous byproduct of plant metabolism.
Terpenes and terpenoids benefits for human health and wellness
Terpenes are naturally occurring compounds that plants evolve for numerous purposes, mainly fending off hungry critters. Plus, they act as the plant’s communications system, sending scent-based messages to other organisms in its proximity.
For humans, terpenes’ benefits aren’t constrained to medical applications. People also use them to make pigments for art or even food flavoring.
Terpenes are also unique in their ability to enhance a drug’s ability to penetrate the skin, increasing the efficiency of some medical treatments, especially those designed to prevent inflammation.
Considering that terpenoids are derivatives of terpenes, they share numerous functional attributes. For instance, Sarada D. Tetali, professor at the University of Hyderabad’s Department of Plant Sciences, asserts that these compounds have been vital to the pharmaceutical and biofuel industries, among others.
Some of the most well-known applications of terpenoids in modern medicine include fighting inflammation, combatting or preventing tumor growth, alleviating pain, and boosting antioxidant activity.
Research shows that some isoprenoids even protect against malaria and a broad range of infectious diseases from viral and bacterial microorganisms.
Cannabis is chock-full of these beneficial compounds, along with hundreds of other nutritional and therapeutic chemicals that offer many of the same health advantages. Several of these benefits overlap with those often associated with cannabis, especially in fighting cancer, soothing chronic pain, and reducing inflammation.
These perks for humans are all well and good, but terpenes had to have offered something unique for survival to have remained so integral to the plant all these years. This idea points to even more distinctions between cannabinoids and terpenes concerning their evolutionary histories.
Different evolutionary histories between terpenes and cannabinoids
Tetali states that both terpenes and terpenoids have been “pivotal in the survival and evolution of higher plants.” In particular, the latter is associated with functions and characteristics such as:
- Attracting pollinators
- Deterring herbivores from eating the plant material
- Repelling or killing preying insects
- Allelopathy, or the production of biochemicals that influence another organisms’ life and development
- Toxic molecules
- Antibacterial properties
- Protection from excessive light and heat
Terpenoids differ in the extent to which they express these traits. For instance, those most strongly associated with maintaining the cannabis plant’s survival, growth and development, pollination, and defense include monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and triterpenes.
Still, the plant relies on all their collective and individual functions to maintain its strength and health-boosting properties.
Cannabinoids are believed to have evolved for similar reasons, particularly defense. A research team led by Lee James Conneely suggested that the cannabis plant’s trichomes – where the cannabinoids and other bioactive compounds are stored in resin glands – evolved for defense.
Female flowers tend to have more of these structures on their reproductive organs to keep the immature seed from being eaten, improving the plant’s reproductive success.
Beyond that, scientists don’t know much about what cannabinoids do, in an ecological sense. However, it’s clear that their natural functions differ across cannabis types. For example, research shows that broad-leaf drug-type (BLDT) plants, colloquially known as “indica,” have typically contain different chemical profiles than narrow-leaf drug-type (NLDT) plants, which may you know better as “Sativa.”
Comparisons between BLDT, NLDT, and hemp revealed that BLDT has the highest levels of:
- Cannabigerolic acid (CBGA, the acid that turns into cannabigerol, or CBG)
- Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV, known for its numerous health benefits, including weight management)
- Cannabicyclolic acid (CBLA, which scientists don’t know much about yet)
These chemical differences suggest varying environmental pressures that may have influenced distinct chemical concentrations in each plant group.
Terpenes’ effects on the brain and body
Like cannabinoids, terpenes are a crucial player in the famed “entourage effect.” This term refers to the collective action of cannabis’s numerous compounds, often delivering blissful or therapeutic benefits. Though they exist in countless plant species, cannabis is one of the most plentiful sources of medicinal terpenes. Because of this, much of scientists’ knowledge of the compound has been shaped, in part, by this plant.
Researchers state that monoterpenes are among the most medicinally valuable cannabis terpene components, applicable to many medical uses. These have shown remarkable antiviral capabilities, having been tested against various types of dengue virus, herpes simplex virus, and more. The most promising terpene to note in terms of antiviral abilities include α-pinene and α-terpineol.
Other positive terpene health effects include:
- Anticancer: These compounds are excellent in treating various cancers, including affecting the colon, brain, prostate gland, and bones. Limonene is one of the most well-known anti-cancer terpenes, naturally occurring in various citrus peels.
- Antidiabetic: Researchers say that the “most promising terpene compound” for diabetes treatment is andrographolide, found in the leaves, primarily. Its potential lies mostly in reducing plasma glucose concentrations and preventing diabetic symptoms leading to blindness.
- Antidepressant: Of course, depressive symptoms are widespread motivators for seeking cannabis-assisted relief. Fortunately, cannabis doubles up on this health benefit, as both cannabinoids and terpenes contribute to it. Linalool and beta-pinene are the most widely recognized terpenes with antidepressant properties.
Long before Western medicine, ancient communities worldwide used terpenes from all kinds of plants to improve their health. For example, people used the compounds in Indian gooseberry to treat diarrhea, jaundice, and inflammation. Ginseng is another terpene-rich plant, where these chemicals are known for supporting memory, reducing fatigue, and even soothing menopause symptoms.
Terpenes are impressively variable compounds offering a world of advantages to humans’ and other organisms’ health. When paired with cannabinoids and flavonoids, the sky’s the limit for their medicinal and therapeutic value.
Terpenes found in cannabis are largely responsible for the herb’s therapeutic and medicinal advantages. Alongside THC and CBD, these compounds play an active role in providing symptomatic relief across a broad range of health conditions.
In other words, not everything’s about cannabinoids. The next time you’re shopping for cannabis-derived products, pay close attention to the terpene profiles. Get familiar with the major cannabis terpenes’ and terpenoids’ health benefits, and you’ll be sure to get the relief you need with minimal hassle.