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It’s Not the THC, It’s the Terpenes

RxLeaf
RxLeaf

Terpenes enhance the psychotropic effects of THC and increase the medicinal benefit of cannabis.

It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to THC as the “active ingredient” in cannabis. But that “common knowledge” would be wrong. While it’s true that THC has powerful properties, it’s not the only molecule within cannabis that can lay claim to the status of “active.” Enter the terpene…

Cannabis nug resting on piece of wood

Image Credit: Roxana Gonzalez

Terpenes are fragrant molecules that naturally occur in cannabis plants and help protect it from predators like bugs, fungus and bacteria that can harm the plant before it has a chance to reproduce. While it was once considered an ancillary part of the plant as far as pharmaceutical effects go, new research indicates that terpenes may play an important role in the medicinal properties of cannabis.

Lady bug crawling on baby cannabis plant

Terpenes protect the cannabis plant from predators. Image Credit: Roxana Gonzalez

At the early stages of learning for cannabis medicine, scientists knew there was a gap in our understanding. After extracting straight THC and studying its effects, researchers were puzzled that patients reported lessened benefit from THC extract alone versus whole plant cannabis. In another study, researchers discovered that when patients smoked twice the amount of a THC-only cannabis, they felt fewer psychoactive effects than when smoking a different strain that had THC and other naturally occurring molecules.

Close up of young man smoking cannabis

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The evidence led many to believe that there was something else within the plant that was responsible for creating or amplifying the effects of THC. In other words, the effects from cannabis, long attributed to active ingredient THC, must be due in part to other parts of the plant. This was known as the “entourage effect.”

Coconut and cannabis but in smoking display

Image Credit: Roxana Gonzalez

Thanks to this research, we know that terpenes play an important role in the euphoric feelings that come along with cannabis use. They function the same way that anti-depression drugs like Prozac or Zoloft work — by allowing the feel-good chemical, serotonin, to stick around in the brain.

Terpenes also play an important role in one of medical marijuana most useful functions: stopping seizures. During lab tests, scientists have found that a non-THC strain of cannabis extract also had the ability to help stop body spasms.

animation of nerve synapse

Image Credit: KT Designs

But even when terpenes are not exerting their own effects on users, they’re still earning their keep by adding extra punch to the power of THC; strengthening and enhancing its psychotropic influence on the human brain. They’re like steroids for relaxation and euphoria.

Many users of cannabis are probably more familiar with terpenes than they think. In addition to the terpenes’ wondrous talents in the medical realm, they’re also notable because of their odor. The smell of cannabis is a direct result of the plant’s terpene makeup.

Image Credit: Ash T Productions

And, like so many telltale signs in nature, the smells aren’t just there for decoration. The scents emitted by cannabis plants provide clues to molecular and chemical composition of the plant itself — and its affecting properties.

Recently, some cultivators and researchers have begun to catalogue how the smells of cannabis plants relate to their psychotropic and medicinal effects. For example, terpenes responsible for a musky scent indicate the strain will be most effective at creating a mellow, relaxing mood in users. Those with a citrusy, lemon-like odor tend to be mood elevators causing spikes in upbeat, happy feelings. And those with woodsy, pine-like smells usual deliver a mort alert high.

Close up of Pine Leaves

Image Credit: Ase

There’s also a difference in the types of terpenes found in sativa-heavy and indica-heavy strains of cannabis.

The most dominate terpene in indica strains is myrcene, which produces a more natural, earthy aroma. The same chemical is present in many fruits, hops and lemongrass. Studies have shown myrcene plays a role in the slow, languid high that indica strains produce, but it also has been shown to prevent the formation of ulcers and effectively treat aches, pains and sleeplessness.

Woman Sitting up Sleepless in Bed

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By contrast, sativa-heavy cannabis varieties are dominated by the terpenes terpinolene or pinene. Terpinolene is a common component of many soaps and perfumes. It occurs naturally in rosemary, and is responsible for giving a floral odor to certain cannabis strains. It’s well known as a depressant, but has also has been shown to be effective in treating certain types of cancer.

Limonene is the dominant terpene in many euphoria-inducing, mood-boosting strains of cannabis. It’s a chemical that gives of a very citrus-heavy scent, and is naturally found in fruit rinds, peppermint and pine needles. Outside of cannabis, it’s used in some common citrus-based cleaning products and has been shown to be particularly adept at fighting off fungus and bacteria.

Wooden Box Filled with Lemons

Image Credit: Larisa Blinova

As an entourage player, however, limonene’s most important statistic is the assist. It is rapidly absorbed in the body, and through its absorption, allows other molecules in cannabis to go to work more quickly.

As researchers and growers learn more about terpenes, it’s likely that both recreational and medical users will see new benefits from cannabis. A more nuanced understanding of the molecules will help doctors choose the most effective strains to combat physical and mental disorders, and allow casual users to experience exactly the kind of high they like