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When scientists first began properly investigating the inner workings of cannabis plants, they discovered active cannabinoids like THC and CBD, and attributed the medicinal and psychoactive effects of cannabis to these prominent compounds. Increasingly, as decades have passed and research has delved into and dissected the bouquet of different substances in cannabis as well as in other plants, we have come to realize that another group of compounds was hiding in plain sight - right under our noses.
They’re everywhere, whether you realize it or not - in the smell of trees and flowers as you take a leisurely stroll through nature, in the kitchen as you rummage through your spice rack or slice up fruit, in the sweet clean smell of your soap, your air freshener, and even the scent of your freshly-laundered bedsheets. These chemical compounds pack a punch of aroma that fills your nose, and is responsible not only for the tastes and aromas of cannabis plants, but almost all plant life, and even a select few animal species.
However, beyond just your olfactory senses, terpenes have even more offer for holistic wellness. In this article, we’ll break down just what terpenes are, how they relate to cannabis plants and cannabis plant compounds, how they measure up in therapeutic impact, and just how these compounds can influence vaping.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are a class of organic compounds mainly produced by a range of plants (and some insects!). These volatile aromatic hydrocarbons evaporate easily, and, as a result, their scents are easily carried to the noses of animals nearby. The term terpenoids (or isoprenoids) is sometimes used interchangeably with “terpenes”, but are actually modified terpenes that possess additional functional groups. Together, terpenes and terpenoids are the primary components of many essential oils found in plants and flowers, as well as being major components of rosin and turpentine that are produced from resin.
There is huge diversity amongst terpenes, and they’re typically characterized by their strong, distinctive odour and flavour profiles, as well as by their particular molecular structures. On a more specific note, terpenes are differentiated by the number of repeating units of a 5-carbon molecule called isoprene, which is an essential hallmark of the structures of terpenes and terpenoid compounds. Monoterpenes, for example, possess two units of isoprene; sesquiterpenes consist of three units, and so on.
Terpenes’ unique odours may be an evolutionary advantage and play a part in protecting the plants that produce them. Certain pungent terpene-specific odours may deter insects and herbivores from taking a bite, attract predators and parasites of herbivores, or repel fungi. For example, terpenes are used by a subfamily of termites to ward off predatory insects. They also serve as major biosynthetic building blocks, from which steroids and other molecules are built from.
As major constituents in essential oils, terpenes are crucial to fragrances in perfumery and traditional medicine, such as aromatherapy. Derivatives of natural terpenes and terpenoids, and even synthetic variations of these compounds, are often used in perfumery and for flavouring food additives. In these industries, they expand the variety of aromas that can be formulated. Hops, and the beer subsequently made from them, also owe their aroma and flavour to their natural terpenes.
These compounds are also desirable for use in several industries, including food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, and they have increasingly gained public recognition, in large part due to the rise of research into medical and recreational cannabis. Organizations and companies in the cannabis market have realized and pushed for education on the function of terpenes in their products, recognizing the gravity of the benefits that these fragrant compounds have to offer.
The science of cannabis plant compounds
Terpenes make up a key part of the chemical compositions of cannabis plants. Around 120 terpenes are known to be naturally produced by Cannabis sativa, although only a handful of these odiferous compounds occur in quantities that are significant enough to have an effect on aroma or consumption. Different strains contain different terpenes in different amounts - a “riot of perfumes”, as the poet Arthur Rimbaud once said, that changes each strain’s unique flavour and fragrance. Psychoactive effects and pharmacological benefits are also affected by the predominate terpenes in a plant.
Terpenes also give cannabis plants a strong evolutionary advantage. Many of these volatile aromatic molecules have innate abilities to aid in healing or prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms, as well as enabling cannabis plants to repel grazing animals, insects and invading fungi. Terpene-specific fragrances also play an important role in luring pollinators and allowing cannabis to proliferate. Climate, weather, age and maturation, fertilizers, soil type, and even the time of day can all influence the specific terpene composition that an individual plant develops.
Terpenes are good for humans as well as plants, depending on the concentration of the terpene itself and how it is used. Just inhaling the scents of these essential oil components can affect a person’s mood, stress levels and mental state. When ingested, they can increase blood flow, enhance cortical activity, and even kill respiratory pathogens and drug-resistant bacteria - notably, several terpenes have been found to be able to inhibit MRSA, which is an infamously antibiotic-resistant, lethal bacterium. Different terpenes also have different pharmacological effects, the full extents of which are still being investigated.
Terpenes are, of course, not the only compounds that cannabis plants can concoct naturally - at least 144 known cannabinoids are also secreted from the same plant glands. Out of these, the most prominent are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, and cannabidiol (CBD).
