Cannabis contains at least 480 different chemical compounds. Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are only two of these compounds. As consumers begin to realize that THC concentration is not the main indicator of “quality”, they are turning more attention to minor cannabinoids, like Cannabigerol (CBG), Cannabinol (CBN), Cannabichromene (CBC), and terpenes found in cannabis. There are more than 100 terpenes found in mature cannabis flowers.
Terpenoids or terpenes, widely encountered in nature, are the fragrance molecules that give cannabis its unique aroma and flavor. Terpenes also have potential therapeutic properties, which can be amplified when combined with cannabinoids. The observed synergy between cannabis terpenes and cannabinoids is often referred to as the "entourage effect."
Graphic from Russo, Ethan B. “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects” British journal of pharmacology
While terpenes are nothing new (they are produced by most plants) terpenes in cannabis can be especially beneficial because they work in unison with cannabinoids. This interaction can result in greater psychoactivity and potentially maximize the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids. According to research, terpenes may contribute to anti-anxiety, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and sedative effects.
Terpenes Found in Cannabis
Although it's no fun smoking with a cannabis "connoisseur" who feels the need to dissect the terpene profile of everything they smoke, various compositions of cannabinoids and terpenoids are likely to exhibit distinct medicinal properties and are therefore useful to the consumer. Complete chemical profiles, including terpenes, provide a better understanding (than "sativa" or "indica", for example) of expected therapeutic or psychoactive effects.
Hemp plants can produce CBD, CBG, CBN, CBC, trace amounts of THC, terpenes, flavonoids, and essential amino acids. Some of the most common terpenes found in cannabis include Myrcene, Limonene, Alpha & Beta -pinene, Linalool, B-caryophyllene, Caryophyllene oxide, Humulene, Nerolidol, and Phytol.
Graphic by PhytoFacts™
Myrcene is the most common terpene found in cannabis (and hops). Its aroma can be described as musky, earthy, and herbal. Myrcene has potential sedating and hypnotic effects and can help facilitate the interaction between cannabinoids and our endocannabinoid system. In conjunction with presumed sleep aids like CBD, CBC, and CBN, myrcene-rich chemovars can promote better sleep and pain relief.
"Indica" phenotypes are said to have more myrcene content than "sativa "phenotypes on average, according to Steep Hill Labs in Berkeley, California. However, it would be difficult to prove that all chemovars with > 0.5% myrcene qualify as an indica and all chemovars with < 0.5% myrcene qualify as sativa, without also comparing heirloom (or landrace) pure indica and pure sativa plants, which can be difficult to find and may not have been included in the samples tested.
Furthermore, there may not be good reason to separate common phenotypes using the concentration level of one terpene, as it can have shortcomings. For example, one of our favorite chemovars Blue Dream is classified as "sativa-dominant", but myrcene is its most abundant terpene. Harlequin is another sativa-dominant chemovar that's high in myrcene. As you can see, this method of classification may quickly fall apart in a world of "hybrids".
|Blue Dream Terpene Profile via Leafly||
Harlequin Terpene Profile via Leafly
Limonene, is the terpene abundantly found in citrus fruit. Plants develop limonene as a natural insecticide to ward off predators. It is a popular, natural ingredient in citrus cleaner, insecticide, and LaCriox soda. Studies show that CBD significantly increases anandamide levels in the body, which can be linked to feelings of well-being and happiness. Limonene can also promote a general uplift in mood. This coupling of compounds can provide for a powerful therapeutic agent for depression and other related conditions.
Linalool is the main fragrance molecule found in lavender, said to promote calming, relaxing effects. The use of lavender is already popular among herbalists and alternative medicine practitioners. Linalool-rich chemovars may function as good sleep aids and can be better for users with mild or high anxiety. Applying lavender topically can also sometimes help with skin inflammation. There are a variety of skin conditions that individuals can use cannabinoids (plus a combination of terpenes) to treat, but if you find yourself experiencing excessive inflammation or itchiness, a full spectrum phytocannabinoid product may be right for you.
Caryophyllene is the only terpene known to have affinity with the endocannabinoid system, meaning it interacts or binds with an endocannabinoid receptor (CB2). The CB2 receptor is involved in modulating inflammation--therefore, caryophyllene is useful in anti-inflammatory topicals and creams. It is also suggested that caryophyllene-rich chemovars may be useful in treating a arthritis and neuropathic pain. Caryophyllene is known for its spicy and peppery note. It can also be found in black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, oregano, basil, and rosemary.
Pinene is, well...piney. Similar to its name, pinene has a distinctive pine aroma. In ancient medicine, pine was used as bronchodilator, to improve respiratory functions, and is still used for this purpose today. Similarly, pagans in Europe used evergreen trees to "freshen up" their homes during winter solstice. Have you ever noticed its easier to breathe after cleaning a room with Pine-Sol? Pinene-rich chemovars may promote overall alertness and be better suited for users seeking focus and creativity.
Classifying Chemovars beyond Indica and Sativa
While sativa and indica may be useful classifications for cultivators, these two categories alone are not sufficient to fully describe the chemistry of cannabis or the therapeutic effects of interest to most consumers. In fact, they are likely to create confusion in the marketplace, especially when people respond in different ways to the same product. Merely organizing chemovars by the main chemotypes is also not ideal for consumers because terpenes are not considered in this classification.
For a clearer understanding of the medicinal properties of cannabis, a better classification system beyond sativa and indica is required. It may make sense to classify cannabis according to cannabinoid and terpenoid levels for both medical and recreational purposes. After all, the ratios of cannabinoids and terpenoids present in cannabis flowers are a more meaningful profile of the plant’s genetic identity and chemical composition.