The Terpene Revolution

By Christopher Rhine on May 4, 2018

In August 2011, Dr. Ethan B. Russo, the foremost researcher on therapeutic cannabis, published “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects." This study led to the first serious examination of terpenes’ medicinal effects in combination with the popular cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). In just five months, countless cannabis companies began selective breeding to ensure higher CBD and terpene yields, and cannabis-culture columns began espousing the potentials of CBD and terpenes in conjunction with THC—partially due to new computer analysis programs that can decode the full content profile of cannabis plants. Today, many dispensaries will display both the THC and CBD content, while some particularly well-off clubs might even give accurate terpene profiles. This falls in line with what Dr. Russo called for in a sativa vs. indica interview: "It is essential that future commerce allows complete and accurate cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles to be available."

Terpenes vs. THC

Terpenes are the primary constituents in cannabis plants (roughly double the amount of cannabinoids), and their main functions are to produce a pungent aroma and defend against predators. Until Dr. Russo’s paper, cannabis was selectively bred for (in order) its THC content, strong smell and stickiness; without knowing, terpenes were included in this selectivity, but CBD was sidestepped because of its undetectability outside a laboratory. Dr. Russo says full-terpene profiles should be made available because terpenoids provide a plethora of therapeutic effects—including positive synergies with therapeutic cannabinoids—as backed by hundreds of scientific research papers.

THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis responsible for the "high" feeling, has in recent decades experienced a tremendous jump in percentage-per-weight of sinsemilla—the unfertilized female flowers—from approximately 1.5 percent in 1980 to 15 to 20 percent today. At the same time, CBD and terpene content increased to just one percent. This is important to consider because THC overexposure, which has led to paranoia-panic attacks and precautionary emergency room visits, needs to be tamed, as Dr. Russo reports; and the primary substances able to tame THC are CBD and terpenes.

Historical accounts of THC-toxicity antidotes are numerous. For example, Pliny the Elder (the first-century Roman naturalist, not the Russian River Brewing Double IPA) suggested a formula of pine nut kernels (high in monoterpenes pinene and limonene), black pepper (high in the sesquiterpene caryophyllene), honey and palm wine stored in clay pots or goat skins (the tar and resin used to store this mixture contain terpenes akin to pine nut kernels). The pinene (pine smell, good for counteracting the short-term memory disruption of THC via acetylcholinesterase, i.e., exciting nerves upon impulse), limonene (the popular lemon smell, effective in increasing dopamine and serotonin in the brain), and caryophyllene (most common terpene found in cannabis; excellent anti-inflammatory and gastric cytoprotective) combination in this recipe is extraordinary considering it accurately predicted the science of "taming THC" long before the advent of computer analysis.

A less common yet effective antidote is the calamus root, or Acorus calamus. As used by Ancient Indians, smoke a pinch of the root along with cannabis. Research suggests calamus (like pinene) promotes acetylcholinesterase, which leads to clearer thinking and improved memory. Most cannabis enthusiasts have experienced overexposure in one form or another, and the many past and present solutions are vital to our understanding of how to reduce or eliminate "bad highs."

Further tests with individual terpenes suggest interesting medical potentials that we are on the forefront of understanding. In particular, black pepper essential oil vapor was used in a test with cigarette smokers against a placebo and mint-menthol vapor. The third who puffed the black pepper vapor showed the least vulnerability to cigarette cravings through the "respiratory tract sensations" of caryophyllene. This and many more tests are carefully documented in Russo’s paper.

There is a need for non-psychoactive cannabis strains high in the specific terpenoids consumers want (e.g., strong yields of myrcene for sedation, linalool for seizures/epilepsy and pinene for asthma). The old indica vs. sativa debate becomes archaic as plants of either denomination often share many of the same terpenes. This leads to the inevitable need to expand knowledge about CBD and terpenes for establishing accepted therapeutic uses.

Case Study: Treating Acne

Though unconventional in cannabis research, acne is an interesting case where the synergy of CBD and terpenes may provide a pathway towards treatment that THC was never able to help. Looking at the individual cannabinoids and terpenoids, which have been tested individually against acne pathologies, might provide a clue as to why an association between cannabis and acne might exist. Consider the following:

  • Acne is caused by increased "lipid production in human sebocytes of sebaceous glands at low concentrations," which is regulated by the endocannabinoid system.

  • CBD at 30 to 50 micrometers kills sebocyte cells, and CBD’s topical applicability means it can be applied directly to the skin. 

  • Limonene- and linalool-rich compounds can inhibit Propionibacterium acnes—the "key pathogen in acne"—and provide anti-inflammatory effects (along with pinene) that can reduce surface acne.

And since all of these compounds are non-psychoactive, this type of study is theoretically possible without federal interference. Therefore, the CBD and terpene synergy "may present a novel and promising therapeutic approach that poses minimal risks in comparison to isotretinoin," the pharmaceutical pill used to treat "severe acne" and that potentially causes birth defects, joint and back pain, dizzy/nervous feeling and skin dryness. It’s ironic that the synergy above might treat both the side effects of isotretinoin and its primary therapeutic target. 

Terpene Genealogy

As first described by Dr. Ben-Shabat in 1998, the cannabinoid-terpene synergy produces an "entourage effect" in which cannabinoids and terpenes work together to produce collective benefits that exceed their individual parts (e.g., a combination of CBD, limonene and linalool shows promise for treating anxiety and depression more effectively). Hope for the future is mostly positive since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers terpenes safe. The bigger hurdle will be getting the FDA to acknowledge CBD’s legitimacy as a non-psychoactive, therapeutic-rich component.

With U.S. cannabis companies on the cusp of mass cash-crop economics, more attention will be paid in marketing individual terpenes and high-CBD products (the latter already available) that will undoubtedly accelerate the medical cannabis revolution. For instance, Montel Williams runs a large cannabis company that takes out the terpenes of a flower and replaces it with whatever terpene profile the consumer wants: a Build-A-Bud, if you will.

The Netherlands Institute of Technology recently published a report that found communication between fungus and bacteria is facilitated using terpenes. Moreover, the most popular form of communication for life on this planet is through terpenes. This trait aptly highlights the importance of terpenes as new studies will likely lead to mammoth discoveries and therapies, adding to the universal appeal of cannabis. 

Humankind discovered these terpene-CBD truths long before (e.g., Pliny’s recipe) in different cultures (from Rome to Ancient India). This suggests that terpenes' universal language exists between both microorganisms and different societies throughout recorded history. 

Inline photo credit: David Gach/Flickr.

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