Cannabinoids can affect the brain, body and biological systems through various mechanisms and interactions, the full breadth of which we have yet to fully uncover. Though our understanding is still incomplete, research has shown that the two major cannabinoids, THC and CBD, carry out part of their effects by interacting with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system encompasses a network of cannabinoid receptors on cells and tissues throughout the body, endocannabinoids produced by the body, and their accompanying transport proteins and enzymes.
Interactions within this system are thought to help maintain a variety of physiological processes, including mood, metabolism, digestion, immunity, sleep, pain sensation and more. Two major types of cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2 receptors are found primarily in the brain and nervous system for the former and on immune cells for the latter. Each has a different sphere of influence, with CB1 receptors affecting memory, sleep, appetite, and motor function and CB2 receptors playing a role in mediating inflammation and the body’s immune response. Endocannabinoids present in the body can naturally activate these receptors and thus modulate these processes.
When it enters the body, THC can also bind directly to these cannabinoid receptors, triggering biological pathways and modulating brain signals. By doing so it creates an intoxicating effect and induces the “high” that is associated with cannabis use, as well as a whole host of other effects ranging from appetite stimulation and pain reduction to paranoia and anxiety.
CBD, on the other hand, has a very low affinity for CB1 and CB2 - which is why, unlike THC, CBD has no psychoactive effects - and instead indirectly acts to modulate hepatic cytochrome p450 enzymes, which are crucial for drug metabolism. In this way, it prevents endocannabinoids from being broken down, which allows them to have a more potent effect on the body. CBD also interacts directly with other receptor proteins outside of the ECS, like serotonin receptor 5-HT1A and vanilloid receptor TRPV1.
Working together - cannabinoids and terpenes
Many studies that analyze cannabis compounds, whether that’s THC, CBD or terpenes, tend to utilize isolated, pure extracts or synthetically-produced versions for research purposes. This is in stark contrast with how cannabinoids and terpenes are usually found on the market or ingested by the consumer, namely as whole-plant extracts that contain all of these substances and more than 400 trace compounds. When taken together, the subsequent effects observed in a person are often observed to be different and greatly enhanced compared to the effects of isolates alone.
This is due to what researchers call the entourage effect- a theorized mechanism by which different compounds produced by the cannabis plant act synergistically to modulate the plant’s overall psychoactive and therapeutic effects. Together, interactions between this vast array of compounds magnify the benefits of each of the plant’s individual components, making the resulting impact in the consumer greater than the sum of its parts, while also mitigating potential adverse side effects.
There is already evidence to back these claims - one review found that when people with epilepsy took CBD to manage their condition, those who took CBD-rich extract reported greater improvements in symptoms and fewer side effects compared to people who opted for purified CBD. Future research will establish whether or not these findings will hold true when CBD is used for other health purposes, as well as in healthy individuals.
Terpenes, as all-natural cannabis compounds, participate in this mechanism. When consumed alongside the full range of cannabis compounds, particularly THC, their interactions aid in buffering psychoactivity and reducing THC-induced anxiety, all while amplifying beneficial effects of the other compounds. Cannabidiol (CBD) is also being researched for its potential in relation to the entourage effect and has been reported as having the ability to mitigate many of THC’s more adverse effects.
This effect, or the absence of it, is also important to take into consideration when looking at data from animal studies and the effect of individual cannabinoids or terpenes versus their combined impact. Research into this effect is still underway, but cannabinoid-terpenoid interactions could synergize to significantly aid each other’s therapeutic effects, with respect to the treatment of conditions from pain and depression to cancer and bacterial infections.
Common cannabis terpenes: a primer
It would be slightly redundant to discuss every single terpene found in cannabis plants here in this article, but amongst the 200-strong a few key players stand out. These terpenes are crucial too not just for fragrance but for the subtler notes and therapeutic effects of cannabis and cannabis-derived products. Discussing them and their nuances can help you understand more of what goes on when you consume these products.
Myrceneis the most abundant terpene found in cannabis plants and can make up as much as 65% of a plant’s total terpene profile in some strains. This monoterpene is common in highly aromatic plants such as sweet basil, bay leaves, lemongrass, tropical fruits such as mango, hops, and more. Its aroma is said to remind people of cardamom or cloves, with earthy, musky notes. The name “myrcene” is derived from Myrcia sphaerocarpa, a medicinal shrub from Brazil that is used in traditional medicine to treat diabetes, diarrhoea, dysentery, and hypertension.
Much like its namesake, myrcene also holds great therapeutic potential - it possesses potent anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving and anxiolytic properties, and has been reported to be useful in reducing inflammation and alleviating chronic pain. It’s thus often recommended as a supplement for cancer patients during chemotherapy and has further effects for muscle relaxation, sedation, and aiding sleep. Research is still underway to discover more of this terpene’s effects - so far, its anti-catabolic effects in human chondrocytes suggest that it may have the potential to halt or slow down cartilage destruction and osteoarthritis progression, and it has even been shown to block carcinogenesis in the liver in studies of rats.
