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What are terpenes? An inside look at the cannabis plant

 Terpenes make as much difference to the therapeutic benefits of plants as cannabinoids. We explore what terpenes are and what they offer.

Ruby Deevoy

There’s so much to love about cannabis and so much for us all to re-learn about this amazing plant, as it re-emerges from the shadows of prohibition into the global centre-stage position it rightfully deserves.
 
For the past 100 years, many of us have been told what to think about cannabis and, until recently, with the worldwide explosion of regulation changes for therapeutic and environmental use, not a lot of it has been good. One of the things most, if not all, of us are familiar with is that infamous smell - because the scent (or, rather, the many scents) of cannabis can be picked up a mile off.
 
It’s a distinctly unique aroma, sometimes pungent, sometimes floral, or piney, with notes so strong they’re often referred to as ‘diesel’ or ‘cheese’. But, the truth of these scents is that they’re so much more than just a signature perfume. They are terpenes; aromatic compounds that play a vital role in wonderful therapeutic actions of plants that human beings have been benefiting from for thousands of years.

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Image by Add Weed                      Terpene smell

What are terpenes?

There are around 55,000 terpenes in nature, filling the air on woodland walks and your kitchen when you reach for herbs and spices to add to your cooking. They are present in every single plant, acting as protector against unwanted microbes, pests, predators and pathogens. They also attract pollinators and animals that can help spread their seeds or strengthen their growth. And these actions are all caused by anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-septic, anti-microbial, anti-parasitic and anti-biotic properties, many of which have been found to extend beyond the plant kingdom and actually benefit humans in similar ways.

Cannabis Terpenes: The densest source in nature

There are lots of things that tell us cannabis is a very, very special plant. The way that its cannabinoids are seemingly designed to interact with the endocannabinoid system. The remarkable nutrition available in hemp seeds. The ability cannabis has to help clear up our polluted soil and air. And the terpenes found in cannabis are, perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, exceptional too – with the flowers containing often at least 100 different terpenes depending on the cultivar.

The Benefits of Terpenes

As terpenes are generally abundant in nature, there’s an awful lot of research into the potential therapeutic value of them. This has helped cannabis experts around the world begin to understand how vitally important these aromatic compounds are – and why ‘full spectrum’ cbd oil and cannabis medications might differ so dramatically from isolates, or formulations made without terpenes.

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Photo by Léonard Cotte                     The benefits of terpenes

What are terpenes good for?

Varying terpenes in cannabis strains make as much difference to the therapeutic benefits as cannabinoids, and they’re also likely to be responsible for many other plant-based supplements, such as turmeric, lavender and sage.
 
Curcumin (found in turmeric) is probably being the most well researched of all and a prime example of the potential benefits of terpenes. This one is best known for it’s aid in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia.
 
The terpenes in Spanish sage (α and β-Thujone, camphor, 1,8-cineole, α-humulene, β-caryophyllene, viridiflorol, carnosic acid, ursolic acid, carnosol, tanshinones) appear to produce such powerful cognitive enhancing and protective effects that they are being explored for their potential effects on Alzheimer’s! And the initial findings are positive.

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Photo by Marcela Miranda                    Terpenes

What’s that smell?

Tea, clove and citrus fruits all have impressively high levels of terpenes too – which is perhaps why they have all been used historically (and still today) in traditional medicines. Some of their terpenes (also found in cannabis) include
 
  And this of course is merely scratching the surface of the benefits of terpenes!

Cannabis Terpenes: Which terpenes are in cannabis?

As mentioned above, cannabis is seriously abundant in terpenes – often contain over 100 of these amazing compounds. But there are a bunch which make an appearance more than others, and at higher concentrations too. These include:

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Photo by Thiago Patriota                    Cannabis terpenes

Pinene

The most common terpene in the plant kingdom, found in pine, basil, orange peel and rosemary as we as cannabis. In fact, this is usually the most abundant of all cannabis terpenes.

Plants we now know to be rich in this particular molecule have been traditionally used to treat congestion and today, we have the science to back that up. Extensive research has demonstrated that pinene can act as a bronchodilator (increasing airflow to the lungs) and expectorant as well as offering a wide range of other pharmacological activities including antibiotic resistance modulation, anticoagulant, anti-tumor, antimicrobial, antimalarial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-Leishmania, and analgesic effects.

Myrcene

Known as the sleepy terpene, present in almost all cannabis strains as well as parsley, thyme and hops.
 
Myrcene’s sedative effects are so potent that cannabis strains are sometimes classed as sativa or indica based on the myrcene content – as these terms have come to mean ‘energised’ or ‘chilled out’. Anything over 0.5% myrcene will usually have a more sedative effect (indica). Strains with less than 0.5% myrcene tend to have more energising and uplifting qualities (sativa). CBD oils created for sleep often come with added Myrcene.
 

B-Caryophyllene

This is a major terpene in cannabis and can also be found in clove, black pepper, sage, hops and rosemary. B-Caryophyllene is unique, as it binds to the endocannabinoid receptors (CB2) like a cannabinoid. It actually has a stronger affinity to these receptors than CBD and has been shown to have a number of remarkable actions including being antibacterial, anticancer, antifungal, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory.
 
Want to learn more about the hidden depths of the cannabis plant? Click here to read all about it’s secret, ancient history.

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