The cannabis plant consists of a wide variety of chemicals and compounds. About 140 of these belong to a large class of aromatic organic hydrocarbons known as terpenes (pronounced tur-peens). You may have also heard people talk about terpenoids. The words terpene and terpenoid are increasingly used interchangeably, although these terms do have different meanings. The main difference between terpenes and terpenoids is that terpenes are hydrocarbons (meaning the only elements present are carbon and hydrogen); whereas, terpenoids have been denatured by oxidation (drying and curing the flowers) or chemically modified.
Terpenes are synthesized in cannabis in secretory cells inside glandular trichomes, and production is increased with light exposure. These terpenes are mostly found in high concentrations in unfertilized female cannabis flowers prior to senescence (the condition or process of deterioration with age). The essential oil is extracted from the plant material by steam distillation or vaporization. Many terpenes vaporize around the same temperature as THC (which boils at about 157°C), but some terpenes are more volatile than others. Terpenes also play an incredibly important role by providing the plant with natural protection from bacteria and fungus, insects and other environmental stresses.
It is well established that cannabis is capable of affecting the mind, emotions and behavior. The main psychotropic cannabinoid, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has been intensely studied. However, many of the other cannabinoids, terpenoids and flavonoids found in medical marijuana that play a big role in boosting the therapeutic effect of cannabis remain understudied.
Terpenes are common constituents of flavorings and fragrances. Terpenes, unlike cannabinoids, are responsible for the aroma of cannabis. The FDA and other agencies have generally recognized terpenes as “safe.” Terpenes act on receptors and neurotransmitters; they are prone to combine with or dissolve in lipids or fats; they act as serotonin uptake inhibitors (similar to antidepressants like Prozac); they enhance norepinephrine activity (similar to tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil); they increase dopamine activity; and they augment GABA (the “downer” neurotransmitter that counters glutamate, the “upper”). However, more specific research is needed for improved accuracy in describing and predicting how terpenes in cannabis can be used medicinally to help treat specific ailments / health conditions.
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