Terpenes and the Science of Aromatherapy

marijuana research healing plantsWe know plants produce volatile oils, ever changing through evaporation and other environmental factors. In the perfume and botanical extraction industries, these plant oils are known as essential oils. In the cannabis industry, we speak of them as terpenes.  They are present in almost all plants as protection from predatory animals, pests, and invasive plants or to attract helpful pollinators. These oils are what give plants their distinct aroma and flavor profiles. Let’s look at the science of essential oil compounds and what they do for us as a medicinal healing tool.

Essential oils can be divided into two major groups of chemical compounds—hydrocarbons and oxygenated compounds. Terpenes in cannabis plants are hydrocarbon compounds. Terpenes subdivide further into three groups:  monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and diterpenes. Oxygenated compounds include:  esters, aldehydes, ketones, phenols, alcohols, and oxides.  In cannabis, the majority of the oils are terpenes; however, you can find alcohols, aldehydes, oxides, phenols, and esters, but at much lower levels than their hydrocarbon counterparts.

plant oils cannabisLet’s look at the different groups of terpenes and what makes them distinct. Monoterpenes are found in almost all essential oils and are the building blocks of aromatherapy.

Monoterpenes are ten carbon double bond molecules.  These tiny molecules are small enough to pass through cell membranes and affect change at the cellular level. This ability affords the chemical action that allows these oils to be used medicinally. Benefits of monoterpenes are:   anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antiviral and antibacterial—some can even help with concentration, energy, and focus. Terpenes, especially monoterpenes, are stimulating and at times irritating with too much use, both in essential oils and in cannabis use.  While the harm is low, just like with everything, moderation is key. Do not overload your body’s system.

Sesquiterpenes are fifteen carbon chain molecules.  This group has the most anti-inflammatory properties of all the terpenes. They can be anti-allergenic as well as tonifying, antiseptic, immune stimulating and have anti-viral properties.  Beta-caryophyllene is an example of a sesquiterpene found in cannabis and a very important one at that. It has gastro-protective qualities making it great for treating certain ulcers and other gastro-intestinal issues. It has been found helpful in inflammatory conditions and auto-immune disorders because it binds directly to the peripheral cannabinoid receptor known as “CB2.” This essential oil can be found in black pepper, oregano, and other edible herbs, as well in many green, leafy vegetables. Some consider this terpene to be more of a cannabinoid due to its ability to bind with the CB2 Receptor.  This receptor does not affect psycho activity and is sought out for its health benefits without the cerebral effects of cannabis.

Diterpenes form the basis for biologically important compounds such as retinol, retinal, and phytol. They are known to be antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory.  Diterpenes are twenty carbon chain molecules, with the highest anti-inflammatory properties, but are not found in cannabis, so we won’t focus on them.

cannabis essential oilsA strain’s terpene profile can vary considerably from strain to strain. We always say “The nose knows,” which means that you should choose a cannabis strain that smells appealing to you because, almost always, your body will react favorably to it.  This is not just specific to cannabis; use this rule with all herbs and essential oils for maximum benefits.

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Special thanks to Isis Ruiz for her contribution to this article.

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