Terpenes: What Is It and Why Is Everyone Talking About It?

Terpenes: what is it and why is everyone talking about it?

Terpenes: What Is It and Why Is Everyone Talking About It?

Terpenes, in short

If you have already smelled the fragrance of a bouquet of sage, lavender or cannabis, then you have felt terpenes in action. It is these fragrant molecules that give plants, flowers and trees their wide range of flavors, from earthy scents with flowery aromas to citrus scents. And it turns out, terpenes are also good for health.

Experts say that the emotional and physical benefits of some terpenes can be felt after a forest bath (a bath without water, of course), using essential oils with a high concentration of compounds and, yes, smoking cannabis. Here's what you need to know...

The benefits of terpenes for health

As with aromatherapy, inhalation of certain terpenes in the wild has been associated with an improvement in emotional wellbeing. The floral and sweet scent of linalool, a terpene present for example in lavender, has a calming and sedative effect. Limonene, a terpene found in citrus fruits and peppermint, causes mood elevation, while pinene, which is found in sage and conifers, stimulates alertness and contributes to preservation of memory. Some scents bring on strong emotional thoughts. So, the sent of mango terpene may conjure up sharp memories of a visit to a sub-tropical island on holiday. That interaction is not “healthy” per se, just a way to help people connect with their thoughts.

"Scented molecules are essentially oils that release a therapeutic scent," says Josh Kaplan, neuroscientist at the University of Washington. The odor is stronger when the terpenes are heated because they are aerosolized at high temperatures, but they also emit a naturally occurring odor.

New research shows that terpenes have beneficial effects on physical and mental health. A study published in the Journal of Toxicological Research has shown that the Japanese practice of swimming in the forest, or shinrin-yoku, which is practiced in a terpene-rich environment, has potential anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic and neuroprotective effects on health.

Decode science

Dr. Kaplan says that the therapeutic benefits of terpenes can be twofold. "For years, it has been thought that people have terpene inhalation because our olfactory system, or sense of smell, is linked to the emotional centers of the brain, which has a positive effect on our mood," he says. "But it has recently been discovered that terpenes also act directly on brain cells to modulate their activity."

The terpene beta caryophyllene found in basil, oregano, black pepper and cannabis has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and analgesic properties. A study from the Chongqing Medical School in China has shown that the use of this terpene offers promising results in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease progresses according to whether or not reduction in brain inflammation occurs, and the beta-caryophyllene injected or administered orally in the mouse seems to attenuate this inflammation by activating the cannabinoid receptors, or CB2, in the brain.

The neurotherapeutic potential also extends to other terpenes. "In some laboratory models, high doses of linalool have shown anti-epileptic properties," says Dr. Kaplan. Find out what scientists think about the use of therapeutic marijuana for the treatment of eight common conditions.

Cannabis Terpenes: The Synergistic Effect

Terpenes in different varieties of cannabis are thought to enhance the effect of cannabinoids such as THC and CBD. "It's called the surround effect, or synergistic effect," says Dr. Kaplan. The premise is that by combining multiple cannabinoids with multiple terpenes, we get better therapeutic benefits than cannabinoids alone. "The neuroscientist points out that this idea is widely accepted, even if it relies largely on the theory that cannabinoids as well as terpenes have an effect on their own.

Companies partially mitigate this uncertainty by pairing a terpene blend with complementary cannabinoids in the lab to create targeted cannabis formulas. "Dosist mixes consist of a terpene profile that benefits from Mother Nature's teachings, but at higher concentrations than what's found in the plant," says So Young Park, product development manager at Dosist.

Kaplan believes that there is a much greater chance that the cannabis terpenes used in this way actually have a therapeutic advantage because their concentration is more consistent with the studies that tested the terpenes themselves.

Read next: What is Black Cannabis?
Phat Tran
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