Limoneneis another ubiquitous terpene - the second most abundant terpene in nature and across all cannabis strains, though not all strains contain it. Cannabis strains with a citrusy tang owe their flavour to this humble compound. Limonene, true to its name, carries an uplifting citrusy smell that resembles lemons - fitting, as it forms the basis of the fragrance of citrus peels and is ubiquitous in the rinds of all citrus fruits.
Limonene is also common as a dietary supplement, as a fragrance ingredient for cosmetics and perfumery producers, and in food and pharmaceutical manufacturing to mask otherwise bitter alkaloids. It’s also frequently used in cleaning products like hand cleansers because of its ability to dissolve oils. When used for therapeutic purposes, limonene can improve mood and reduce stress, possibly by increasing the rate at which dopamine and serotonin in the brain are recycled. Some research also indicates limonene may be able to support the reduction in the size of solid tumours and possesses other anti-cancer, anti-bacterial, and antifungal effects. To cap off its all-rounder abilities, it acts against acne, helps with asthma, and even works as a natural insect repellent.
Linaloolis most famous for its relation to another plant - it composes a large part of lavender’s signature serene fragrance. This terpene is also found in rosewood, cinnamon, coriander, and cannabis plants, where it lends spicy and floral notes to these plants’ aromas. Much like these herbs, it also possesses strong sedative, relaxing, pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties, and linalool has been used to offer aid to patients suffering from arthritis, anxiety, depression, seizures, insomnia, chronic pain and even cancer.
Linalool also plays a protective role in the plants it’s found in - research indicates that it has anti-bacterial, anti-malarial and potent anti-leishmanial abilities. It’s also notable for its particular neuroprotective effects. One study has even suggested that linalool could potentially be a way of treating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and preserving synaptic plasticity. Apart from its therapeutic capacities, linalool is widely used in the cosmetics industry.
Caryophylleneis easily distinguishable in any cannabis-derived product by its spicy and peppery notes. It comes in two forms, of which beta-caryophyllene is the more common one, and is found in spices like oregano, rosemary, black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves, as well as hops, and in many green leafy vegetables. It can also bind to cannabinoid receptors, a property rare among terpenes. Specifically, beta-caryophyllene physically binds to CB2 receptors in the body’s immune system, which allows it to modulate inflammation. It is the only terpene known to directly activate a cannabinoid receptor, and has been described as a “dietary cannabinoid”.
By this mechanism, it confers anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects, soothes inflammation, and relieves both inflammatory and neuropathic pain, It also possesses anti-inflammatory and gastro-protective properties, as well as being anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-malarial, and it may even hold therapeutic potential for those suffering from auto-immune disorders. Some studies have even found that caryophyllene may be able to aid in the rehabilitation of people struggling with alcoholism. CB2 receptors have been implicated to play a major role in alcohol and cocaine dependence, and research conducted on mice shows that this terpene has been able to reduce voluntary intake of alcohol.
Humulene, otherwise known as alpha-caryophyllene, is the less abundant caryophyllene isomer and is found in hops, clove, sage, ginger, ginseng, spearmint and other herbs, fruits and vegetables. Like beta-caryophyllene, it has strong anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and similar anti-cancer and anti-bacterial activity has been documented. Some reports also indicate that humulene can influence weight loss and suppress appetite, and studies show that it may have potential in reducing and even preventing allergic reactions and asthma.
The pinenes- specifically alpha-pinene and beta-pinene - are particularly striking for their refreshing and bright pine tree scent. Cannabis and pine trees are naturally rich in pinene, as are rosemary, orange peels, basil, dill and parsley. Alpha-pinene is notable for being the most commonly occurring terpene in nature, as one might get the impression from standing in a forest and breathing in.
Pinenes, much like their other fellow terpenes, have anti-inflammatory effects in humans, but can also help improve airflow and respiratory functions. Pinenes can even help with asthma; it has also been found that patients suffering from arthritis, Crohn’s disease and cancer can also benefit from these terpenes. It possesses antiviral and broad-spectrum anti-bacterial effects, against both gram-negative and positive bacteria, and notably against MRSA. Within the realm of cannabis and cannabis-derived products, pinenes are also thought to help counteract one of THC’s adverse side effects - short-term memory loss - by way of inhibiting acetylcholinesterase.
We still don’t know all of the specific roles that cannabis terpenes may play in affecting human physiology, but as researchers continue to investigate it’s increasingly clear that without these pungent compounds, THC and CBD would have far less impactful therapeutic or psychoactive effects, and cannabis plants would not be nearly as useful or popular as they are.
