The smell of wellness can be sweet — or earthy, spicy, floral, fruity, herbal and even skunky. The smell of different strains of cannabis are caused by terpenes, a fragrant oil found in plants generally but in about 200 forms in cannabis specifically. While certain fragrances are associated with specific terpenes, each terpene can also have multiple aroma profiles.
Their smell is not only pleasant or interesting, it is increasingly being associated with health benefits ranging from getting better sleep to achieving greater calm.
While it’s early days as far as research proof of the good they can do, terpenes are beginning to get some serious consideration from the medical community. “We have barely begun to understand the therapeutic potential of cannabis,” says Ethan Russo, a neurologist and director of R&D at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, based in the Czech Republic. “We haven’t taken the steps that are required to really harness the abilities of some of these minor cannabinoids, particularly in conjunction with optimized terpenoid profiles.”
Small but potent terpenes are extremely active, aromatic molecules that can dictate both taste and aroma in plants and fruits. Aromatherapy treatments use botanicals that have lots of strong terpenes. For example, inhaling a lavender essential oil can serve to relieve tension.
Some of the medical benefits of terpenes may include:
- Better sleep
- Pain relief
- Reduced inflammation
- Lowered anxiety
- Improved relaxation
- Enhanced alertness and cognitive performance
What Are Terpenes?
Cannabis is by nature is a complicated plant. Of the 400 or so compounds, including 60 cannabinoids, researchers have identified in marijuana, about half of which are terpenes, which are responsible for its smell and taste.
Terpenes may serve to alter the effects of cannabis, with research showing they may be a big, if not the biggest, factor in the experiential differences between cannabis strains; they may serve to increase cerebral blood flow, enhance cortical activity, kill respiratory pathogens, provide anti-inflammatory activity and do much more. According to Medical News Today, “Many terpenes are bioactive, which means they may affect the body. This effect will vary based on the concentration of the terpene itself and how a person uses it.”
Terpenes may also serve to create an “entourage effect” — that is, amplifying the effects, including the therapeutic ones, of active cannabis compounds such as THC and CBD.
Wellness Benefits of Terpenes
While there are many types of cannabis terpenes, here are three getting increasing recognition for possible health and wellness benefits:
This terpene adds a peppery, spicy, woody aroma to cannabis. It is, as well, found in black pepper, cloves, and balsam. Beta-caryophyllene is also a unique terpene —one of the first cannabis compounds (after THC, CBD, and CBN) shown to work directly with the endocannabinoid system.
People produce cannabinoids in themselves through the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). An increasing amount of evidence shows the ECS plays a role in regulating stress recovery, nervous system protection, immune system response and homeostatic balance (our overall state of optimal health function and stability). The endocannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors all over our bodies to help regulate those functions.
Beta-caryophyllene is an atypical cannabinoid, as well as a terpene, and will selectively bind to CB2 receptors in the body, primarily be found in the immune system. One animal study shows that the terpene has pain-relieving properties, and another that it may reduce alcohol intake, meaning that it might play a part in treating addiction.
The terpene also shows promise as an antioxidant and for treating:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Anxiety and depression
Named for the geranium flower (which contains the terpene), geraniol and has a similar odor: a sweet rose scent with a touch of citrus. Besides in cannabis, the terpene can be found, among other places, in roses, carrots, nutmeg, blueberries, and even the scent glands of honey bees.
Geraniol’s sweet and fragrant nature means that it often gets added to cosmetics and food products. The rose and citrus aromas make it great for enhancing flavors such as rose, lemon, orange, or lime. It also has therapeutic uses, including ones as:
- An insect repellent: One study showed that geraniol candles repelled mosquitoes and sandflies two times as well as linalool candles and five times more effectively than citronella candles.
- An antimicrobial and antibacterial agent: Studies have found it can protect against the fungus responsible for yeast infections and thrush, as well as many of the bacteria that cause food poisoning.
- An antioxidant: The terpene can slow unhealthy cell growth. Its antioxidant properties enable it to neutralize free radicals and keep bodies safe from their DNA-damaging effects.
- An anti-inflammatory agent: Animal studies show that geraniol may inhibit inflammatory responses.
- A pain-reliever: It may provide pain relief without inhibiting motor skills.
- An enhancement for topical cannabis: It can enhance the skin’s ability to absorb cannabis topicals, so topicals high in geraniol may be more potent and effective than those without.
- A neuroprotectant: One study showed that geraniol was able to help preserve the structure and function of nerve cells, which could make it especially helpful in treating diabetic neuropathy.
As the name suggests, limonene in cannabis smells like lemons and limes. Many citrus fruits (including oranges, lemons, mandarins, limes, and grapefruits), as well as juniper, have high levels of limonene.
According to the Sleep Doctor: “Scientists think its calming, mood-lifting effects come from limonene’s ability to elevate serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is an important hormone and neurotransmitter for sleep (among other things, it is required to help produce the sleep hormone melatonin) and limonene’s serotonin-boosting effects may make this terpene a sleep-promoter.”
Limonene may also lower anxiety and stress and have anti-depressant effects. The RX List suggests that the terpene is “used to promote weight loss, prevent cancer, treat cancer, and treat bronchitis,” as well as being used to help medicinal ointments and creams penetrate the skin.
Ways to Consume Terpenes
Terpenes can be consumed in a number of different ways. For example, you can chew and swallow them in edibles, or put drops of a tincture under the tongue with a dropper. Keep in mind if consuming concentrate terpenes or essential oils that they must be diluted beforehand. Terpenes can also be applied topically or inhaled with, say, an aromatherapy diffuser or vaporizer.
But before using terpenes for treating health conditions, it’s wise to talk to a knowledgeable health practitioner first, so you can get advice on using medical cannabis, including terpenes, tailored to your specific need