Today, particularly in the US and the Western Cultures, we live in a world where prescription and over the counter medicines are synthetically manufactured. But do they have to be the only approach to heal illnesses or improve human wellbeing? We should not forget where it all began. Medicines made from plants, including Cannabis sativa L. at one time, were the only remedies available to heal, cure, and alleviate suffering. History shows and the fact that even today, most chemically synthesized, clinically approved drugs were inspired by naturally occurring bioactive compounds.
We know that botanicals can improve our physical and psychological well-being. For example, the calming and anti-anxiety characteristics of chamomile have been frequently studied and are well known. Lavender impacts mood and cognitive function. Turmeric is used for arthritis, gingko for memory loss and dementia, flaxseed for weight loss and heart disease, echinacea for colds and the immune system, and tea tree oil for skin issues like acne. Once you look around, the list of plants used as medicine is endless.
There is one factor that virtually all of these plants have in common that provide medicinal benefits.
Terpenes: Tiny Molecules with Massive Potential
These wonderful molecules are the terpenes or “terps,” which are the precursors of terpenoids. Each of these aromatics have their own medicinal and bioactive properties. Fruits, flowers, vegetables, and spices smell so pleasant because of these terpenes. Importantly, these hydrocarbon molecules are more than just aromatic scented and tasteful delights. Pinene, limonene, myrcene, linalool, and caryophyllene are just a few of the “terps” found in different concentrations in cannabis that have been scientifically attributed to having anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, sleep-inducing, and mood-boosting therapeutic properties. Pinene enhances mental focus, linalool works for relaxation, bergamontene helps with stress and insomnia, and myrcene for sleep. This is why it is so important to preserve these volatile compounds at every stage of any plant oil extraction process to ensure these terpenes can bring their medicinal benefits to people seeking plant-based remedies.
The word terpene originates from the word turpentine, which is the sap from tapped trees or distilled out of wood. Turpentine was used in ancient Chinese medicine for toothaches and breathing issues. Terpenes are very volatile and evaporate quickly at moderate temperatures. This is why the air smells fresher in the morning because that is when plants release terpenes when they reach their maximum concentration before the sun evaporates them throughout the day. Preservation of the terpenes in cannabis at harvest is an important task because the cultivators want to preserve the distinctive flavor profiles and bioactive attributes of these fragile and easy to degrade plant compounds. Cannabis cultivators often choose early morning hours to harvest and sometimes immediately flash freeze their crops to conserve these terpenes. To further safeguard these special compounds that are highly sensitive to heat and humidity, cultivators and processors must carefully control environmental conditions during handling to avoid degrading or vaporizing the natural terpenes in cannabis and other botanicals. During a plant’s growth and maturation, terpenes are affected by even moderate changes in conditions, like wind, sun exposure, temperature cycling, precipitation. Obviously, mechanical versus manual harvest, excess handling, and careless storing practices will diminish the terpene profile of a medicinal plant. Process controls, QA testing, experienced master growers and extractors, SOPs, and other protocols typical in the pharmaceutical and food manufacturing industries can ensure that not just the terpenes, but also flavonoids, polyphenols, and all the other plant compounds are consistently retained, batch to batch.
Terpenes, cannabinoids, and the other phyto-compounds give cannabis, including so-called industrial hemp with low THC potency and its oil, their unique medicinal benefit, taste, and smell. With cannabis, the trichomes are the glands found on the surface of plants and are responsible for producing the cannabis plant’s terpenes. Terpenes can either be cannabis-derived or made synthetically and can be added into hemp extracts to enhance its medicinal qualities. There are over 50,000 terpenes that are naturally occurring, but researchers are also making terpenes as well as combinations of terpenes in the lab because this class of compounds has been attributed to so many pharmaceutical, and health and wellness, benefits.
The Entourage Effect and the Endocannabinoid System
Terpenes work together with cannabinoids and other plant compounds through the “entourage effect.” This symbiotic interplay of many different naturally occurring molecules in various ratios in different cannabis cultivars has been attributed to the improvement of therapeutic qualities. Simply stated, the “whole-plant” is greater than the sum of the parts. As a result of research on the entourage effect, many people now believe that “whole-plant” and “whole-plant medicine” is superior to highly refined cannabis extracts or isolate-based product formulas. Because of the enhancing synergistic effect when the full array of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other phyto-compounds, like flavonoids, chlorophylls, vitamins, minerals, are consumed together. Aptly termed “full-spectrum” hemp or plant oil, these products have often been found to be more effective in improving health compared to the administration of the same plant compounds individually.
When revolutionary research on cannabis revealed the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the early 1990s, the landscape in medicine changed dramatically. But not many medical schools have included the endocannabinoid system into their curriculum yet. And as our understanding of this critical “master regulatory” system has increased, so have the insights provided guidance on how plant-derived cannabinoids can positively signal this system that is located in the central and peripheral nervous system. Among many qualities, certain terpenes can positively influence human health via the endocannabinoid system by inhibiting the uptake of serotonin and therefore act as anti-depressants. When the cannabinoids attach to the receptors in the endocannabinoid system, an entire cascade of events occurs in cell to cell communication, in turn influencing neurobehavioral effects, regulating pain, inflammation, anxiety, fear, body temperature, stress, appetite and more. They also increase a neurotransmitter that is called GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid, which blocks nerve impulses, and therefore reduces anxiety.
The good news about terpenes is that the FDA has acknowledged that terpenes as safe. The National Institutes of Health is also paying attention and released the first funding announcement for research proposals of how minor cannabinoids and terpenes affect nociception, which is the nervous system's response to harmful stimuli, such as an injury. Furthermore, this request for research proposals encourages an unprecedented interdisciplinary approach between scientists like chemists, biologists, neuroscientists, and health professionals, like physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
Terpenes can be used in various ways, including oral consumption and inhalation by vaporization. Additionally, terpenes are often added to diffusers, humidifiers, and perfumes. But they are also absorbed through the skin. That is why aromatherapy treatments, like facials, massages, baths, all include terpenes. Terpenes are used in many foods and drinks, and chefs are using specific combinations to enhance flavor and aroma and increasingly in functional foods for their medicinal qualities and not just their pleasant aromas. Fruit smoothies, citrus-marinated fish, Hefeweizen wheat beer, and infused treats like brownies would all have drastically different appeal without terpenes, and the future will involve far more terpenes being added to enhance the health benefits of foods and beverages.
Based on data of internet searches, interest in terpenes has increased five times since 2016. Products showcasing and very deliberately incorporating specific terps will greatly increase in breadth and number as consumer awareness and demand rapidly grows. Food is no longer just about taste and aroma. Foods that are healthy, natural and appealing to health-conscious and highly demanding demographics will push many of the legacy foods and products off of the shelves
In particular, both the THC-dominant cannabis plant and associated products, and its high CBD and low THC hemp cousin that are both being legalized at an accelerating pace all over the world, are increasing the global market for terpenes which are forecast to grow exponentially during the upcoming years.
Terpenes are like Pandora’s box, a treasure trove that is yet to be fully discovered. Without terpenes, cannabis would be bland and have fewer wellness benefits. So too would many other plant-based medicines, health and wellness remedies, consumer products, and food and beverages. Research, science, innovation, and discovery will lead the way in substantiating and incorporating the healthy properties of terpenes to improve human and animal health.