With a degree in English Literature and an Advanced Diploma in Business Administration, Alex became a freelance business writer for seven years. After seeing the shockingly positive impact of medical marijuana on a close member of his family, Alex took an interest in writing about cannabis. He soon shifted his focus to cannabis content, of which he has been writing for the past three years.
If you’re interested in weed, odds are you’ve heard the word “terpenes”. But what are terpenes? For medical users, they’re responsible for their strain’s therapeutic benefits.
In fact, you could end up using an inappropriate medical strain if it doesn’t contain the right terpenes – some of which counter each other’s effects.
From a recreational perspective, terpenes affect the experience and flavor. Understanding what terpenes are will enable you to really shop around and find the perfect product for your medical or recreational needs.
What Are Terpenes?
Let’s start with the million-dollar question – what are terpenes? If you ask an experienced toker or budtender, you’ll likely hear that – like we said – they determine the flavor, smell and effects of a particular strain. In fact, terpenes are what give all plants their flavor and scent.
But what about the specifics? How many of us can accurately, completely define what terpenes are? It’s kind of like being asked to explain a calorie – we know what it does, but not necessarily what it is.
So, let’s clear the air and dive into the deep, sciencey stuff you might not learn in Weed 101.
Terpenes fall under the category of “secondary metabolites”. These are compounds related to metabolism that – unlike primary metabolites – don’t play a key role in the plant’s survival functions (i.e. photosynthesis).
In fact, terpenes are actually an entire category of secondary metabolite. Scientists set them apart based on their chemical makeup, which consists of mevalonic acid, hydrogen and oxygen.
What these oily compounds share is their universal role in the plant kingdom. Aside from always creating a plant’s flavor and aroma, for instance many of these terpenes have antibacterial or antifungal properties. Others are excellent at repelling insects or animal herbivores.
What are Terpenes from a Medical Standpoint?
While we certainly know a lot about terpenes today, they’ve been a part of herbal medicine for thousands of years. People found that certain herbs had medical properties, but they didn’t know that terpenes were the source. At the time, they were the closest things to prescription medications.
Medically, terpenes play a variety of key roles. Some are more useful than others, depending on your condition; however, if you’re wondering why hippies are pushing certain herbal remedies on you, it’s because some of the plants actually do have terpenes that help.
While we’re obviously not saying that oregano cures cancer or a handful of basil a day controls diabetes, terpenes have a unique part to play for both medicine and nutrition. Some terpenes are antioxidants, while others can help clear your airways, fight bacteria and even inhibit cancer growth.
Common Benefits of Terpenes
We know that terpenes help give your weed an extra kick, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Each compound’s effects are great for medical patients, while some of these benefits appeal to recreational users as well.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that terpenes all share some common roles, often overlapping. In other cases, you might have one highly stimulating terpene sharing a strain with a more sedative one. How this affects the overall experience depends on a variety of factors, such as THC/CBD levels and other terpenes.
That being said, let’s look at some of the common benefits.
Bacteria, fungi and parasites are all threats faced by plants on a daily basis. Unfortunately, they don’t have the option to simply walk away and recover, nor can they pop a few pills and get back to blooming. In response, some plants – including cannabis – developed terpene concentrations to prevent unwanted guests.
While using these terpenes won’t yield the same results as, say, Penicillin, it still (in high enough concentrations) can put a dent in microbe growth. We can even apply them to wounds as an improvised disinfectant.
Depression is a terrible condition that affects millions worldwide. Cannabis shows promise as an antidepressant, but the results heavily depend on the strain and its terpene content.
Keep in mind, however, that cannabis is meant to treat clinical depression – a state of sadness with no known cause. If you’re feeling down due to a negative circumstance, weed will only make you feel worse.
Some antidepressant terpenes are:
Another all-too-common mental illness, anxiety is just as disruptive as depression. The constant feelings of fear, panic and nervousness can make life unbearable. When used properly, marijuana can help alleviate some of these symptoms and make the condition more manageable.
However, anxiety is a tricky condition to medicate with cannabis. Many strains actually cause side effects like anxiety and paranoia. Consequently, some anxiety sufferers just make their problem worse.
Start with a small amount and work your way up until you reach the desired therapeutic effect.
Although much rarer than many neurological disorders – affecting about 1% of the world’s population – epilepsy can be quite disruptive. Worse still, some severe forms, like Dravet Syndrome, are unresponsive to conventional medications.
In many cases, the therapeutic effects of seizure medications come from drugs that are used to treat severe mental disorders. For instance, the anti-epileptic drug Lamotrigine is also prescribed to control bi-polar mood swings. Epival, another drug, is used to control manic episodes, in addition to seizures.
The problem is that many of the drugs used to treat things like bi-polar cause side effects that drive patients to stop taking them. It also doesn’t help that people with epilepsy may only respond to certain medicines – if any.
Fortunately, many epilepsy patients found relief in medical cannabis; however, treatment requires CBD and a single specific terpene:
Linalool is the only terpene known to help control seizures. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to come by. Another problem is that it’s even harder to find strong CBD strains that also contain significant amounts of linalool.
That being said, linalool isn’t going to make or break the strain’s benefits. It’s simply a huge help when using CBD to treat seizures.
Before we mention this one, let us preface it by saying that no studies exist confirming that cannabis cures cancer. While there are some anecdotes out there, it’s simply not proven yet. However, we do know that certain terpenes – in addition to CBD – inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
This, in turn, could slow down cancer progress and buy patients some time for additional treatment.
Cancer comes in all kinds of forms. The prognosis and rate of progression varies from one condition to another. Patients also respond differently – or not at all – to treatment, with survival rates ranging from very high to almost nil.
If you happen to choose medical cannabis to complement your cancer treatment (or relieve symptoms), keep an eye out for the following terpenes:
Again, it’s important to incorporate CBD into the treatment plan, as this is effectively the “backbone” of a strain’s anti-cancer effects.
Pain is one of the broadest symptoms out there. Injuries, diseases, common viruses or stress are just a few reasons people will experience pain. For those out there with severe or chronic pain, this issue can be a nightmare.
Of course, we do have the option to take opioids – but we all know how well that can work out. Fortunately, cannabis is excellent at treating pain, partially because so many terpenes help relieve it. These include:
Historically, pain relief is one of marijuana’s oldest medical uses. So, rest assured that cannabis is an excellent alternative to prescription drugs when it comes to pain. Best of all, CBD is quite effective in this area, meaning you won’t have to get high to experience relief.
The Entourage Effect
In order to better understand medical marijuana, it’s important to know how terpenes and cannabinoids factor into the equation.
We can’t stress enough how important the “Entourage Effect” is. If you don’t take advantage of this process, you’re depriving yourself of some serious medical benefits.
In the case of cannabis, the Entourage Effect is a synergistic relationship between cannabinoids and terpenes. When working together, these compounds all help enhance the effects and benefits of cannabis. This is why products like isolates aren’t the best choice.
If you’re not using dry herb, make sure you opt for “full-spectrum” extracts. This means that no other terpenes or cannabinoids were removed during processing.
The Entourage Effect doesn’t just apply to cannabis. It can happen between different terpenes, with or without cannabinoids. This is why there’s been a lot of attention on “whole plant therapy” lately.
What About Recreational?
Unless you’re very particular about your experience, terpenes aren’t as critical as they are for medical users. Most recreational consumers value terpenes for their flavor. Others know about each terpene’s effects and use that knowledge to tailor their experiences.
Following legalization in Canada, licensed producers and online recreational cannabis retailers made it a point to list terpene content on their products. It’s pretty clear that more people understand and appreciate the value of terpenes.