In a recent post, we discussed how to interpret a Certificate of Analysis (COA) provided by a medical marijuana dispensary in order to learn more about the individual components of a specific cannabis product. One of those components, a class of compounds known as terpenes, tends to present more of a mystery for many patients, but they may play an essential role in shaping the consumer’s experience.
Terpenes are not exclusive to the cannabis plant. These naturally occurring chemical compounds, which are also found in substances such as herbs, flowers, citrus fruits, teas, and hops, are part of a group of unsaturated hydrocarbons that contribute to the aromas and flavors of these various plants. In cannabis, these oily compounds are found in the trichomes, which are the tiny glandular appendages that cover the surface of the cannabis flower¹, and they also contain therapeutic and medicinal properties that can influence the specific benefits of cannabis² that vary between strains and even between harvests.
Similarly to how aromatherapists and other holistic practitioners may use lavender oil to enhance relaxation or arnica to promote healing of bruises, terpenes may help determine whether cannabis makes the consumer feel sleepy³ or experience pain relief⁴. In fact, many people may already be familiar with some of these terpenes without even realizing it. For example, linalool is a prominent component of lavender and its essential oil, and it can also be found in many indica-dominant cannabis strains, which are generally known for their anxiolytic and sedative effects. Found in pepper plants, myrcene acts on the TRPV1 receptors⁵, which are the same receptors activated by capsaicin, another component of the pepper plant that is often used to reduce pain and inflammation. Similarly, cannabis rich in myrcene has been found to have both analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.
The “entourage effect,” which describes the theorized phenomenon whereby the individual components of the cannabis plant (including terpenes and cannabinoids such as THC and CBD) interact synergistically to create unique therapeutic benefits, has been increasingly discussed and debated over the past few decades⁶. Cannabis products labeled as “full-spectrum,” such as some oils or other concentrates for instance, differ from isolate products in that they retain the broad range of terpenes and cannabinoids found in the live plant. While one recent study suggested a potential correlation between terpene content and subjective effects, more empirical, patient-centered research is needed in order to fully understand the extent of the complex relationship between these compounds and their interactions with the human endocannabinoid system.
As discussed in a previous lab post, information related to terpene profile, including names and percentages detected, can be found on each product’s Certificate of Analysis document, which can be acquired from the dispensary.
Below is a brief reference guide to illustrate some of the primary properties of just a few of the most common terpenes found in the cannabis plant:
1. Sommano, S. R., Chittasupho, C., Ruksiriwanich, W., & Jantrawut, P. (2020). The Cannabis Terpenes. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 25(24), 5792.
2. Rock, E. M., & Parker, L. A. (2021). Constituents of Cannabis Sativa. Advances in experimental medicine and biology, 1264, 1–13.
3. Okey, S. A., Waddell, J. T., Shah, R. V., Kennedy, G. M., Frangos, M. P., & Corbin, W. R. (2023). An Ecological Examination of Indica Versus Sativa and Primary Terpenes on the Subjective Effects of Smoked Cannabis: A Preliminary Investigation. Cannabis and cannabinoid research, 10.1089/can.2022.0213. Advance online publication.
4. Johnson, J. R., Burnell-Nugent, M., Lossignol, D., Ganae-Motan, E. D., Potts, R., & Fallon, M. T. (2010). Multicenter, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the efficacy, safety, and tolerability of THC:CBD extract and THC extract in patients with intractable cancer-related pain. Journal of pain and symptom management, 39(2), 167–179.
5. Jansen, C., Shimoda, L. M. N., Kawakami, J. K., Ang, L., Bacani, A. J., Baker, J. D., Badowski, C., Speck, M., Stokes, A. J., Small-Howard, A. L., & Turner, H. (2019). Myrcene and terpene regulation of TRPV1. Channels (Austin, Tex.), 13(1), 344–366.
6. Russo E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344–1364.