What are terpenes?

What are Terpenes and how do They Affect the Human Body?

| Spencer Beaudreault

Hero Brands loves terpenes 

A terpene is a scented molecule found in many plants, responsible for a plant's flavor and fragrance. Among the terpenes typically found in cannabis are linalool, limonene, pinene, myrcene, and caryophyllene. Terpenes provide not only an aromatic experience, but they are thought to also play a role in the effects of cannabis, as well as cannabinoids. Despite the numerous potential health benefits of terpenes, less research has been done on how these effects work.

Do terpenes affect humans psychologically, meaning they affect us due to expectations, beliefs, emotions, and associations associated with smell? Could they be pharmacological, meaning that they are connected to receptors or hormones within the body? There appears to be a role for both in explaining how terpenes work. In this article we'll go in more depth about what Terpenes are, the prominent types of Terpenes that exist and how they affect the human body. We've broken it down into the following sections:

  • What are Terpenes?
  • Types of Terpenes and Potential Health Benefits
  • The Effects of Terpenes


What are terpenes? 

What are terpenes?

Aromatic compounds called Terpenes are responsible for the distinctive smell of cannabis along with many other plants and herbs, including rosemary and lavender.

Many everyday products, from perfumes to body products to food, use isolated terpenes to create flavor and scent. Plants rely heavily on terpenes for their survival. Several plants produce terpenes that are able to attract pollinators, and others produce terpenes that repel predators like insects or animals.

As part of the plant's immune system, terpenes act as protection against damage, as well as keeping infectious germs away. The term terpenoids is also sometimes used. It should be noted, however, that terpenoids are different from terpenes. Terpenes are the natural form of these compounds in live plants. When plants are dried and cured - for example, when cannabis is produced - the terpenes oxidize and become terpenoids.

Aroma and flavor aren't the only roles of terpenes. Additionally, they help to produce desired effects when combined with other cannabis molecules.  It's this phenomenon called the entourage or ensemble effect that has made these aromatic compounds so important in cannabis research.

Cannabis compound combinations demonstrate the entourage effect, where the right “cocktail” of compounds is more potent and effective than a single compound.

Depending on their combination and how an individual reacts to it, terpenes and cannabinoids may either enhance or suppress each other's effects. The mounting body of evidence suggests that terpenes play an important role in not only counteracting the intoxicating effects of THC, but also synergizing with phytocannabinoids and even increasing their therapeutic potential.


the entourage effect and terpenes

List of Terpenes and Potential Health Benefits

Cannabis has hundreds of terpene compounds, but only a small group is of sufficient significance to be mentioned. Based on animal experiments, the following terpenes have been shown to have the greatest health benefits in cannabis:

  • Limonene: It is more commonly found in citrus fruits, as well as in cannabis, and is the component that gives citrus fruits their scent. Some cultivars have been named after or described as smelling like cleaning supplies because limonene is commonly used in a variety of natural products, such as fragrances and cleaning supplies. A study conducted on mice found that it boosted their immune systems and reduced symptoms of heartburn. This substance can even dissolve cholesterol-rich gallstones.
  • Myrcene:  The majority of cultivars on the market are dominant in myrcene, one of the most prominent terpenes in cannabis. As with most cannabis plants, it has the signature earthy aroma.  Myrcene's anti-inflammatory properties are similar to those of several other cannabis compounds. In 2015, myrcene was found to be helpful in treating osteoarthritis in cultured cell models. Myrcene was also found to alleviate pain in a study conducted on rats.
  • Linalool: Among the aromatic plants that contain linalool are rosewood, bergamot, coriander, rose, jasmine, and lavender. Aromatically, it is very pleasant, and is commonly used in soaps and perfumes. Linalool has several unique potential health benefits in addition to possibly reducing inflammation and inflammatory pain, like some other terpenes do. There is evidence that it inhibits bacterial growth outside of the human body, in particular when affecting fungal infections caused by yeast infections. It also exhibits anticonvulsant effects in seizure models, in addition to its sedative qualities.
  • Beta-Caryophyllene. Many herbs and vegetables contain beta-caryophyllene, including cloves and black pepper. As with other terpenes, beta-caryophyllene may reduce pain levels by having an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. According to one study, beta-caryophyllene reduced inflammation and nerve pain in animals. Researchers noted the fact that the body showed no sign of developing a tolerance for these effects and concluded this anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect could be useful for treating long-term chronic pain.
  • Pinene.  Another terpene abundant in nature is pinene. Pinene comes in two forms: a-pinene and b-pinene. Pine needles, rosemary, and basil contain pinene, which is responsible for their bright, fresh scent. Additionally, pinene may also be beneficial therapeutically. In a study published in Acta Salus Vitae, it was proven that the level of pinene in the air of healthy forests has therapeutic properties. As a bronchodilator, pinene helps increase the flow of air into the lungs. When inhaled, it may also have anti-inflammatory properties and may fight some infectious germs.