Vaping and terpene infusions
At this point, you may wonder how this information on terpenes and the intricacies of cannabis compounds factors into vaping, as our title so boldly states. The link between these two seemingly disparate words lies in the rise of cannabis and cannabinoid vaping - more specifically, CBD vaping.
Vapes are one of the most effective and elegant ways of taking CBD and cannabis-derived products, standing out for a number of factors. Inhaling CBD allows for it to be absorbed through the lungs, where it quickly enters the bloodstream and can carry out systemic effects within minutes of the first breath. This speed and efficacy, as well as the ease of use of vapes and the potency of the CBD in these products, are some of the reasons why vapes are on the rise in the CBD market.
When vaping, a vaporizer device heats up vape liquid in order to atomize it and convert it into vapour to be inhaled. For this process to run smoothly, vape liquid needs to be at a certain level of viscosity, otherwise, a vaporizer won’t be able to produce vapour well. Thus, manufacturers may resort to adding different substances into their liquids to thicken or thin it accordingly. CBD-based vape liquids - termed CBD vape oil, distillate or juice - will contain concentrated CBD extract, which is potent but also requires some form of thinning and thickening agents to modulate its viscosity.
Terpenes fit into this unexpectedly well - they act as all-natural thickening agents, and even have the bonus of imparting unique flavours and health benefits when consumed. This also allows manufacturers to avoid the usual artificial additives used in vape liquids, like propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, which are potentially harmful to health. Tweaking terpene compositions in CBD vape liquid allows for incredible variety in not just flavour, but wellness benefits, as well as mood-enhancing effects and more.
It’s no surprise then that terpenes are becoming an increasingly popular manufacturing ingredient for CBD vape producers, and there has been a rise in interest in methods that allow terpenes to be mixed into CBD vape oil. CO2 oil, for example, is a type of CBD vape oil that is made with carbon dioxide supercritical fluid extraction technology, which can allow for the final product to retain small amounts of terpenes. Terpene infusions, where terpenes are extracted in the initial stages and then re-added to the liquid later, are another way that producers are working terpenes into their products.
It’s important to note that a large amount of these products are untested and the full long-term effects of CBD and terpenes in vaping have yet to be researched in-depth. To mitigate risk, you should always source your products from trustworthy, high-quality suppliers, and make sure that your product has received third-party lab testing before you buy or use it. If a product doesn’t have this label, it may not be legitimate, or its ingredients list may not be accurate, so it’s better to stay safe and stick with manufacturers that can verify their claims.
Balancing fragrance and feeling in your vape
Terpenes are an incredibly versatile group of compounds, that allow you to change your vaping experience to easily fit whatever needs or moods suit you. Whether it’s lifting your mood on a grey day, alleviating pain and inflammation, or just enjoying a soothing fragrant drag, terpenes offer you the leisure of choice - the sky’s the limit.
Over time, as you seek out and experience different terpene blends, you’ll develop your own sense of what formulations work for you and the balance of flavours and effects that caters to your needs best. It’s a vast and ever-growing market for terpene-infused vapes out there, though, and that can be daunting to the layman wondering where to start.
At Infused Amphora, our curated range of holistic vapes is made for those looking for a boost to their lifestyle - all our products are certified THC-free, extensively tested and verified by a third-party laboratory, sourced from organically-grown hemp plants. Each recipe incorporates flavoured and unflavoured terpenes alike for additional health benefits, and to imbue each vape with a unique flavour and aroma.
If you’re looking to get started with vaping with terpenes, or if you’re looking for a particular effect and are intimidated by the guesswork involved, be sure to check out our Infused Amphora CBD vape cartridges and give any one of our blends a try.
Written by | Infused Amphora Team
The Infused Amphora Team is dedicated to creating resources to educate and engage consumers on the growing evidence of CBD benefits and the extensive health and wellness properties of CBD oil.
Contributors | Angus Taylor + Dr Gaylord Wardell
IPI is a pharmaceutical ingredient company that cultivates cannabis strains curated to extract specific cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids for the formulation of effects-based health and wellness products. Angus is an experienced public speaker, engaging stakeholders, governments and media. Angus was the co-founder of NewLeaf Cannabis, Canada’s most successful retail brand to date, and has been established as a well-known and recognized expert in the field.
Dr Wardell is a practising physician with over 40 years of clinical and educational experience in pain management, medical practices and education. Dr Wardell is past President of the Pain Society of Alberta, and current President of the Alberta Medical Association, section of Pain. He is a popular public speaker, an active blogger on medical and pain-related issues, and proponent for scientific validation for patients experiencing pain.
Infused Amphora “Learn” is intended for informational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.