The vast world of aromatic terpenes
The refreshing aromas of lemons, pines, eucalyptus trees and hemp plants all have something in common. Their smell is generated by particular organic compounds called terpenes. Terpenes belong to a wide class of aromatic chemicals found in a wide variety of plants, foods and essential oils. In hemp, terpenes are found inside the trichomes, tiny mushroom-shaped crystals that cover the leaves and flowers of this plant.
And there’s more than just a handful of terpenes out there. Apparently, there are over a hundred of them, each of which has a slightly different chemical structure and, therefore, distinctive aromas. Although they can be very pleasant to our sense of smell, they are mainly intended to protect plants by rejecting bacteria, fungi and parasites.
Fortunately for us, the studies have discovered that terpenes are not limited to only giving off pleasant aromas or discouraging predators. It has been discovered that they can have a wide range of biological effects on humans, a topic that we will discuss in more detail later.
How many terpenes exist and what are they called?
As we mentioned earlier, terpenes are not only present in hemp. If you open the pantry in your kitchen, you will find everyday foods containing high concentrations of terpenes, such as black pepper, mango or lemongrass.
Although there are over a hundred different terpenes, some are more common than others. Among the best known, we recall the following:
Myrcene is the most important terpene among those found in the Cannabis sativa species , but is also found in clovers, sage, hops and cumin.
Remember the refreshing lemon scents we mentioned earlier? Well, they are produced from limonene. This terpene is widely used in perfumes, cosmetics and air fresheners.
Beta-caryophyllene, with its spicy and peppery aromas, is renowned above all for its presence in black pepper, cloves and cinnamon.
You will immediately recognize the floral aromas of linalool. It is a terpene with pungent aromas found mainly in lavender.
What makes terpenes so special?
Terpenes take on particular relevance not only for their odors, but also for their potential synergy with cannabinoids such as CBD, CBN and CBG within the human body.
Try to imagine the hemp plant as a large glass jar. First we fill the jar with stones, which represent the cannabinoids, the main group of chemical compounds. Next, we pour smaller gravel to fill the empty spaces, which is equivalent to terpenes. Finally, we fill the can by pouring sand, which represents flavonoids and all other essential molecules. The whole plant is composed of all these elements.
Furthermore, there are reasons to believe that the combined action of cannabinoids and terpenes increases the biological effects of the respective molecules. This phenomenon, known as the entourage effect , is what makes the molecules in the hemp unique. However, some studies have shown that terpenes can have a biological impact even when they act separately.
What effects do terpenes have?
The potential field of application of terpenes seems rather vast. According to a report by the British Pharmacological Society, terpenes have “unique therapeutic properties that can significantly contribute to the entourage effects of cannabis-based medicinal extracts”. It is also added that the interactions between cannabinoids and terpenes could lead to “synergies regarding the treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections”.
In essence, although they tend to be considered the main characters of the show, cannabinoids could have an even greater impact with terpene support. There is still much to discover about the internal mechanisms of the terpenes and the most common ones listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. In future articles, we will continue to explore terpenes in more detail to find out more clearly what they really are capable of.