The Effects of Terpenes

In a 2009 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, it was suggested that both pharmacological and psychological explanations are possible for the effects of aromatic compounds.

According to the pharmacological hypothesis, fragrant compounds, such as terpenes, affect mood, physiology, and behavior because they act on the nervous and/or endocrine systems (hormones).

According to the psychological hypothesis, terpenes' effects are largely affected by a person's beliefs, expectations, emotional associations, and perceptions, rather than their physical interaction with the body. Evidence supports both hypotheses, which we will examine.


Pharmacological Effects of Terpenes

A large amount of research supports the idea that terpenes have pharmacological effects in the body and brain. According to a 2001 review about terpene synergy in cannabis, there may be several mechanisms of action, with terpenes increasing serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and GABA activity. Their studies support the role of terpenoids in regulating pain and mood by synergizing with one another. The natural world produces thousands of terpenes, but very few have been studied in terms of how they work. There are two exceptions: linalool, present in lavender, and limonene, present in citrus fruits.

The anti-inflammatory, sedative, and analgesic properties of linalool are well known. According to researchers, linalool can cause sedation by lowering sympathetic nerve activity and increasing parasympathetic nerve activity. In addition to its role in our fight or flight response, the sympathetic nervous system also plays a role in waking up. A person's parasympathetic nervous system counteracts such activity by slowing them down and activating their rest and digest mechanisms.

Linalool's pain-relieving properties are complex. According to a 2014 review, linalool interacts with at least 10 kinds of pain-related systems in the body. As well as opioid receptors, linalool increases dopamine receptor activity. The anti-inflammatory effects of linalool are also thought to be due to its inhibition of inflammatory cytokines. (Cytokines are any of a number of substances, such as interferon, interleukin, and growth factors, which are secreted by certain cells of the immune system and have an effect on other cells.)

The 2013 study that examined the effects of limonene in a mouse model of depression found that oral administration of lemon essential oil, which contains 70% of the terpene, had significant antidepressant effects. According to research, lemon oil increases serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine producing brain chemicals, which may explain its antidepressant benefits.


Psychological Effects of Terpenes

the psychological effects of terpenes

Evidence has also emerged that terpene compounds exert their effects partially or fully through psychological mechanisms. An odor's likeability or dislike predicts a shift in mood. Participants in a 2003 study reported that the aromas they enjoyed improved their mood and reduced their anxiety, while the aromas they disliked worsened their mood and how they felt about their pain. The way that one experiences the effects of cannabis can also be affected by psychological mechanisms. If one has a negative experience with cannabis, the scent could cause anxiety, whereas someone who uses it socially may associate it with fun.

It is important to consider preconceptions as well. During a 2004 study, participants were asked to respond to various aromatic compounds. According to the results, suggestions that odors were relaxing were associated with a decreased heart rate and reduced skin conductance (measures of physiological arousal), while suggestions that odors are stimulating were associated with increases in these measures. Regardless of odor, it applied even in the absence of odor. It was suggested that the no-odor condition was relaxing or stimulating. Lavender, traditionally considered to be a relaxing scent, was actually able to stimulate the senses.

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So what are terpenes? The effects of terpenes are believed to be influenced by both psychological and pharmacological mechanisms. Several studies have shown that terpenes affect the body in direct ways, especially linalool and limonene.  Linalool-rich strains will likely provide pain relief and calm the senses, while limonene-rich varieties will likely lift moods. Also there is good evidence that psychological phenomena like expectations, beliefs, and associations contribute to terpenes' effects on the human body.  As a result, it's important to listen to your instincts when it comes to smell. You may not enjoy the experience of a strain if you dislike the scent.

Spencer Beaudreault

Spencer Beaudreault is the Founder of Hero Brands, a Business Development & Marketing Expert, and a lifelong advocate & user of cannabis, hemp, & plant-based alternatives.
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