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How do Terpenes Affect the Body?

Terpenes are arguably the largest and most diverse class of natural compounds. A larger percentage of these naturally occurring chemicals exist in plants, but animals are also known to have larger complex types.

They are normally identified by their number of isoprene (building blocks) units. So, a terpene can be classified as mono, di, tri, tetra, or sesquiterpene. Their most pronounced effect in plants is scent and aroma, but they also act as feeding cues for herbivores besides other functions.

These compounds are thought to enhance the “entourage effect” of cannabis, though the exact science behind this phenomenon remains unclear.

But since terpenes are lesser-known, a common question that arises is: how do they affect the body? Are their effects pharmacological or psychological? Available evidence suggests both mechanisms could help explain how terpenes work in the human body.

So, in this article, we look at the potential physical, medical, and psychological effects of terpenes.

Key takeaways

  • Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in plants and some animals.
  • These compounds work by interacting with various receptors in the body, e.g., CB1R and CB2R. 
  • Though research is still needed, existing studies on terpenes reveal some promising findings regarding their therapeutic value.
  • They demonstrate potential anti-inflammatory, pain-relief, antiviral, and anxiolytic effects. They may also boost brain functioning.

How Do Terpenes Work

Terpenes work in the body like cannabinoids. They enter the bloodstream and bind to various receptors in the immune system, brain, organs, connective tissues, and glands. 

Their ability to interact with the same receptors as cannabinoids has led to suggestions that they are cannabimimetic. In other words, they can induce effects similar to those of dominant cannabinoids.

For instance, a 2021 study found that geraniol, linalool, α-humulene, and β-pinene induced cannabinoid tetrad behavior in mice. All four terpenes activated the cannabinoid receptor type-1 (CB1R) more or less like WIN55,212.

The tetrad test is typically used to screen drugs with cannabinoid-like effects. The four signs of tetrad behavior are hypolocomotion, analgesia, hypothermia, and catalepsy. 

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and WIN55,212-2 (a synthetic cannabinoid) are CB1 agonists and typically produce the tetrad effect. That’s because CB1R is concentrated in regions in the brain involved in tetrad behavior.

Interestingly, the study showed that some behavioral effects of WIN55,212 were voided when the cannabinoid was combined with the terpenes. This leads to suggestions that terpenes are potentially selectively cannabimimetic.

Perhaps this is why cannabis strains have different effects. Some make you creative and energetic, while others make you sleepy and relaxed. Generally, terpenes are thought to enhance only the favorable effects of cannabinoids. 

Consider the burdensome effects of THC, for example. In large doses, this cannabinoid may induce paranoia, anxiety, and panic. In extreme circumstances, psychosis, delusions, hallucinations, and loss of identity are possible.  

Terpenes, however, have never been shown to induce such effects despite being capable of activating CB1R. In other words, terpenes can modulate cannabinoids like THC. For this reason, these compounds are believed to play a role in the “entourage effect.”  

If this is the case, it’s possible to identify terpenes that maximize the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids while avoiding their undesired effects.

How Do Terpenes Affect the Body

Pharmacologically, terpenes are bioactive, so there’s no doubt they can affect the body. However, their effects typically vary with their potency and usage.

Since terpenes are aromatic compounds, the first thing you notice about them is their vibrant scent. If you’ve ever walked through a forest, you may have smelled the refreshing aroma of pine trees. That’s due to a terpene called pinene, found in pine needles, dill, basil, and rosemary.

Due to their scents, terpenes are the major ingredients in essential oils and an integral part of aromatherapy. When inhaled, the molecules in essential oils reach the brain via the olfactory nerves and produce wide-ranging effects.

As a result, ‘forest bathing’ has become a common practice as a form of alternative medicine. Indeed, exposure to the natural environment is associated with many health benefits. For example, a 2015 study found that a trip to forested environments had a therapeutic effect on children with atopic dermatitis and asthma.

Scholars contend that inhaling ‘forest air’ is beneficial because it contains various phytochemicals, most of which are terpenes. 

Therapeutic Use of Terpenes 

Research shows that terpenes have different chemical signatures hence their varying therapeutic effects. Here are some of the health benefits you can get from these compounds.

  • Pain relief
  • Terpenes have been used as pain relievers in traditional medicine for many years. This is possible because terpenes, like some cannabinoids, can activate CB1R and CB2R, which are widely involved in modulating nociceptive pain and inflammatory responses.

    Terpenes like caryophyllene, linalool, and humulene have been shown to have analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties in animal test subjects. It remains unclear whether they have similar effects in humans.

  • Stress relief
  • Stress and anxiety affect millions worldwide, so it’s gratifying that nature offers some of the best anti-stress solutions. 

    Numerous studies have demonstrated that terpenes can reduce anxiety and improve mood by activating the CB2R in the body. Linalool and β-pinene demonstrate potent anti-depressant qualities among the several terpenes already investigated.

    They exert their anti-depressant effects by triggering the 5HT1A receptors. These receptors are involved in the release and reuptake of serotonin – a hormone implicated in various bodily functions, including stress management and mood.

    Terpenes can also influence adrenalin levels in the body, influencing stress-induced behavioral changes.

    Researchers have also found that linalool and β-pinene can interact with dopamine receptors (D1 receptors) to exert their anti-depressant effects. Interestingly, this is the main mechanism used by most anti-depressant medications. 

    This takes us back to the topic of forest bathing. Have you ever wondered why spending time in the forest looking at the trees makes you feel more relaxed and improves your mood? It’s because the air is rich in anxiety-reducing and mood-boosting phytochemicals, most of which are terps.

