How do cannabis terpenes affect the body?

We are finding there is much more to cannabis than just THC...

Cannabis Oil & Leaves

As the cannabis industry grows and science is allowed to study this miraculous plant more closely and with less restrictions, we begin to understand that there is way more going on in these flowers then just the traditional notion of THC and CBD content.

While THC and CBD contribute heavily to the potential benefits of cannabis such as euphoria, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, body relief, etc., we are finding that terpenes are not only the strongest determining factors when creating a plants flavors and aroma, but also boost and modify the effects of the other terpenes and cannabinoids produced.

So, what are terpenes?

To start terpenes are the volatile organic molecules made up of 2 or more isoprene units that emit from all varieties of plants, flowers, fruits, vegetables - including cannabis.

3D Diagram of Isoprene

3D model of Isoprene, Source: PubChem

These emitting molecules combine together to create terpenes, sesquiterpenes, monoterpenes and are what help to giving flowers, fruit, and vegetables the scents we love and the flavors we find comfort in.

Where do they come from?

Terpenes are hidden all around us and are used by plants for a multitude of functions including, attracting pollinators with their sweet aromas, deterring predators with bitter flavors, fighting infection and disease in turn helping to maintain the overall health of the plant. Terpenes are what give lemon its zest and mentally uplifting abilities, basil its herbaceous flavor and antibacterial properties, and cannabis its wide variety of scent combinations and beneficial effects.

Common Terpene Chart by Leafly

In the guide above from Leafly you will find some of the more commonly studied terpenes that are produced and stored by the plant in the little resinous mushrooms that grow off the surface of the leaves and budding flowers of the cannabis plant, called trichomes.

How do terpenes effect the body overall?

Terpenes can be inhaled, taken sublingually, absorbed topically, or utilized transdermally.

With a molecular size small enough to break the blood-brain barrier,inhaled terpenes are processed through the olfactory and respiratory systems stimulating the mind and body.

When ingested sublingually, they can be quickly taken up into the bloodstream having effects felt within minutes.

Topical applications allow for terpenes to be directly absorbed into the skin providing relief for specific targeted areas on the body.

While transdermal applications work in the same manner, they are meant instead to enhance an entire system like digestion or issues of chronic pain rather than a single area.

Terpens & the Olfactory System

The olfactory system is one part of the respiratory system that is responsible for the uptake and processing of terpene molecules within the body. Your olfactory system is directly connected to your brain and is accessed through millions of small hair like structures called cilia. Found inside the sinus cavity these small cilia are located within the olfactory epithelium protected by a layer of mucus. The layer of mucus is where inhaled scent molecules such as, terpenes are deposited and dissolved which then stimulates the cilia to send response messages along the olfactory nerves relaying information to the limbic region of the brain. According to the type of terpene ingested will determine whether there is a physical, mental, or emotional response.

Olfactory System Diagram

Organization of the human olfactory system. (A) Peripheral and central components of the olfactory pathway. (B) Enlargement of region boxed in (A) showing the relationship between the olfactory epithelium, containing the olfactory receptor neurons, and the olfactory bulb (the central target of olfactory receptor neurons). (C) Diagram of the basic pathways for processing olfactory information. (D) Central components of the olfactory system.

Terpenes & the Respiratory System

As inhaled terpenes and cannabinoids travel down from the sinus cavity into the lobes of the lungs they are draw deep into the bronchioles and then into the alveolar ducts and eventually into the small one cell thick cavities called alveoli.

The alveoli is the area within the lungs where inhaled oxygen is exchanged with the bloodstream. In respiration, this exchange is allowing for the inhaled terpenes and cannabinoids to enter the bloodstream as well. After entering the bloodstream these molecules are brought to the heart where they are then dispersed throughout the body and eventually to the region where they are needed.

Respiratory System Diagram

Terpenes: Topical & Transdermal Application

The skin is made up of three main layers, the epidermis, dermis, and the hypodermis. Topical applications to the skin allow for compounds like terpenes to be directly absorbed into outermost layer, the epidermis. This type of application works on providing aid for specific targeted areas on the body.

While transdermal applications work in the same manner, they are actually meant to be absorbed to the deeper layer of skin, the dermis. This method is designed to allow for more compounds to penetrate and effect an entire system like digestion or issues of chronic pain rather than just specific surface area.

Epidermis Diagram

Figure 5.2 Layers of SkinThe skin is composed of two main layers: the epidermis, made of closely packed epithelial cells, and the dermis, made of dense, irregular connective tissue that houses blood vessels, hair follicles, sweat glands, and other structures. Beneath the dermis lies the hypodermis, which is composed mainly of loose connective and fatty tissues. From Anatomy & Physiology

The entourage effect.

When terpenes are ingested or applied in combination with other plant compounds like cannabinoids, they create a synergistic or “entourage effect.” The phase was coined by the renowned Israeli scientist and cannabis researcher, Raphael Mechoulamin a study done in the late 90’s. To get a better picture of where some of the current research is going. you should refer to neurologist Ethan B Russo study Taming THC: Potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects.

Not to be confused with Terpenoids.

A common misconception today is to refer to terpenes as terpenoids and vice versa. The two can easily be distinguished by the understanding that terpenes are still fresh and have not yet suffered adulteration through drying out and oxidation. If you wish to learn more you may find this article written by Kim Nunley interesting.

Conclusion

Terpenes are impressive little compounds with an array of aromas and benefits that help to stimulate our minds and body while also enhancing the effects of other compounds, including cannabinoids. Now that we understand that there is more to explore in cannabis and what terpenes are, where the come from, and how they may affect us. What is your favorite terpene and is it for its effects or flavor?

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