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Understanding the Emerging Science Around Cannabis Terpenes

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Terpenes are the big buzzword of the moment in cannabis circles, and if you’re already familiar with the class of compound from other plants, you know that means something smells funny. Specifically, terpenes are the compounds that give specific plants their distinct aromas. Cannabis, which has a uniquely wide variety of scent presentations across its varietals, can contain dozens if not hundreds of different terpenes, and their combination provides the signature smells that allow one to differentiate strains with just a whiff. Most of the terpene compounds found in cannabis are also present in other plants, which is why they smell like each other.

Terpene Consumption and Nutrition

Like flavonoids, terpenes have been linked to a variety of nutritional and health effects. The science is still emerging about many of these compounds, but there is a distinct link between terpene presentation and the characteristics of a cannabis strain. Research into these compounds in other plants has also shown a correlation to various nutritional characteristics like the presence of key amino acids or nutrients, so there’s a lot of reason to believe that they serve as signals to us, with key scents reminding us of the instinctive nutritional cravings those foods suited.

There’s also a fair amount of research showing that in cannabis and some other plants, the terpenes themselves are linked to the effects. In foods, that would mean the terpenes are themselves compounds that are needed alongside nutrients and vitamins. Some theories include the idea that they aid in the uptake of those nutrients, making them more biologically available through food. Other theories state that some as-yet-unknown nutritional need is served by the compounds, one that is not present when nutrients like vitamins are taken in extracted and standardized forms. There isn’t a clear consensus yet, but there are a lot of exciting questions, and research into them is sure to be ongoing for some time.

Terpenes and Cannabis Effects

It’s well known among consumers of THC that the trichomes are the magic part of the plant as far as the effects of the end product are concerned. Growers use trichome coloration as an indication of the development of cannabinoids because, well, they are where the cannabinoids are developed. Mature trichomes on the surface of the buds are where the THC is located, and they proliferate all across the surface of mature buds. It’s now known that the trichomes are also developmental sites for the terpenes a plant produces. That means these unique crystalline structures turn out the scent compounds for the plant alongside the balance of cannabinoids it produces.

Like the research into terpenes present in food and their roles in nutrition, the research into the relationship between terpenes and cannabinoids is just beginning, but there are already firm links between the presence of certain scents and commonly associated effects in strains. For example, consumers almost universally agree that cannabis with limonene terpenes also has an uplifting, energizing effect. The stronger the association, the stronger the effect that tends to be associated. Similarly, earthy, peppery cannabis tends to have stronger sedative properties.

While the relationship between terpenes and cannabis effects has yet to be established causally, it is abundantly evident. It’s also known that the same site produces the chemicals associated with smell and the ones associated with the medicinal and recreational effects of each strain. It could mean that terpenes themselves play a role in how the body responds to THC and other cannabinoids, or it could just be that the production of key cannabinoids responsible for certain effects includes the production of those terpenes as a byproduct.

Terpene Extracts in Cooking and Medicine

The issue with terpene science is not that there isn’t a known effect or that there hasn’t been a causal link shown for these theories, it’s that many theories fit the links that have been found, and key studies with bold conclusions need to be replicated more to reach a consensus. There’s a good reason to believe terpenes on their own provide some nutritional and health benefits, just as flavonoids on their own were found to have unique properties that made turmeric and other spices as important for medicine as they are for your diet.

Terpene extracts are also used purely for their taste by many chefs and food enthusiasts around the world, and their ready extraction from cannabis leaves, stems, and even buds has produced a market for them driven purely by their culinary applications. Combining the right terpene extract and strain allows for precise control over its presence in the flavor and effect of edibles, leading to a unique sensory experience with medicinal effects for consumers.


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