  • Improved focus
  • Terpenes may also be useful in boosting energy levels and improving focus. Three types of terpenes stand out in this regard – eucalyptol, limonene, and β-caryophyllene. 

    As suggested by the name, eucalyptol is derived from the eucalyptus tree. It is not a common terpene, constituting only 0.06% of a complete terpene profile. This terpene has the potential to improve brain function and memory.

    Limonene is known for its bright, citrusy smell. It is one of the most abundant terpenes in cannabis but is also found in citrus fruits, and contribute to pleasant scents of bergamot and lime. Limonene may help reduce stress, support the immune system and improve mood.

    Β-caryophyllene is another focus-enhancing terpene. It works by stimulating increased blood supply to the brain resulting in more oxygen reaching the brain. 

    A recent study published in Brain shows a clear relationship between increased blood flow to the brain and cognitive performance. That’s because areas in the brain like the hippocampus (memory and learning) and amygdala (motivation and emotions) get supplied with the nutrients they need to perform better.

  • Antiviral activity
  • The antiviral properties of certain plants are generally attributed to monoterpenes. This has led to suggestions that this class of terpenes plays a more defensive role in plants.

    In humans, the antiviral effect of terpenes is a busy research area. For example, a 2005 study exploring the antiviral effects of south American herbs on three human viruses, i.e., Junin virus, dengue virus type 2, and herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV1), found their essential oils to be virucidal. 

    The major components of the oils were monoterpenes, i.e., carvone, α and β-pinene, camphor, carveol limonene, caryophyllene, β-ocimene and germacrene (a sesquiterpene).

    Another study investigating the antiviral qualities of plants from Lebanon on HSV1 and SARS CoV yielded positive findings. Incidentally, the major ingredients in the essential oils were α and β-pinene, 1,8-cineole, and β-ocimene. 

    A 2009 study also achieved similar results, suggesting that monoterpenes form the bulk of antiviral agents in virucidal oils.

    However, it is noteworthy that monoterpene hydrocarbons are stronger than monoterpene alcohols in antiviral activity. This was established in a 2009 study using essential oil extracts from tea tree, eucalyptus, and thyme. The researchers found that α-pinene and α-terpineol exhibited higher virulent activity against HSV-1 by directly activating free viral particles.

    Also, the study concluded that mixing monoterpenes is potentially more effective than using single isolated terps, reinforcing the validity of the ‘entourage effect.’

    How Do You Use Terpenes

    Just like cannabinoids, there are various ways of using terpenes.

  • Inhalation 
  • Historically, inhalation is a common method of taking terpenes. In the old days, this method entailed directly smelling the plant. Nowadays, it is more convenient to inhale terpenes in essential oils through aromatherapy.

    Humidifiers and vaporizers are ideal for inhaling terpenes because they typically don’t work at high temperatures. Terpenes are highly volatile and denatured at high temperatures. So the closed system heating and temperature control features mean you get a more “terp-centric” cannabis experience and access to the health benefits.

    However, terpenes have individual traits; not all can be inhaled because some can irritate the lungs. Limonene, linalool, and pinene are among the most inhalable terpenes.

  • Oral consumption
  • This is another timeless method that can be used to consume terpenes. Traditionally, people ate terpenes in fruits and leaves of medicinal plants simply by chewing and swallowing.

    Technological advances have made it possible to extract these bioactive compounds and infuse them in tinctures and oils, which are then taken sublingually.

    Note: Never consume concentrated essential oils orally. Always consult a licensed herbalist or medical professional.

  • Topical application 
  • Using terpenes in topical formulations like creams, lotions, and balms is just as old as eating them. Since the old days, our forefathers understood the benefits of rubbing natural plant compounds on the skin to:

    • Relieve itching
    • Moisturize it
    • Alleviate pain and inflammation

    Terpenes like β-caryophyllene and limonene are ideal for topical applications because they increase the skin’s ability to absorb cannabinoids. They also increase bioavailability.

    Terpenes in CBD

    One reason for mixing terpenes with cannabinoids like CBD is to enhance their overall effects. As discussed herein, some terpenes can potentially mimic cannabinoid activity. This is why it is a common practice to infuse terpenes in most commercial CBD products.

    Besides their unique benefits, terpenes are now believed to be the main drivers of the “entourage effect.” So the more you have them in your product, the better the effects.

    Where to find terpene-rich CBD

    If you’re looking for terpene-rich cannabis products, look no further than Dragon Hemp – a leading manufacturer of high-quality natural products.

    Our Reach capsules are designed to boost your energy reserves and enable you to focus on the things that matter. Each capsule contains premium hemp CBD (isolate) enriched with adaptogens like yerba mate, American ginseng, and Chinese herbs to promote blood circulation, stimulate the brain and elevate mood.

    This Relief recovery tincture is made to relieve pain and inflammation (gym freaks and fitness enthusiasts!). This potent formulation provides a rich dose of premium full-spectrum CBD with a blend of herbs like myrrh, frankincense, turmeric, and Chinese herbs to stimulate all the processes needed to help the body increase blood flow, reduce inflammation, and support healing.

    If you want a little boost of energy, try our Energy Gummies. These pack energy-boosting cannabinoids like THCV and CBC, which are known to provide a focused, energetic sense of euphoria.

    We understand that there are days you may struggle to focus on your tasks. Our solution is these tasty Focus Gummies with THCV and Lion’s Mane – compounds widely recognized for their neuromodulatory health benefits, including an energetic euphoria.

    For the full list of our natural health and wellness products, click on this link.

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