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Inside Medical Cannabis: What Are Terpenes, and How Do They Affect Treatment?

Cannabis is a more complex plant than you may think. The outcome of your treatment is directly affected by the delicate balance of compounds cannabis contains. But there’s more to cannabis than just cannabinoids. It also contains lots of terpenoids (commonly referred to as terpenes), which are directly linked to the therapeutic nourishment the plant provides.

“Terpene” may be an unfamiliar term, even to most medical cannabis patients, but they may be the most important factor in your treatment plan. Developments in science have shown that these compounds have a rather important job (hint: follow your nose). 

What Are Terpenes?

Terpenes are found in the essential oils of many plants and flowers, including conifers, citrus trees, and hops. What do these plants have in common? Their aromatic quality - they have distinctive smells. In cannabis, terpenes are the compounds that give different strains their diversity in fragrance and flavor; for example, the sweet berry taste of Blue Dream or the potent, zesty smell of Lemon Skunk.

Cannabis terpenes are secreted in the sticky resin glands of the flower, where you’ll also find cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) and trichomes. Keep in mind that terpene content can vary between harvests and curing methods. Your best bet for consistency in terpene potency is to stick to lab-tested and professionally cultivated products.

How Do Terpenes Affect Us?

Like cannabinoids, these compounds bind to receptors in the brain to produce different effects. However, also like cannabinoids, terpenes are most effective at certain temperatures. To experience their full benefit, it's important to avoid heating terpenes past their boiling point.

Scientists have so far identified over 100 different terpenes. We won’t go into them all, but here are six you’re most likely to come across:

  • Limonene: A citrus-scented terpene, as the name suggests, limonene’s stress relieving and mood elevating qualities are good for depression and anxiety. Boiling point: 176°C (349°F).

  • Humulene: This anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-pain terpene also suppresses appetite. It gives off a woody, earthy aroma, and is also found in hops. Boiling point: 198°C (388°F).

  • Pinene: This terpene smells of – you guessed it – pine. Also good for inflammation, pinene is especially effective in improving memory and alertness. Boiling point: 155°C (311°F).

  • Linalool: Flowery, citrusy, and spicy all at once, Linalool has sedating and calming effects. Its treatment abilities are varied, too; linalool can relieve insomnia, stress, depression, anxiety, pain, and convulsions. Boiling point: 198°C (388°F).

  • Caryophyllene: Acting as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, caryophyllene treats muscle spasms, pain, and insomnia with hints of pepper, wood, and spice. Boiling point: 160°C (320°F).

  • Myrcene: A mixture of musk, cloves, and citrus is the best way to describe myrcene’s scent. Myrcene not only sedates and relaxes, but enhances THC’s psychoactivity. Boiling point: 168°C (334°F).

Terpene Profiles: A Granular Classification of Strains

There is no shortage of options when it comes to terpenes, which is good news for medical cannabis patients. In terms of identifying the right strain for your treatment, “indica vs. sativa” is the broadest way to classify cannabis – most cannabis users are satisfied to know that indica chills them out and sativa lifts them up, basing their decision off this alone. But combinations of terpenes within these two strains provide a more nuanced sense of exact bodily effects, providing an opportunity to find the perfect strain for individual needs.

Unfortunately, because of federal prohibition, studies on the therapeutic effects of terpenes are limited. This makes dispensaries, which implement stringent testing requirements, an important resource for patients. Scientists may not have yet found the magic formula for predicting a strain’s effects on anyone, but terpene profiles are a great place to start.

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