Terpene: What is That?

What are terpenes and why do they matter? You might not realize it, but you’ve been enjoying terpenes for a long time. Any time you breathe in the fresh smell of the outdoors, the soothing aroma of essential oils, or the sting of a lemony cleaning product, you’re actually inhaling tiny, delicious compounds courtesy of Mother Nature. 

Terpenes are what give plants their smell, and they play a role in plants’ flavor and pigment. They’re the primary component of plants’ essential oils, and they’re the largest and most diverse group of naturally occurring compounds on the planet. Fun fact: you can even find some terpenes in animals. Sometimes referred to as “terps,” they’re known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are defined as having a high vapor pressure and a low boiling point. Simply put, they tend to exist as gasses in the air.

With so many terpenes on the planet, we’re not yet sure how each of them may or may not affect the body. The most common ones do have some research behind them, although most need more evidence before substantial claims can be made. Research is ongoing into their potential health benefits, but the terp trend is likely here to stay as evidence suggests these aromatic compounds could impart some serious therapeutic benefits, even outside of our beloved medicinal skunky plant. As far as we know, there are tens of thousands of different terpenes found in nature, but some are more prevalent than others.

The most common terpene in nature, pinene, is responsible for the scent of conifer trees, herbs like rosemary, dill, and basil, and hundreds of other plants. Pinene also appears to have antimicrobial, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and antiallergic properties. But as of the latest research, most studies around pinene haven’t been done in the human body, so more evidence is needed to confirm if it can impart those effects on us.As the name suggests, it’s smell is described as piney with hints of wood and fresh mountain air. Medically speaking, it is known as an ananxiolytic with pain-relieving properties. 

Limonene is another terpene that is fairly prevalent in cannabis. It provides oranges, lemons, limes, and other fruits their citrusy scent. You can also find it in plants like juniper, and it’s used in many perfumes and cleaning products. Limonene has a bit more research behind it, having been used clinically to dissolve cholesterol-containing gallstones and relieve heartburn. Limonene has also demonstrated the potential to delay the development of some cancers. Anti-inflammatory and anti-stress properties are noted, with energizing effects mentioned as well.

Linalool, a personal favorite of mine, is popular in aromatherapy. Its floral nose has hints of sweet citrus, mint and lavender. You can also find it in over 200 other plants including birch bark, basil and rose bushes. Some plants with linalool were used in traditional medicine as a sedative and anti-epileptic, but we have yet to prove this scientifically. Rodent studies have shown the terp itself may reduce anxiety and depression, which is why linalool-containing lavender is often touted in aromatherapy as a calming scent. In a white paper written in 2008, the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences from South Africa notes that linalool has anticancer, antiinflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.

Myrcene is the most common terpene in commercial psychoactive  cannabis flower today. It has a peppery, spicy, balsam-like scent that you’ll find in plants like hops, thyme, lemongrass, and mango, among others. The terpene myrcene has faced a lot of scientific scrutiny and its potential benefits are hotly debated. However, it has demonstrated some analgesic, sedative, antidiabetic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anticancer effects, though more research is needed

Perhaps the most interesting terpene is beta-caryophyllene. This terpene has the ability to stimulate our Endocannabinoid System (ECS), which is normally only done by another natural compound known as a cannabinoid. This makes it uniquely beneficial because our ECS is responsible for maintaining balance within the body, so stimulating it can help to keep everything in line. Beta-caryophyllene has also demonstrated benefits for colitis, osteoarthritis, and diabetes, but research is ongoing. Beta-caryophyllene is a spicy terpene found in herbs like black pepper, cloves, hops, rosemary and over 1,000 other plants.

KSCBA thanks you for your ongoing contribution to the cannabis industry as a whole through furthering your education. Dedication to expanding knowledge is key to growing a strong industry. Stay informed and keep your eyes peeled for more on our series “What is That?”.

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