What are terpenes and why they matter in cannabis (guest column)

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What makes cannabis, well, cannabis? What specific parts of the plant give it medicinal qualities?

For years, most have focused on the psychedelic contents of the plant and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, new research is bringing new knowledge.

Science is showing how naturally occurring cannabinoids, flavonoids and terpenes work in concert to enhance the plant’s effectiveness across symptoms.

Of recent interest are terpenes – the organic compounds responsible for the plant’s aroma and flavor. Researchers are digging into the plant to discover which terpenes do what. The results may change how we pair patients with cannabis products going forward.

What are terpenes

Terpenes are organic compounds found in a wide range of plants including cannabis. Responsible for aroma and flavor, they can have various health benefits when consumed.

Terpenes in cannabis have recently gained attention due to their potential health benefits, including anti-inflammatory, antifungal and anti-anxiety properties.

The cannabis plant contains over 100 different terpenes with each strain containing a unique combination, contributing to distinct flavor and scent profiles. The most common terpenes found in cannabis plants are myrcene, pinene, limonene and caryophyllene. For example, myrcene is the most abundant terpene in cannabis and is believed to have sedative effects, with pinene known for its ability to promote focus and alertness. Limonene is regarded as a mood enhancer and caryophyllene is known for its anti-inflammatory properties.

Early research suggests the terpenes in cannabis plants work in synergy with other compounds, such as cannabinoids and flavonoids, to produce the plant’s therapeutic effects. This is known as the “entourage effect.” The different elements create a holistic effect that none could achieve on their own. The sum is far greater than its parts.

The latest study

A new study published in the Journal of Cannabis Research sheds light on the importance of terpenes in the medicinal effects of cannabis. For the first time, researchers have confirmed that cannabis flower containing higher levels of specific terpenes can provide greater relief for patients.

The study analyzed data from over 6,000 consumption sessions and 600 unique cannabis flower products. The results yielded more than 450 distinct chemical combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes, known as “chemovars.” The five most commonly consumed chemovars were found to differ significantly in their effectiveness in treating chronic pain, depression and anxiety.

For example, the results show that symptom relief was greater after patients had consumed variants with slightly higher than average levels of the terpenes myrcene and terpinolene.

Further, the study found that two chemovars were associated with more negative and context-specific side effects than the other three chemovars.

This discovery goes far beyond the arbitrary strain names and self-appointed product descriptions of cannabis – it shows how different chemical combinations produce different patient outcomes.

The researchers suggest that these findings could be used to develop the world’s first indexing system for the categorization of cannabis variants. With a statistically significant “p-value” of less than .01, the study’s findings are not outliers.

What this means

Of course, this is just a first step. Future studies into any chemovar indexing system should assess how distinct combinations interact with user characteristics to produce general and individualized cannabis consumption experiences and health outcomes.

Nonetheless, the implications of this study are clear: it’s time to move away from cannabis products that rely on strain names alone.

In the past, strain names were used by producers and retailers as a marketing tool, but the modernization and hybridization of the cannabis plant have made these names largely irrelevant. This leaves consumers with little control over the products they consume, making it difficult to find the variants that work best for them or avoid those that don’t.

This is also true in CBD.

Bad actors in an unregulated space often result in products that promise the world. These lofty claims are usually unfounded and, worse still, from producers who don’t test their products for purity and potency.

That’s why research into terpenes and other cannabinoids is so important – it can help consumers better understand what they’re buying.

For example, CBD with full-spectrum extraction contains several naturally occurring cannabis plant extracts such as terpenes and other cannabinoids. As I wrote in November, an ongoing clinical trial published in Nature supports the use of full-spectrum, high-CBD oil for the treatment of anxiety.

If we want to bring cannabis to the medical mainstream, we need to dig deeper into the plant and understand how different chemical combinations impact user health. With continued research, we can move towards a more reliable indexing system that categorizes cannabis variants based on their chemical composition, providing consumers with greater transparency and control.

This article is by Scott Mazza, co-founder and COO of Buffalo’s Vitality CBD. Hailing from a background in finance, Scott is well-versed in the benefits of hemp and passionate about providing people with a natural alternative to the pharmaceutical industry.

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