Terpenes: The Not-So-Secret, Potentially Magical Plant Ingredient

Or, Why Those Essential Oils Are So Potent

By Sandra Nomoto

Terpenes are hydrocarbon organic compounds deriving from conifer plants, fungi, and some insects. They have an odour that protects plants from herbivores or attracts predators of herbivores, which may be why certain plants have survived for thousands of years.

More than 20,000 terpenes are classified into 10 types, according to the number of isoprene units in the molecule. For example, Sesquarterpenes are composed of seven isoprene units.

Terpenes are used in perfumes, food and beverage flavourings, cosmetics, and agricultural pesticides. They can also be converted to geranyl alcohol, citronellal, camphor, rose oxide, and menthol.

How terpenes apply to plant medicine

Terpenes are the primary ingredient in the essential oils of plants and flowers, which are widely used topically and by inhalation in aromatherapy to treat a variety of conditions, from nausea to headaches, anxiety and depression, and menstrual or menopausal problems.

You can extract the terpenes of different strains of a plant like cannabis, which contains between 120 to 200 terpene compounds.

People take cannabis terpenes to feel calm, relaxed, energized, or focused, to reduce insomnia and inflammation, fight bacteria and fungi, and manage muscle spasms. Many cannabis-related websites list the potential benefits of commonly found terpenes: (beta-)caryophyllene, (alpha-)bisabolol, borneol, delta-3-carene, eucalyptol, humulene, linalool, limonene, myrcene, pinene, terpineol, and terpinolene.

Terpenes do not produce a psychoactive “high,” and are not generally known to have other negative side effects.

Although more research is needed to understand each terpene’s effect when used with others, a theory exists that terpenes and cannabinoids co-mingle to enhance their medical efficacy.

Dr. Dirk Dekens, a veterinarian in Calgary, Alberta, believes that providing CBD and hemp terpenes may alleviate a number of conditions in pets.

The hemp plant contains lower quantities of terpenes than cannabis, therefore does not have as strong a flavour or aroma. Although hemp may be more accessible, purification is required to extract their terpenes, in comparison to cannabis.

According to Colorado’s Bluebird Botanicals, ethanol, CO2, and steam-distillation are the three main extraction methods used to create a terpene-infused hemp extract.

A 2017 study by Konkuk University in Seoul, South Korea looked at forest terpenes and found an association between terpenes and different biological reactions. The research suggested that myrcene showed potential to be cytotoxic to certain tumor cell lines. They also found a correlation between pinene compounds and a chemotherapeutic potential: they could prevent tumor cells from metastasizing, and have cytotoxic tendencies against cancer cells.

Terpene concentrates are available online, though there are no recommended dosages, so users must discern what works for them. They’re typically dispersed via an eyedropper, and one drop could be enough.

Recreational applications of cannabis terpenes

Private chefs are using terpene droppers in their cannabis-infused dinners. Brewers are also using cannabis terpenes to alter flavour and aroma in beer, while other companies are creating infused cocktails, kombuchas, and chocolate (Bon Appetit).

California-based True Terpenes provided terpene-infused teas for the CBD and Meditation-themed shower for Kim Kardashian West’s fourth child.

A new product that launched in 2019 is the Pulsar Rök, a portable, electronic water vapourizer that allows consumers to more efficiently capture the spectrum of terpene flavors in cannabis.

Conversely, Floraplex Terpenes uses botanically derived terpene isolates, essential oils, and flavourings to recreate a cannabis strain’s terpene profile from scratch, without using any cannabis.

As more people search for natural remedies without psychoactive effects, terpenes are sure to become a viable option.

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